Tuesday, February 03, 2009


A while ago I was going through old photos. Can’t get enough of them – the older, the better. Whether it’s to look at old fashions and laugh about them (and be secretly ashamed to have partaken in them), or marvel at how skinny we used to be, to trigger memories or to wonder at our innocence/ignorance at all the things to come – the people we would become, and the gap between our expectations of the future and what actually happened to us).

I also love looking at other people’s photos – somehow it makes your friends more three-dimensional and even more loveable to know what they were like when they were kids, and how they came to be the people they are now, which is why I pester them at every opportunity for photos and childhood stories. You then don’t just bond to the few years you have known them. It makes you feel like you have known them all your life.

I have some pictures that seemed pointless at the time they were taken. Why get a shot of the view from your bedroom window? You see that every day! It amazes me now, though, to see how architecture has changed, how the East German standardised children’s playground has changed into something adhering to health and safety laws and how the scrawny saplings behind our house have turned into thickly foliaged trees. Some of these photos I merely took because I wanted to show my host family in Texas 12 years ago what it was like where I lived, not knowing that these would be the remnant documents of my childhood I managed to salvage before mother could run off with the rest of the household.

And then there are a handful of photos that strike me as plain bizarre. Almost alien. Parts of a past that is so opposed to everything we live and believe now that it seems entirely like someone else’s life, and although I used to live in the middle of all this, I now remember it like an independent observer… as if my kid self was just a character in a story. If I didn’t have those pictures, I might not even remember at all. They are little pieces of conserved past, pinning down memories that would otherwise dissolve and be forgotten.
Like this picture of a Soviet Panzer rolling past our living room window.
(Whoops. I lied. It was German. Dad told me that according to the Four Power Agreement, Soviet tanks weren't allowed to drive on German soil. They could be transported, but not driven.)

Dad remembers the exact day. It was 30 April 1984, the day before the International Worker's Day, and the tanks were moved closer to the city centre to be ready for the parades the next day. The tank came from neighbouring Berlin-Karlshorst, which was the district housing the Soviets, heading towards Strasse der Befreiung, now called Alt-Friedrichsfelde.
It was the same street our school was on, and the same street Gorbachev came driving down when visiting Berlin in 1989 or 1990, the street we lined up along, shouting “Gorbi! Gorbi!”, which infuriated our fiercely communist Russian teacher.
We had quite a few Panzer parades back in the days. It was always cool and exciting, but in retrospect I wonder why they organised those parades. It was always treated like a celebration, a celebration of East German and Communist power, but now I can’t help but think (what may be a statement of the obvious to those who were older and more aware of the political power play in those days) it was also meant to serve as a reminder to us who held the reigns. In the end, we were only the Soviets’ buffer.
There were Panzer parades on regular occasions. We already heard them when they were miles off, a deep rumbling which would, when drawing near, start shaking the glasses in our cabinets. The Panzer chains plowed over the asphalt and left white tracks, like a car’s skid marks in reverse. Sometimes they would carry medium range missiles, which was equally impressive and terrifying (as a Bomb child, I was in permanent fear those things would go off in front of our house, and I always naively let out a sigh of relief when it had passed us, even though they would have still done considerable damage exploding a few miles down the road.

We lived near a big intersection, where our street crossed Strasse der Befreiung, which, in the direction of Berlin’s city centre, would turn into Stalin/Karl-Marx-Allee, a majestic boulevard with a Stalinist architecture intended to impress. At that intersection, the tanks would turn and rumble towards the town centre.
Strasse der Befreiung was the road the Soviets entered Berlin from Poland, the B1 that directly connects the two. The Soviets, depicted as our soup-supplying, chocolate-distributing, child-hair-smoothing Big Brother, while our grandmothers repressed stories of how they hid in basements from getting raped and pillaged by those same soldiers. (Not that you can blame them… after all, we practically flattened their country.) Strasse der Befreiung, which earned a bitter twang of irony because of the kids it killed like stray cats, when they tried to cut their way to school short.

By the way, that street is not called Strasse der Befreiung (Liberation Street) anymore. It was one of those things that were eagerly changed, almost with a sense of shame, not just about the Nazi past, but also about that we fell straight from a brown mistake into a red one, repeating our past just in different colours, like a teenager swaying from one extreme fashion to another.
Most of the past is a mere memory now, a fleeting image, because hardly any hint of the past remains, everything having been demolished or being derelict now or turned into discount shoe shops.
There is a debate about whether removing cultural artifacts is a good or bad thing, if they are artifacts of a totalitarian regime. I can understand demolition as an act of liberation, but somehow, the place where I come from hasn't got historical markers... the ones we've got are displayed with a sense of guilt, or hidden away in museums. It wasn't a good history per se, but trading it for the pretense it never happened can't be the right way either. All I really got are some old photos... but they do the trick.

It just feels like a significant period ended, well, as an anticlimax. But then maybe, so does life.

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