Posted on September 15, 2011 by Tia Lalani

Jan Buterman (’92 BA English) shares a first-hand experience from his time studying in Germany during the politically tense late ‘80s.

From the University of Alberta’s New Trail magazine, Autumn 2011

Alumnus Jan Buterman (’92 BA English) shares a first-hand experience from his time studying in Germany during the politically tense late ‘80s.

Canadian students from the 1988 Kassel summer program arrive at Frankfurt at the end of their studies, parting company to various destinations.

Summer 1988: The Berlin Wall completely enveloped West Berlin, essentially rendering it an island smack dab in the middle of East German territory at (unbeknownst to us) the back end of the Cold War. We were a bunch of Canadian students on exchange with Augustana’s Canadian Summer School in Germany studying in Kassel, a small city north of Frankfurt. During weekend jaunts we explored several locales together travelling on a large tour bus with our trusty driver, Klaus.

Berlin in 1988 still had a Wall, still had a functioning Checkpoint Charlie, and still had people trying to leave from the East into the West, with or without the permission of eastern authorities. Taking a weekend trip to West Berlin necessitated driving through East Germany and clearing at least two heavily surveilled and heavily guarded border crossings. We sat for long periods of time while an armed East German officer came down the aisle of the bus, carefully scrutinizing each of our passports while his colleagues used mirrors on long poles and metal rods to prod every nook and cranny of our bus’ undercarriage and engine compartment to ensure no one was secreted therein.

My adventure in Berlin also involved a couple of companions and myself exploring the city’s underground by travelling on as many subway trains as possible. Like Edmonton’s LRT, the U-Bahn trains were all Siemens, but older models. We were fascinated that these trains travelled through tunnels that ran underneath East Berlin, although of course all the East Berlin stations were locked off and abandoned, their presence evidenced only by signage and ghostly flickers from a handful of fluorescent bulbs.

Or so we thought.

During one of these trips, the train lurched and vibrated as though it were crossing a rough surface. The interior lights flickered, went out, came on, flickered and went out again, plunging us into the purest blackness. The train came to a complete halt. I felt anxious, not really knowing where we were, possibly deep underground and likely well within East German territory. Peering through the glass into the impenetrable darkness, I wondered: what would we have to do if we needed to evacuate the train? Would we have to walk miles through underground tunnels to reach the surface? Would there be another way?

Within a few moments, the lights burst back on, and I had the scare of my life. Just beyond the glass, two seemingly-disembodied heads floated, grinning at me. Having had no idea that anyone could still access the tunnels in East Berlin, it’s safe to say that seeing two flickering and pale fluorescent-green faces just beyond the glass was beyond unexpected. I soon realised they were merely a pair of East German guards, curious about the train themselves, looking closely through the dark, each unable to see the other until the lights were restored and our train began moving again.

I was later told it was impossible for East German authorities to be completely certain that the East Berlin underground stations were sealed, so each of them had guards stationed at them at all times

Unlike the LRT cars here in Edmonton, those older model Siemens cars would remain in motion if the doors were pried open, and under the politics of the time, the guards were there to ensure no one was sneaking aboard any passing subway.

A little later, our train was travelling above ground for a brief distance and a group of somewhat inebriated young men pried open the door. They shouted raucously and raised their arms to make a one-fingered salute to the East German guard post we were passing at that moment.


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