Last year when I was living in Brussels, I was frequenting my absolute favourite flea market in the world Jeu de Balle, buying photographs and love letters and other trinkets. As usual, when the flea market is over, the vendors usually leave a whole trove of junk just lying on the cobblestone grounds that either they couldn’t sell, that broke, that was damaged, that got soaked from the rain, or that they just don’t want to transport back to their warehouses. The thing is, the street cleaners come in very quickly after the market is over to pick up all the trash and wash the square clean! So if you’re crafty, quick, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you can get your hands on some amazing antique and vintage gems.
Seeing as how I’m an excellent scavenger (and I don’t like paying for things), I would always scour the cobbles (and in between the cobbles!), go through the piles of trash, kick over soaked boxes and rifle through all the discarded remains for whatever meant something to me. From my scavenges, I have procured monochrome photographs from the 1920s, gold-rimmed picture frames, and these two letters written in German in 1946.
As you can see from the very top picture, the stamps were ripped from the envelopes (probably because 1946 stamps are worth a lot!) but I was more interested in the contents of the letters!
Luckily, the internet loves to help! I tweeted out for help in translating them, and a wonderful follower of mine from Berlin, who wants to be referenced here as Resa Lamego, offered to help! She was able to translate the letters very quickly because her English is amazing, and even though she was busy travelling down to Heidelberg, she still did a fabulous job.
The letters mostly just contain mundane minutiae of these women’s lives from 1946, nothing mind-blowing or tragic or epic, but the language employed is quite nice!
Here’s an excerpt from the 1st letter (edited for content… really just the most interesting parts!)
Malmö, the 28-08-1946
My dear Mady,
Thank you so much for your lovely letter! I’m glad to hear you are in Switzerland. It is wonderful that they all who have been/ used to be in Germany gain such a trip. From the photo I can tell that the nature must be very beautiful. I hope you are completely recovered/healthy when you travel back home! Do you really believe you will be able to come to Sweden? I would be so happy if it was possible. Then you must come to Malmö. As before I got the children from (..)? Now we got the Karl-Jo-Haus-School back. Last year sick children from France and Austria were living there […] One always needs to be with the children, one needs to help them to eat, to play and to bathe. […] It is very hard to write in German and I make many mistakes. I hope you are able to read it? I have never been very good in German but maybe it is harder than usual because I was reading in English the whole winter long. I received my major and can now be a teacher of English. Half of my summer months this year I spent in an international school in Helsingor and there English was the conversational speech. Now my head is full of English words and phrases. So now I need to practice in this letter otherwise I will forget my German and that can’t be!
My dearest regards,
And here’s an excerpt from the 2nd letter, unedited because the whole thing was totally cool.
My dear Mady,
Thank you so much for your letter! From the date I can tell that it has been already over a month before I received your letter. I can’t really understand why. Time has passed so quickly. Now you probably are back in Belgium? If so, I send this to your home. Have you recovered dear Mady? Oh, I hope you are from the bottom of my heart!
So, Mady, you think I am chubby/big? Oh well, that is possible. I love to eat and maybe I do it too much. The photo was from summer and then I am always bigger because then I don’t have my work. So I think now it’s better. One doesn’t like to be big!
I got from your letter that you are glad to be back in Belgium. Here in Sweden we have a saying: Foreign countries are good, but home is always the best. And I believe that is very true. I haven’t been to foreign countries, you know, except Denmark and Norway and that for us aren’t really foreign countries. For the next summer I hope I will be allowed to travel to England. I am supposed to have English classes with children, you know and of course it should be very good for me to spend a few months in England. That way one learns the language much better.
Dear Mady, you say that maybe you will come back to Sweden. How happy I should be if that was possible. Will you come alone or with other people? Oh, it would be wonderful to meet you again. Please Mady, if you can, so come, come! I am telling you my dearest welcome!
And now, Mady, to a quick ‘hear-you-again’, I hope!
My dearest regards!
P.S. May I also send my regards to your family?
Oh Anna-Kerstin, you sweet Danish-living-English-teaching friend! How wonderful and sweet you were to your friend Mady! And such a shame that someone saw fit to discard your beautiful letters into a trash heap in Brussels. So glad I recovered them and saved them!
As I wrote about for VICE, the main reason why personal items like this end up on the fleas is because the owner passed away and their family just wanted to liquidate all the belongings. Why? They probably weren’t on very good terms.
So Mady, I hope you had a good life. Your surviving family is shit.
To the flea markets!!
This will be a sombre, solemn post. I thought when I decided to spend the summer in Berlin that I’d be more fascinated with WWII history (and believe me, I am), but I was unprepared for just how much Cold War history would really affect me.
Throughout the 20th century, Germans have been REALLY good at building walls. First they built walls to create Jewish Ghettos, then they built walls around concentration camps, then they built walls to separate their own people. If you just so happened to be living in the wrong part of Berlin, you were suddenly forbidden to visit your family and friends on the other side of town. You couldn’t even wave across the wall, or they would blind you with reflecting mirrors. The Soviets wanted to prevent people from moving freely from one side to the other, so they built a wall, and would kill if you dared cross. THEY WOULD KILL YOU. And this isn’t ancient history, people were being killed in 1989 for trying to cross the wall. IN 1989.
And I find the sections where the Berlin wall is still standing especially haunting. Because, really, the wall isn’t that high. It wasn’t really the wall but the kill zone in between East and West Germany that is horrific.
This is a photograph of 18 year old Peter Fechter. He was an apprentice bricklayer.
And this is the last photograph ever taken of Peter Fechter as he lay dying from a gunshot wound to the stomach when he tried to cross the wall in 1962. The East Germans shot him and left him there for over an hour to die.
This marks the spot where he died.
You know, my pictures of this murder don’t do the horror of this event justice. Here is a short film about the erection of the Berlin Wall and the murder of Peter Fechter (I know no one likes watching videos, but it’s only 9 minutes long, and it’s actually really good. The voice-over feels a bit dated, but I would highly encourage you guys to watch this. There is footage of Peter Fechter being carried off as he dies, and other footage of people trying to jump the wall, or even jumping out of buildings just to get to the West.).
What you’re looking at here is a preserved section of the wall and the kill zone, with an intact guard tower. You can see the Berlin TV tower near Alexanderplatz (in the West) in the background. If you lived here on Bernauerstrasse in the 1960s, you could see into the west, you could hear the rumble of the trams and S-bahn, you could even hear their voices. But, for over 40 years, you wouldn’t have been able to see your family living there.
It’s obscene how recent this history is.
As you saw in the video above, if you lived on a building facing the West, before the wall was built you could just jump through your window and run to the West with all your things.
But then they started to build the wall, first with barbed wire, then with bricks.
Even the East German guards were swept up in the wall-crossing fever. You have all seen this photograph before. His name is Conrad Schumann.
Schumann was a young East German guard, overseeing the border when it was just barbed wire. As the story goes, on the West was a van full of West German guards who called out to him, and said, “Come on, join us!” So when the moment was right, he hopped the wire, dropped his gun, and dashed into the waiting van which drove off. The East German police scrambled to grab his gun, and then all hell broke loose.
Here is a short video (put it on mute, there’s some obnoxious voiceover on it) of that moment. Some lucky bastard had his camera rolling at that exact moment, and caught it all on tape.
Schumann became a posterboy for West Germany. The sad thing – he was petrified his entire life that the Stasi would arrest him or seek retribution for his act. Even after the wall fell and Germany was reunified, he lived in constant fear. He committed suicide in 1998, by hanging himself from a tree.
Here’s another guard tower around the corner from Potsdamer Platz. The wall was so ridiculous, it literally cut the city in two via asinine regulations. For 28 years, nobody was able to pass through the Brandenburg Tor, because it was situated in the killzone between the East and the West. Now, the Brandenburg Tor is a huge tourist draw and everyone passes through it. If you tried to do that in 1984, for example, you would have been shot.
When the wall finally fell and the East Germans walked into the West, they said it felt like “madness.” This above photograph I took last week.
Here’s something new. In 2006, this is what a section of the wall near Wilhelmstrasse looked like. I took this picture back then.
This is what that exact same wall looked like last week.
The trees are gone, and they paved over most of the cobblestones in favour of asphalt.
Because on the other side of the wall, they have put in an open-air museum called Topographie Des Terrors, as that is the location of a former Gestapo prison. The ruins of the prison cells are down there.
Now the former border is either marked by cobblestones in the road, or by these beams.
Or, the best way to commemorate a political travesty…
Welcome to the East Side Gallery! The stretch of the Berlin Wall that had such provocative street art, it encouraged the revolution of the people, and the destruction of the DDR. It now is a protected wall, and these original murals from the late 80s serve as a reminder to the power of the people, and a people torn apart.
I’ll let these images speak for themselves, shall I?
The caption says “My God, help me to overcome this deadly love.”
This is a satirical depiction of a famous moment when Erich Honecker (leader of the DDR) kissed Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. This is perhaps the most recognizable image from the East Side Gallery.
This says, “He who wants the world to remain as it is, doesn’t want it to remain at all.”
Why is that Thierry Noir? I FINK SO!
In fact, it is the wall which made Noir famous. He put up these infamous faces in the 80s, and they became a symbol of the people separated. Along with the Honecker kiss above, it is one of the most recognizable symbols of the wall.
A touch of home! There’s a 2009 mural here that is captioned “Je Me Souviens” which is the slogan of Quebec! And underneath it references the student protests in Quebec. It has the red square that was the symbol of the protestors, and it says Fuck Charest, Fuck Harper.
For those of you who don’t know, Charest was the premier of Quebec, and Harper is our stupid Prime Minister.
Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver. I saw this wheatpaste in London, must be new.
The dust of walls torn down has settled in the hearts of men. How will you keep them from rising again?
This is all fun and stuff, but let’s not forget that people died. People were terrorized. And this is a reminder of all-too-recent history.