Thalia Gigerenzer meets a Treptow family who were literally hemmed in by the Berlin Wall…
At first glance, Bouchéstraße seems almost identical to any other street in this sleepy, residential area on the border of Treptow and Neukölln. Tall trees line the street on both sides, and the parade of five-story apartment blocks is interrupted briefly by a boxy, bright yellow Edeka that squats in a nondescript parking lot.
Aside from the occasional jangle of shopping carts and muffled laughter coming from the corner shop, it is very still. But there is something a little strange about this seemingly unremarkable street; it feels somehow unbalanced. On closer inspection, the trees on the eastern side of the street are skinny and young and the streetlights ungainly and imposing; on the opposite side, the trees are gnarled and thick, and the sidewalks are lined with stately gas lamps.
The houses, too, seem ever so slightly out of sync: the apartment blocks facing west have been repainted a frenzy of pastels – blue, yellow and orange – while those facing east are a faded, staid motley of West Berlin brown tones. A cursory glance at the brick trail running through the asphalt reveals that these tiny discrepancies are not coincidental. They are, in fact, the only remaining traces of the street’s prior division by the Berlin Wall.
From 1961 to 1989, for the two-block stretch between Heidelberger Straße and Harzer Straße, the Wall cut right through the middle of Bouchéstraße. Almost overnight, this sleepy, tree-lined street became the so-called death strip— and residents on both sides literally had the Wall on their doorstep.
While it remained an abstract, political symbol to many Berliners, for those confronted daily with its physical apparatus – 155 kilometres of concrete slabs, mesh wire fencing and barbed wire – the Wall had a very different meaning. And no one knew the intricacies of the Wall’s architecture better than the Neumanns, whose front door stood a mere 1.5 metres from the Hinterlandmauer (the wall on the eastern side), for almost 30 years.
When they first moved into their apartment on Bouchéstraße in the spring of 1961, the Neumanns were no strangers to claustrophobic living conditions. They had spent the last three years stuck in a cramped apartment in Adlershof with Frau Neumann’s family, desperately waiting for their Wohnungszuweisung (apartment allocation), which, due to the shortage of living space in East Berlin, could take a very long time.
After Herr Neumann (born 1934) finished his studies to be a camera technician, the Neumanns were married in 1958, though since he had studied at an institution in West Berlin, he struggled to find a job in the Soviet sector.
The apartment block the Neumanns would move into was from the Arbeiterwohnungsbaugenossenschaften (AWG), a housing collective for employees of various firms that required every resident to contribute a certain amount of hours to the building of the apartment block. After months of long construction shifts, the Neumanns were overjoyed when they finally moved into the brand-new, tiny apartment they helped build. Sure, the walls were slightly crooked if you looked closely — but they finally had a place of their own.
That summer, the Neumanns took a trip over to West Berlin to buy building materials and other items for their new apartment that were not available in the East, including speakers bought from an American soldier and light switches, both of which remain fixtures in the apartment today. ‘Our Trabi was jammed to the brim with all this stuff,’ laughs Herr Neumann, before adding somewhat soberly, ‘thank God we made that trip in time.’
On Sunday morning, August 13th, 1961, Herr and Frau Neumann awoke to a strange scene outside their study window. A large Volkspolizei car was parked across the street, and police were patrolling the street; a rudimentary barrier of wooden logs had been laid along the sidewalk in front of their building. Herr Neumann, who took his first photographs with a handmade camera as an 11-year-old in 1945, immediately grabbed his camera and started taking photos. For the rest of the day he barely moved from his perch at his study window, documenting the gradual fortification of his own home.
That morning, a friend from West Berlin paid the Neumanns a visit, parking his car in front of their building. By the time he left, several East German soldiers had surrounded his car — the wooden logs had been replaced by barbed wire, and his vehicle was now smack in the middle of the border zone. Herr Neumann’s bicycle, too, was suddenly surrounded by barbed wire.
In the meantime, a small crowd of neighbours had gathered at the corner of Bouchéstraße and Heidelberger Straße. ‘It was a complete surprise, everyone was astounded. No one knew what to make of it, but there was no talk of a wall, we thought it was just a temporary measure,’ says Herr Neumann. ‘But when I saw them roll out the barbed wire, I knew something awful was happening.’ An old man waved to a little boy across the barbed wire. The crowd of neighbours stayed, rooted to the spot, until the evening.
Over the next few weeks, the barbed wire was replaced by a tall cement fence on their sidewalk, darkening the entrance behind their glass front door. The asphalt gave way to a strip of sand, and a 3.6-metre high Wall was constructed on the West side of the street. The trees on their sidewalk were cut down, the streetlights replaced by tall, imposing floodlights that illuminated the death strip at night. There were rumours that the residents would be kicked out of their houses – it was a common precautionary procedure for houses near the Wall to be cleared and sealed off – but they were allowed to stay.
In The Shadow Of The Wall
Life in the border zone became increasingly constrained: the attic of the Neumanns’ building was boarded shut, and border guards drilled holes into the basement door to check for escape tunnels. Residents of the border zone had to show their passports upon entering and leaving their homes. In order to invite friends or relatives over, you had to put in a request weeks in advance; getting Frau Neumann’s mother over from West Berlin was close to impossible, so they stayed in touch mainly by letters. When a work colleague helped Herr Neumann carry a TV home one day, a border soldier interrogated his colleague for an hour, threatening him with arrest.
Added to these daily frustrations was a more subtle, but no less real, feeling of physical disorientation and claustrophobia. ‘We could only turn left; in front of us was the Wall, to the right of us was the Wall,’ says Frau Neumann (at the corner of Bouchéstraße and Heidelberger Straße, the Wall curved to the right and ran along Heidelberger Straße). ‘It was a terrible feeling, an uncanny feeling, it’s very hard to describe.’
Helpless in the face of his increasingly confined life, Herr Neumann coped by secretly documenting the increasing fortification of his street with his camera. ‘I documented the whole process from day one, one photo after the other. Whenever I saw something change, I would rush to the window and take pictures,’ he says. Because any photography of the Wall was strictly forbidden in East Berlin, Herr Neumann had to be very careful. He would look out of his bathroom window towards the watchtower, which stood a mere 20 metres from his house, to make sure the soldiers weren’t watching him, and then quickly press the shutter. He developed the photos in his bathtub.
Aside from propagandist photos, there are very few photographs of the Wall from the East Berlin side, and so Herr Neumann’s images offer a rare, up-close glimpse of the Wall. Although he risked arrest, Herr Neumann says his secret photography was in no way meant as an act of resistance: ‘I did it out of the simple curiosity of someone who is interested in their surroundings! I never thought about publishing them. I just did it for myself, to capture the moment.’
Herr Neumann’s photos are silent documents of the perfection of the border apparatus over the years, as paranoia about escape attempts grew. When the West side of the Wall was replaced by a higher, sturdier wall around 1975, he was there to take photos.
Over time the routines of life took over, but there were surreal moments that interrupted the daily grind. One day, when he was walking home from S-Bahnhof Treptow, a tank stopped next to Herr Neumann and a soldier poked his head out, yelling: ‘Does anyone want to go to Neukölln?’ Herr Neumann, caught completely off-guard, did not take the soldier up on the offer. Later, he heard that the soldier had successfully driven his tank through the Wall. Soon after, the so-called ‘Spanish Riders,’ anti-tank trenches, appeared on the death strip in Bouchéstraße.
In one of his rare night photos, taken around 1975, Herr Neumann caught these trenches in particularly striking lighting. “I was fascinated by the way the light cast shadows in the form of crosses on the trenches,” he says softly.
People can adapt to even the most constraining situations: the Neumanns went about their daily lives as Grenzbürger, border residents. They worked hard, he at the factory and she as a typist writing instruction manuals for appliances. Sometimes they were woken up at night by alarms set off by the numerous escape attempts staged on their street. They adapted because they thought the situation was permanent: ‘We never thought the Wall would fall,’ says Herr Neumann. But behind the routine the constraints were taking a toll on the Neumanns’ psychological well-being — again, Herr Neumann says, it’s hard to pinpoint the feeling. ‘As the years went by it got worse and worse, and at some point I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to stand it any more,’ he says.
The Beginning Of The End
The first time the Neumanns had an inkling that change was in the air was when they went to the demonstration on 4 November 1989, at Alexanderplatz. ‘We didn’t think the wall would fall but we did think it would be easier to see people we hadn’t been able to see before,’ says Herr Neumann. Convinced that things in the GDR were about to change, he took out his camera and gleefully photographed the demonstration. And instead of developing the photos secretly in his bathroom, he brought the negatives to be developed in a store. But he had been too optimistic: the store claimed to have lost the film, and he never saw the photos again.
Five days later, just as they had witnessed its beginning, they watched the Wall’s end from their perch by the study window. They rushed down to celebrate with thousands of other people the opening of the Wall at the nearby Puschkinallee. And, just as he documented its construction, Herr Neumann meticulously documented its dismantling, from the first crack that appeared in the West wall to its eventual complete erasure: this time in glorious colour.
Everything came full circle as they watched East German soldiers, the people who had constructed the Wall, tear it down with heavy machinery. New trees were planted on their sidewalk, and the GDR brown-grey color of their buildings were painted over with splashes of bright color. One segment of the Wall’s apparatus fell after the other, ending, finally, with the Hinterlandsmauer in front of their door.
‘If you forget the time in-between, things are pretty much as they used to be before the Wall,’ Frau Neumann laughs. And it’s true, the traces of the Wall were erased so completely that people who live here now hardly know the street was once divided. The brick trail marking where the Wall stood doesn’t mean much to the Neumanns: ‘after all, it only demarcates where the western Wall stood,’ says Herr Neumann dismissively.
There’s a sense that the era when the Wall stood is starting to seem further and further away. The initial euphoria, too, is gone; when the Wall first fell, neighbours from both sides of the street met several times at the local pub. But the Neumanns, who were never politically involved, soon stopped going to the meetings after being accused of being in the SED (the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or the Socialist Unity Party of Germany), as the West Berliners were convinced that only high-ranking party officials had been allowed to live so close to the Wall. The ritual of waving to one another across the street on New Year’s Eve, too, has ended.
During my second visit to the Neumanns, I can tell they are weary of talking about all this. While the Wall has become something of a tourist attraction over the last couple of decades, for the Neumanns – who are now in their 80s – it’s all over. Stabbing in the dark, I ask them about that uncanny, claustrophobic feeling. Do they still have it? Something flickers in Frau Neumann’s eyes and she pauses, articulating her thoughts.
‘The feeling is always there, it was almost 30 years after all, and that doesn’t go away. Most of the time I don’t notice it, it runs in the background … but there are moments, when I cross the street to go to the Edeka supermarket, when the Wall is suddenly there again, and then I am so relieved that it’s gone. It no longer haunts me, but the memory lingers. It’s like a ghost, but thank God it can’t hurt me anymore.’
For Herr Neumann, the feeling has faded with time, but sometimes the memories catch him off-guard. ‘When I go down the stairs to the front door, and stand on the last stair, where the entrance was darkened for so many years by the Wall, and see that it’s light outside, I suddenly remember and think, thank God it’s light.’
Night has fallen when I leave the Neumanns’ house and step out into Bouchéstraße. The smooth asphalt reveals nothing of the corner’s turbulent history. But, the shadowplays of Herr Neumann’s photographs still fresh in my mind, I notice the peculiar lighting. The east side of the street is bathed in the orange light of the last two remaining death strip floodlights, towering high above the other streetlights. The gas lamps on the west side of the street glow a soft white-yellow.