Growing Up at the Sector Border

There were no playgrounds for children to play on at Bernauer Strasse. “The ruins were our adventure playgrounds,” recalls Manfred Witt, who grew up in West Berlin. He used to fly kites with his friends near today’s Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Stadium, and they often played soccer on the large areas that had been cleared of rubble. Ever since 1946, the first year of his life, he had lived with his mother, his grandparents and his uncle in an apartment building on the West Berlin side of the street at Bernauer Strasse 66/67. The building was located between the streets Wolliner and Swinemünder and stood directly across from the border houses that belonged to East Berlin. In 1960 the family moved to Wolgaster Strasse 9, from where they had a direct view of Bernauer Strasse.

Manfred Witt was nine years old when the tanks arrived on June 17, 1953 and positioned themselves on Arkonaplatz and on the side streets running off of Bernauer Strasse. He was playing on the street with his friends when they saw a large crowd of angry, agitated people gathering on the Swinemünder Bridge. They watched as police formed a human chain to block off the border crossings. The next day was dead silent. But the curious boy from West Berlin was permitted to climb up onto one of the tanks; the Russian soldiers helped him up. The tanks left two days later.

There were several shops on the east side of Bernauer Strasse: a drug store, a stationary shop, a vegetable merchant, the butcher “Boot,” a soap store and an ice cream parlor. The department store that later opened on the corner of Stralsunder Strasse and Bernauer Strasse was something special for the young boy. Manfred Witt often joined his grandmother when she went shopping. He frequently watched the western movies that were shown in the Vineta Cinema and in the Atlantik at Brunnenplatz.

Once, on the first of May, he attended a festival at Arkonaplatz that was located in the East Berlin district of Mitte. The herald trumpet musicians were Young Pioneer members who spoke enthusiastically of their activities and asked him if he wanted to join. He was given a Pioneer ID that the clever West Berlin boy used when he wanted to buy a burger in an East Berlin border shop. The saleswoman recognized him and said “Hey, you little rascal. You come from the West.” But then she laughed – and sold him the burger. The boys earned money selling paper and cast iron. They climbed onto heaps of rubble and ruins and collected panels and rings from old range cookers. They received 12 cents for a kilogram of cast iron. But they were careful not to go onto certain streets where other cliques were playing and where it was better not to interact. His mother checked the things that he brought into the apartment from outside. Once she even had to dispose of a pistol and hand grenade. Manfred Witt always found riding on the circle line exciting. He and his friends pulled the double fare cards that were still valid for one ride out of the wooden boxes on the platform. They used them to take a free trip and regularly got into trouble with the train conductors.

On the morning of August 13, 1961, Manfred Witt went to Swinemünder Strasse to buy a newspaper just like he always did. He suddenly noticed people crying and waving with tissues. He saw the East German policemen. They had begun rolling out barbed wire along the sector border. That day and on the days following, people tried to flee from the houses on the border: they climbed over rooftops and jumped out of windows, landing in the rescue nets that the fire department held ready on the side streets. Helicopters were continually flying over the border and news about Bernauer Strasse rang out from the mobile loudspeakers of the “Studio at the Barbed Wire.” During those days crowds of people gathered to watch on the West Berlin side. They brought stepladders with them in order to look over the barriers. Often the East German border guards did not become aware of an escape attempt until they noticed the reaction of the people on the west side.

Manfred Witt lived on Wolgaster Strasse near the Wall until l 1973. On November 9, 1989 he was watching television in his new apartment in Reinickendorf when he heard the news that the Wall had opened up. Right away he drove with his wife to Bernauer Strasse. The East Berliners were “beside themselves with joy” when a crane truck pulled out a segment of the Wall at the corner of Schwedter Strasse.

Anna von Arnim

Manfred Witt 2011

Manfred Witt, 2011, photo: A. v. Arnim, Berlin Wall Memorial


The experiences of a West German boy on the east side of the city

From an interview on November 21, 2008, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)