In 1978-1979, a Fulbright award provided me the opportunity to research the Jurassic toothed bird Archaeopteryx in various museums of Europe. This included a short period of study at the GDR Museum of Natural History located in what was then, Soviet East Berlin. Each day, I would travel through the Berlin wall from West to East via “Checkpoint Charlie,” having my camera and documents carefully inspected to ensure that I was indeed an impoverished graduate student and not a spy.
The contrast between these two halves of Berlin could not have been greater. The West was clean, sleek, modern and brightly lit. The shop windows were full of the latest fashions and all of the Berliner Frauen seemed to be wrapped in beautiful furs as it was a very cold winter. Meanwhile, the East seemed grey, dirty, and dim. Many of the buildings still bore scars from the war and the shop windows were empty with long queues of prospective customers wrapped down the block at an auto parts store. There were no beautiful furs here- people were dressed in simple drab garments.
One evening, the director of the museum invited my wife and I to dinner with his family in their modest apartment. We had to enter through a darkened rear door to avoid later questioning by the Stasi secret police but the director’s young adult children were delighted to have an opportunity practice their English. Although obviously well-educated and bright, neither of them had been able to attend university because their father was not a party member.
I was greatly moved by this experience and I brought back home a much deepened appreciation for having been born in post-war America, having won what Warren Buffet later called “the ovarian lottery.” Gone and good riddance to the Berlin Wall, but sometimes I wish everyone could have experienced it.
Kenneth Whetstone – Fulbright to United Kingdom 1978