An Ode to Berlin – and to my Grandma

By Lisann Rothe

“East Ger­man con­struc­tion work­ers build­ing the Berlin Wall.” Pho­to Cred­it: Nation­al Archives

“It’s August 13, 1961 – the day East Berlin starts build­ing the wall,” my grand­ma remembers.

“On Sun­day night, August 13, Wal­ter Ulbricht, East Ger­man head of state, issues an order to close the Berlin bor­der. Police forces put up barbed wire fences. With­in one day, West Berlin became an island in the sea of com­mu­nism. Trains do not run any­more, and West and East Berlin­ers stand shocked on oppo­site sides of the border.

I hear about it at Moabit hos­pi­tal, where I just gave birth to my first child on August 9. I remem­ber being afraid of a new war and feel­ing help­less in the hos­pi­tal, alone with my child, bare­ly 20 years old. Also, we’re sep­a­rat­ed from our fam­i­ly. My grand­par­ents lived in the Russ­ian sec­tor after the war, just ten min­utes from where we lived in the Amer­i­can sec­tor. My hus­band had fled to West Berlin from Ros­tock in the East to mar­ry me. His par­ents, grand­par­ents, sis­ter, and oth­er rel­a­tives still live there. I feel so help­less and yearn for my fam­i­ly. The future seems so unsure.”

The first time my grand­ma saw her fam­i­ly again was on Christ­mas Eve 1963. She was preg­nant once more with my father and was lucky to get a visa quick­ly. My grand­pa couldn’t come with her since he had fled from the East, and there was the con­stant threat of sol­diers arrest­ing him at the bor­der. The fam­i­ly came togeth­er for just a few mem­o­rable hours before part­ing again, not know­ing if and when they’d see each oth­er again.

My grand­ma: slight­ly grey hair, an infec­tious laugh, small stature but fierce as one can be. She’s a col­lec­tor of things. Her apart­ment is like a nev­er-end­ing sur­prise of memen­tos. Col­lect­ing things and archiv­ing them in fold­ers, box­es, and paper stacks has been a life-long pas­sion. She’s a pas­sion­ate Euro­pean and part of the Euro­pean Friends Cir­cle Berlin. Just recent­ly, she designed her own ban­ners and flags for a free­dom demon­stra­tion sup­port­ing Ukraine. March­ing with thou­sands of oth­ers in Berlin, she showed her sol­i­dar­i­ty. At her age, that’s quite remarkable.

“It’s June 1, 2009,” my jour­nal tells me.

“I’m at my grandma’s house where I’ll spend a cou­ple of days. It’s the Pen­te­cost week­end, and we want to vis­it some children’s fes­tiv­i­ties at the Alex, a pop­u­lar square in Berlin. When we get to the square down­town, nothing’s hap­pen­ing – appar­ent­ly, the inter­net lied. But my grand­ma wouldn’t be my grand­ma if she didn’t have five dif­fer­ent plans and sug­ges­tions of what to do instead. So we board a boat.”

I have enjoyed many boat tours in Berlin with my grand­ma, but this day is quite a mem­o­rable one because after the boat tour, we vis­it­ed the Berlin Cathedral.

“The inside looks quite impres­sive with the white gold­en altar and three big life paint­ings at the back, one depict­ing Jesus on the cross. We light can­dles for the fam­i­ly mem­bers whom I nev­er met. We climb the 266 steps to the top of the dome, moss green and par­tial­ly black because of the oxi­diza­tion. What a splen­did 360° view of Berlin! The wind’s in my hair as I watch the Spree riv­er and beyond to the red cathe­dral and the tele­vi­sion tow­er. No wall’s divid­ing the city anymore.”

Now, every time I see the cathe­dral, it reminds me of this moment. I’ve not climbed to the top since then. It has remained a very spe­cial memory.

Berlin is a city that’s quite impor­tant in our country’s and in my family’s his­to­ry.  On my grandma’s 49th birth­day, West Ger­many and East Ger­many offi­cial­ly reunit­ed. Every year on her birth­day (Octo­ber 3, 1941), we not only cel­e­brate my grandma’s birth but also the birth of a unit­ed coun­try. My grand­ma has lived in Berlin all her life. She was alive through­out the Cold War, and she was alive when East Ger­many built the wall. She mar­ried my grand­pa in 1961, raised two kids, and was there when the wall fell in 1989. She was one of the first peo­ple to stand by the wall, ham­mer­ing out stones that she still gives to peo­ple today.

Berlin is like a giant melt­ing pot. Through my vis­its, I expe­ri­enced var­i­ous cul­tures min­gling on the streets and in cafés. It comes as no sur­prise that I study cul­tur­al stud­ies since peo­ple, social rela­tions, and how cul­ture devel­ops and shapes our iden­ti­ty have always inter­est­ed me and, I believe, have shaped my iden­ti­ty. The vis­its to Berlin with my grand­ma taught me to try new things and always search for new adven­tures. My grand­ma has also ignit­ed my love for his­to­ry. You can’t trav­el to the city and fail to stop at the parts of the wall still stand­ing or vis­it any of the great muse­ums. One vis­it I remem­ber very clear­ly was to the Memo­r­i­al Berlin Hohen­schön­hausen, which was a Sovi­et spe­cial camp and a Stasi (state secu­ri­ty) prison.

Berlin is like fam­i­ly. All of my mem­o­ries are so vivid, show­cas­ing my deep love for my fam­i­ly. Every time I vis­it, there is this sense of famil­iar­i­ty I feel even though a city as big as Berlin seems to swal­low you up in no time. It’s a city that cel­e­brates his­to­ry, that cel­e­brates peo­ple and move­ments, that cel­e­brates cul­ture. I might not have been born in Berlin or speak the Berlin dialect, but still the words of John F. Kennedy ring true for me as well: “Ich bin [auch] ein Berliner.”


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Lisann Rothe stud­ies Cul­tur­al Stud­ies at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. In order to remem­ber the won­der­ful time she had in the U.S., the wel­com­ing Min­nesotan cul­ture, and the Eng­lish lan­guage, she joined the North Amer­i­can Stud­ies “Schw­er­punk­t­pro­fil” at Leuphana. Her free time is filled with many dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties, among them jour­nal­ism, Ger­man-Baltic youth work, and painting.