Facing The Wall: Crossing The Border

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What Was It Like to Pass (West-to-East) through the Border Crossing?

Curious to spend a day “behind the Iron Curtain,” desirous of hearing first-rate opera, or following up an interest in the world-famous archeological collections at the museums in East Berlin, many tourists headed for the Friedrichstrasse crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. At a time when Western European countries were dispensing with border formalities altogether, the rigorous (and humorless) East German procedures for crossing the Wall meant an uncomfortable delay. German-American writer Frederic Grunfeld described the experience:

Notice on board: “You are now leaving the American Sector.” U.S., British and French military policemen do not even look up as I drive past. Next sign: “Stop.” A GDR border guard waves me up to the barrier, raises the pole, checks my passport, hands out a numbered slip. I run a slalom course around cement barriers and park in an assigned lot behind the first building. Guards in a watch-tower observe my movements. I enter the first building and stand in a queue for eight minutes. I hand the slip, my passport and car registration to a guard behind a counter. The documents disappear through a chute into a room behind the guard. I fill out a customs declaration, listing all monies carried. Then I wait with 30 or 40 others for 15 minutes. Most are Turkish migrant workers going over to see East Berlin girl friends; some carry flowers or chocolates.

Our passports are finally handed back to us one at a time by an irritable functionary. He gives me long, searching glances to compare my face with the photograph in my passport. I wait ten minutes in the next queue, contemplating a large color reproduction on the wall: A. M. Gerassimov’s Lenin on the Rostrum, printed in the U.S.S.R. A young Turkish worker ahead of me in the queue is led off, with a pained expression, to an adjoining room to undergo a body search.

I submit to a customs check by an older official flanked by a courteous young woman, also in uniform. “Anything to declare?”  I give convincing assurance that I bear no gifts, printed matter or other merchandise. My papers are stamped by the young woman. There is another wait at a [currency] exchange counter in an adjoining building, then an additional eight minutes outside a third building for a car check. A brusque guard examines my passport, papers, and then the car: he dips into the side pockets, folds the seats forward, fumbles in the dashboard compartment looking for newspapers, magazines, books. I have carefully cleaned out the car in anticipation. I get a nod of approval and am permitted to drive on.

I proceed to the final barrier pole. A guard checks my papers; once again my face is compared with the photograph in my passport. The pole is lifted; at last I drive out along Friedrichstrasse.

From: Berlin. The Great Cities, Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1977

Panorama          Border Crossing - Checkpoint Charlie Panorama    Panorama
Busses at Checkpoint Charlie Crossing Checkpoint         Day Visa Checkpoint Guards
Office Wall Model  


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