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Paul and Me in Berlin

Soviet War Memorial located in Treptower Park in Berlin, Germany

By Helena Prince.

“Did you see the Soviet War Memorial, yet?“ It was the second or third time he’d asked since I moved to Berlin. I think it was summertime and I’d been telling my father about exploring Berlin on an old bike I’d been given. “Oh yeah, I saw that when I first came here. Remember? I asked you why they put it on the west side of the Brandenburger Tor.” “No, no, not that one. The big one in the big park. Really impressive. “ “Well, the Tiergarten is pretty big.” “Nope, there’s another. You just ask some Berliner. “ You see, my dad had lived in Berlin, too, for a time. Germany was the first place he was posted to  after he had completed his basic training in the United States Army. Before there was a wall to fall, he was part of the  Occupation Army. He even got a medal for it, like all the soldiers who’d been assigned here between 1945 and 1955.
Discovering the Memorial
I discovered the memorial my dad was so eager for me to see on a beautiful, sunny autumn day in my first year of living in the city. It was accidental. I was spending the day at Treptower Park with my boyfriend at that time. Neither of us had been there before, and we came across it and weren’t sure what it was for, but we were impressed, very impressed, by the 12-meter tall, bronze statue of a soldier holding a child. On the opposite end were two massive, stylized Russian flags made of red granite, flanking two more huge bronze soldiers. In between those monuments were giant tombstones, sarcophagi which I later found out contained the bodies of 5,000 Russian soldiers. I also found it a nice touch to have a stone statue of a weeping woman who represents the Motherland mourning her sons. My dad never mentioned that part but I recognized the rest of it as the memorial he’d described to me. As I was standing there admiring the place, some puzzlement emerged from a corner of my mind. This East Berlin park had always been part of the Soviet sector at the end of World War II. So, what had my American Army father been doing there in the 1950’s? I mean it wasn’t like they had sightseeing buses driving thru the city, right? 

Soldier, Why are You in Berlin?

“Soldier, why are you in Berlin?” is the headline of a poster that the U.S. Army had in their barracks then. “To show the Berliners, your allies, and the communists the best soldiers in our army. To protect U.S. lives and property. To help the West Berlin police to keep law and order. And to fight like hell, if necessary for U.S. rights and a free Berlin.” That’s a general idea, but seeing the park that day made me recall some of my dad’s personal stories. He loved sports, particularly football, American style, and he was on the Army team that played the first ever game of that kind in the Olympic Stadium. He fondly remembered teaching the game to Berliners. He spoke many times about his intense dislike of British Army officers. He’d had to work with them during the joint military maneuvers that made up much of the activity for the Allies in Berlin. All the enlisted men running around the Grunewald role-playing pretend battles for the benefit of the Russians surrounding them and watching their every move. The Army asked my dad to participate in some bizarre types of political theater, because in addition to the grand opera spectacle of the military training exercise, there were more intimate ensemble performances. He and a couple of other soldiers were assigned to go into the Soviet sector to follow an individual who had “defected” from the West. They simply walked in plain view of the guy and his new communist girlfriend as they enjoyed a Sunday together, following them and doing everything the couple did. A psychological gesture made even stranger by the detail of Russian soldiers who were following my dad’s group. And his favorite part of the story was when they were in a nice restaurant, eating and drinking fine things, he and his fellows would raise their glasses to toast their Soviet Army observers who couldn’t afford to order anything. So after I’d seen the memorial in the park, it became tangled in my father’s story. A beautiful sunny day in which a couple, like my boyfriend and me, go out for a lovely, romantic stroll. Only in the Cold War version, it’s being closely observed by military forces. Because somehow that’s the only way I can imagine my dad discovering that out of the way place.

Our Lasting Connection

In all the years that I spoke with my father about living in Berlin, I didn’t ask him details about his visit to the park after I had seen it. There were too many other new things to talk about. When I spoke about all of the changes I observed as
Berlin was rebuilt as a capital, he was genuinely interested and pleased. At the point when I moved into my own apartment in Mitte and, later, Freidrichshain, I ribbed him a bit by telling him that his “fight against communism” had made it
possible for his American daughter to live in a free and democratic East Berlin. He never got the chance to come and see the reunified version of the city that had been the place he began his 22-year career in the Army. After my father died in
2009, the connection Paul and I have with Berlin as our mutual home in differing times was a comfort to me then. I find myself smiling about that when I reflect upon it now.
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  1. Monica Defort-Matheis says:

    I enjoyed your fascinating piece about your the stories your dad shared of his time in Berlin. Having lost my dad recently, there are many of his stories I’d like to hear again and questions about his past which will be left unanswered. Though your dad never visited, you still have the comfort of knowing it was all familiar to him and that you walk in his footsteps.

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