The Last Apartment Building Before the Wall

Christine Bartels got goose bumps when she saw her new apartment at Brunnenstrasse 47 for the first time. It was Christmas time 1977 and she and her husband stood with two candles at the window, looking out at the bare trees and the brightly lit border strip. They had known that Brunnenstrasse was located at the Wall, but they hadn’t expected the house to border directly on the death strip and be the last building before the fortifications. They barely found the courage to enter the building. Christine Bartels and her husband were alone in the apartment and there was no electricity, but they had expected that. She recalls that it was totally quiet because no one ever strayed into this area.

Despite the location, the young couple decided to move into the two-room apartment. Christine Bartels was pregnant with their son at the time. She was still a student, studying to become a teacher for math and physics, and until then she had lived with her mother. Her husband had been living in a sublet apartment. They had heard about the available apartment through a colleague of her mother’s who had connections.

Christine Bartels was born in 1955 and grew up in Lichtenberg. Before she moved to Brunnenstrasse she had never had contact with the border. For a long time she found it unpleasant explaining to friends and guests where she lived.

Her son Martin and her daughter Luise, who was born in 1980, would sometimes play at the barriers which often got them into trouble with the police who regularly patrolled the neighborhood close to the border. Her children often waved out the window when Christine Bartel’s aunt, who lived in West Berlin, would stand on a platform on the west side of the Brunnenstrasse. “Aunt Sanne, will you throw over some chocolate?” they asked, although waving and calling out was actually not allowed. Once when Christine Bartels stood at the window with binoculars, she was admonished by a border guard. Christine Bartels watched as the border grounds were modernized. She saw the anti-vehicle obstacles and trip wire being removed and the signal fence being put up on their place. Rabbits often triggered the alarm and set off the green lights.

Taking pictures of the grounds was strongly prohibited, which is why the Bartels always closed the curtains first. A friend developed the pictures and they destroyed the negatives. Once when she and her husband looked out the window of the children’s room, they suddenly noticed a ladder leaning up against the Wall. They assumed that someone had just managed to escape. At that moment the alarm went off, followed a signal horn. The death strip was brightly lit by spot lights. They turned off the lights in the apartment and told their children to be as quiet as mice. Then they watched as the West Berlin police dragged a man away. Later they learned from the news in the West that he had broken both his legs while escaping. Two trucks with soldiers stopped in front of their building and they rang every doorbell. Christine Bartels and her husband had expected this and didn’t open their door.

In the early eighties, the doors at the entrance to the building were sealed shut. The staircase windows were replaced with frosted glass and the window casements were screwed shut. Border guards would occasionally walk up and down the building corridor or watch the chimney sweeper while he worked, but they never rang the bell.

In January 1987 Christine Bartels received permission to travel to West Berlin for the first time. She visited her aunt who was celebrating her 70th birthday and whom she had only seen from a distance for many years. She drove right to Bernauer Strasse and looked from the raised platform on the West Berlin side of Brunnenstrasse across the border strip to the other side. She saw her windows with the flowers and fir tree. The view depressed her. For the first time she saw how she was walled in and how grim it looked from the other side.

That same year she had to move out of her apartment because the building was undergoing renovations. The family refused to move into a new housing development and found an apartment in an older building at Brunnenstrasse 45. From one of the windows she could see the tip of the steeple from the Reconciliation Church. She hadn’t known about the demolition but happened to be looking out the window when the church tower collapsed. It was January 28, 1985.

On November 10, 1989 Christine Bartels went with a girlfriend and her birthday guests to Eberswalder Strasse. They were carrying champagne and hammers to knock the Wall down.

Anna von Arnim

View from West Berlin at the building at Brunnenstrasse 47, mid-1980s

View from West Berlin at the building at Brunnenstrasse 47, mid-1980s, photo: Christine Bartels


Security measures in the border house

Christine Bartels speaking about her trip to West Berlin in 1987

From an interview on August 8, 2002, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)