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I Was One Reason Why They Build The Berlin Wall

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Drafted in 1953, after sixteen weeks of basic training I was sent to Germany to serve with the occupation troops and had the good fortune of being assigned to the The Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra.

In fall of 1954 the orchestra performed a week in West Berlin. A couple of us spoke German and decided visit East Berlin - I wanted to visit the famous Bertold Brecht Theatre and get the feel of life in Communist East Germany.

To my recollection we were able to go across the border easily and following a map, headed for Potsdamer Platz and from that center asked directions for the theater. There was no performance and the theater was closed, and we just wandered. We came across, and spent some time inside, a large union cultural and sports complex.

Then we came upon an attractively decorated good size music shop. Pretty much had the full range of published scores and recordings. The prices were ridiculous. Educational and cultural items were highly subsidized in the East German socialist economy.

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When the head of the store showed his willingness to sell to us though we had not the required East Zone ID that all residents were supposed to show when shopping, we kind of went bananas. We bought as much as we could carry comfortably, while the shopkeeper seemed to be perspiring knowing he was breaking the law. On top of the subsidized low prices for East Germans, we had the extra advantage that one American dollar bought four West marks and then one West mark bought five East marks.

A velvet cloth bound three volume set of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Peters edition, for the equivalent of a couple of American dollars. Long play recordings of the best orchestras with world renown conductors for a few coins.

When we got back and told our fellow orchestra members, many of our colleagues headed out to the same store on our next free morning or afternoon.

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A friend, who recently passed away, while a principal chair of a major American symphony orchestra, somehow managed to bring out in multiple trips and mail home the complete Haydn string quartets, parts and scores.

But another string player had his booty confiscated by a border guard on the U-Bahn, the overhead inner city train that ran through both zones. When he couldn't produce the receipts and his required ID to purchase, he was taken to an East Zone police station and given a stern lecture.

Knowing that, on my next trip, I thought to slip a recording of a Shostakovitch symphony by a Russian orchestra to the top of my pile of purchases as I noticed a Russian soldier patrolling the isle of the U-Bahn as I was returning. Sure enough, he halted next to my seat. "What is all that you have there?" he said in German, looking at me quizzically, amazed at the more than foot high stack of music and long plays on my lap. "Andenken" (souvenirs), I answered with a shy smile. (I had begun to sweat.) He reached over an picked the LP of the Moscow State Symphony, read the label in Russian to himself, smiled back at me as he put it back down, and said simply, "Gut," in obvious approval of my taste, turned away from me and walked on.

Interestingly, or shamefully, my sense of fair play, seemed to have been overcome by that Yankee trader philosophy, which superimposed itself as I made off with stuff that did not belong to me, goodies intended for the economically poorer citizens of the German Democratic Socialist Republic and their children. All I got for a bad conscience afterward was to trade those 'expensive' bound Beethoven sonatas to someone for doing me a favor back home.

Our finding that gold mine, took all our greedy attention away from seeing more of the city we were performing in, and meeting more of its people as we usually did while touring in Germany and Austria.

Eight years later, when the Berlin wall went up, I thought to myself 'they must of had guys like me in mind when they decided to build it.'

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This little story might illustrate how difficult it was, and still is, to build a socialist economy within a global capitalist system.

For other reasons why the wall was built see William Blum, "Another Cold War Myth - The Fall of the Berlin Wall"

"In 1999, USA Today reported: "When the Berlin Wall crumbled, East Germans imagined a life of freedom where consumer goods were abundant and hardships would fade. Ten years later, a remarkable 51% say they were happier with communism." (USA Today, October 11, 1999, p.1.)"

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Jay Janson is an archival research peoples historian activist, musician and writer; has lived and worked on all continents; articles on media published in China, Italy, UK, India and the US; now resides in NYC; First effort was a series of (more...)

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