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How Berlin Has Changed Since 1961

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When you travel back to a city you call home, often see it with fresh eyes. This happened to Alexandra (Sandy) Gleysteen, the senior producer for CBS This Morning. The daughter of a former American diplomat, who moved his family to Berlin in 1962, she left the city 1966, but continued her love for Germany with a stint at the German School outside Washington, DC, and with as many trips back to Europe as she could manage over the years. She shared this report about her most recent trip to Berlin — her first in nearly a quarter century.

It’s been almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but “die Mauer” remains a tangible and defining part of this city’s character. Germans rushed to tear it down when reunification became a possibility, the Wall too obvious a symbol of the country’s painful division. But the fact remains, that the scars of that wall are still around, and felt especially by those of us old enough to have a history in Berlin.

Sandy is second from the right with a headband, standing with a cousin visiting from the USA and her sister

My family moved to Berlin at an emotional time in the city’s story. The Wall was built in 1961, ostensibly to keep Soviet ideology free of capitalist and fascist influence. We came in 1962. Feelings were still raw, intensely so. Neighbors told us about the day the roads and subways closed, suddenly and permanently separating them from family and property in the East.

Strangely, the wall became the tourist destination to the many Americans who came to visit us over the next four years. But for our German neighbors and friends, it was a symbol of personal loss and the public humiliation associated with World War II.

Looking over the wall into East Berlin

There was something surreal about growing up in Berlin. Our school expeditions included walks along the river Spree. As we skipped along on one side of the river, we watched the guards patrolling on the eastern side, their guns slung menacingly over their shoulders. As a family with diplomatic privilege, we were free to come and go between East and West; sometimes to visit the Pergamon Museum, often just to picnic along one of the lakes in the East. As children we were both acutely aware that something wasn’t right, but simultaneously oblivious to the reality of what was at stake. I definitely remember Berlin as a city of tension.

Returning today, you have to look to find the physical remnants of the Berlin Wall. With the exception of a very short stretch, it’s simply vanished. Checkpoint Charlie has become a tourist destination, and a disappointing one at that, given there is truly not much to see.