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Letters from West Berlin, Part 2, by Kitty Kroger. September 1966: Settling In

23 Nov


In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the second of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

September 1966

Sept. 14, 1966

Dear Family,

Berlin as one of the largest cities in the world is a bit small-townish. I live right in the center of town now, near all the  bars, the main Bahnhof (railroad station), named Zoological, aka the Zoo, and not far from a very famous, two-mile-long avenue, Kurfurstendamm, which is packed with nightclubs, bright lights, and tourists. It’s called the Kudamm. Other than this street, there aren’t many night spots at all. Berlin rolls up its sidewalks about midnight. Berlin is now so built up after the war. Many modern buildings, which look just like those in America. Modern supermarkets, Woolworth’s, subways. Americans are of course all over because of the base here. I find the atmosphere a bit disappointing. Berlin is called the “world city,” but it just isn’t—culturally, politically, or educationally.


Train at Bahnhof Zoo
West Berlin

The people are a bit reserved too. I rather like that because this buddy-buddy bit is alien to my character, but it makes it a bit difficult to practice my German or even to feel very close to anyone here. I have made a wonderful friend out of the American doctoral candidate Pat Moylan. We get together all the time in the Studentendorf and hash over our experience here in Berlin. She must be about 30 or 35—she won’t tell anyone her age. She seems as young as I; however, in spite of the fact that’s she’s taught high school, and college, and is majoring in Old English at Duke University. We think a lot alike. I went to her “place” for dinner last night, and she’s coming to my “room” for supper tonight.

My new room is just great. The sun streams in through the balcony until 3 pm every day. The landlady brought me a huge plate of fresh peaches and apples the other day, and yesterday a bowl of noodle tomato soup. I’m never there but she leaves them on the table for me. I have a good hard bed, a small table, a huge desk, a closet, and three or four chairs in my room. There’s always hot water. The landlady has loaned me some dishes and a blanket—I find the whole setup very comfortable. And I’m strengthening my legs walking (or running) up the four flights of stairs.

I went to a ballet, movies, and a Gunther Grass play, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, last week. Movies are very cheap—about 65 cents for a seat. The play was $2 and the ballet only $1.50 and excellent. There are millions of American movies being shown, which I avoid, but I saw a Swedish movie, “Sibling Bed,” about incest, which was made by a former student of Ingmar Bergman. The movie was beautifully photographed and I understood it very well, but the plot was disappointing.

I have to ride the bus Berlin.Double-deckerBusabout an hour to work and an hour home every day. I use the time to read or to people watch. I buy a weekly bus pass, which costs only $1.25, and lets me ride three lines, (either bus or subway) as often as I like. The three lines take me within walking distance of just about wherever I want to go.

Berlin.Kitty Kroger.Marta Mierendorff, Walter Wicclair.1967

Kitty, Marta Mierendorff, Walter Wicclair.
West Berlin.

The woman I’m tutoring in English has her doctorate in sociology and is trying to get immigration papers into the U.S. She’s about 60. Her name is Frau Doktor Mierendorff. [Note: this may be repeated above or below.]  She lives with Walter Wicclair, a rather well-known director, producer in Los Angeles. Naturalized citizen and has a heavy German accent. They are going to try to return to the U.S. in Jan. She’s writing a book on culture in German. He’s directed and acting in Strindberg’s Danco of Death with rave review (in Los Angeles), also worked with the drama department. Dr. M told me Monday that her husband and his mother, both Jews, had been taken away during the war to Auschwitz and gassed. Neither of them like Germany at all. They feel it’s deteriorated in culture and general decency as a result of the terrible events of WW2. He gave a lecture at the Free University, in which he condemned the state of the German theater and the suppression of Jewish contributions to it. I read the lecture. I wish I knew better what was going on in politics—and what went on in history. Berlin is exciting because of what lurks in the shadows as a result of the war and the wall, the past and the present. Rolf Lobeck from Hamburg said that he felt that Europeans are different from Americans, precisely because the Europeans have gone through a war on their own land, seen their houses shattered, their relatives and friends killed, and are presently living amidst the ruins of the war—a constant reminder to them.

The older people fascinate me because of what they’ve seen and lived. With the students, however, it’s a different matter. The students are in many ways like Americans; they haven’t seen war on their territory or experience the loss of many relatives and friends. But they have grown along with the regrowth of their country and they’ve been under the influence of the adults who have experience terrible things. Thus they too think different from us.

Last Sunday I walked along the wall on this side for about an hour. It was really horrible. At one place there were two big dogs chained to a long bar, along which they could run. Every few fBerlin.Potsdamer Platzeet there are guard platforms and houses on the “east” side, where East Berlin soldiers are posted with their guns. They always whistle and flirt with me as I pass by. A West Berlin new apartment building was built almost upon the wall at one spot, with signs on every outside entrance saying that it is strongly recommended that the renters not take pictures from the stairwell of East Berlin. Then at another place, there was an empty dirt lot with beer cans and other garbage. Three women were sitting around right next to the fence separating the city. They were lower class, dirty-looking, and seemingly oblivious to the “wall,” laughing and gossiping. This was near Checkpoint Charlie, where the American and other foreigners cross the boundary. The whole thing was so dirty and so depressing. A West Berlin man was shot the other day for swimming in a canal too close to the East German boundary. He was drunk. They killed him. The West German keep protesting, “It’s so ridiculous; they’re Germans too; we’re all Germans; I don’t understand!” (I don’t either.)



Sept. 20, 1966

Dear Family,

Berlin is about 60% people over the age of 45 and a large number of those are over 65. The old people are “trapped” in Berlin, in a sense, because of the distance to move if they want to leave. But the students seem very alive. The government-subsidized theaters, museums and galleries are beautiful even if there seems to be a lack of excitement and pride on the part of Berliners themselves.

Last night Frau Mierendorff and her partner Walter Wicclair took me to a play . We sat in the fourth row. It was called “The Escape, “ written and acted by a Viennese Jewish comedian. It’s his true story of how during the Jewish purge he appealed to one of the Nazi district leaders (Gauleiter) to save his life on the basis of his value as an entertainer. The Nazi did save him because he had enjoyed the stage acts so much. The Jew was given permission to flee to his home in Vienna where after the war he was approached and appealed to by the same Nazi, whose own life was now in danger, to help him in return. Which he did. The theme of the play is the moral question of the Jew. What should he have done? Should he have allowed his own life to be saved, sat tight while his fellow were led to the concentration camps? In short, he was a coward, which he admits. He was afraid to die. “I want to be, to be, to be,” he said.

Or should he have refused to cooperate verbally with the Nazis? Should he have protested, spit in their faces, denounced them, and marched bravely off to the gas chambers, a martyr? Now, says the author actor, the faces of the condemned Jews come back to haunt him and he can’t sleep. Should he then have condemned the district commander to death, who had been responsible for so many deaths himself? But how could he? The Nazi had saved him when he had been afraid to die. Now the Jew, who recognized the pure terror of impending death and the overwhelming, overpowering will to “be,” to exist, couldn’t turn over the Nazi to the authorities.

He turns then to the audience and says, “What should I have done?” It was a powerful play, enhanced for me by the comments of Wicclair, who fled Germany in 1933 and Mierendorff, whose lover was executed at Auschwitz.

Saturday I returned to Kreuzberg, which is full of old, partly war-damaged apartment buildings with stone figures and heads of gods and angels built into the walls. Berlin has very few old buildings left at all. Almost entirely rebuilt with skyscrapers and modern buildings, which I find sad and disappointing. I want to see more tradition, more of antiquity, but war-demolished Berlin is not the place. Too much has been rebuilt to get the flavor of old Europe.

I read Time magazine more regular now than ever before in my life. One thing that being in Europe has done for me is to make me more aware than ever of current events. There are three English-language libraries here, one in  Amerikahaus, one in the British Center, and one in the American Memorial Library. They are fantastic. I’ve already checked out a German-language book and a history book. I’m also reading German literature: Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, and newspapers. I can’t believe that this is me. I was always such an uninformed blind man before.

All Sunday I spent alone just reading. It was great. I’m getting so I can put sentences together in German better than in English. That’s because I’ve been hearing, reading, and speaking so much German. My English is really getting bad.

I keep my balcony doors open and the sun streams into my room. My landlady brought me tomato noodle soup and a delicious apple compote for lunch. I can’t decide whether I wish she’d go away and leave me alone or not. She’s so terribly over-mothering. She woke me up this morning by knocking on my door about some little detail and then she noticed that my feet were sticking out from under the down blanket she’s loaned me, so she shuffled back to her part of the apartment, brought another blanket, and wrapped it around my feet. When I’m home she continually comes down the hall to bring me something or make a suggestion about how I’m keeping up the room. It bugs me in a way but she means so well that I just can’t get really irritated. She’s about 75 and can’t stand straight, due to an auto accident years ago.

After seeing the movie “Blue Angel” last night, the two boys I went with, Howard and Johnny, and I walked around downtown Berlin window-shopping. and looking at the modern sculpture exhibit on top of Europa Center, which is a huge two-block square shopping center with international shops, banks, restaurants, night spots. We ended up in a beer joint talking and drinking the 14-cent beers. We all feel the same way about our jaunt in Europe; namely, we will never have this marvelous freedom again in our entire lives. Now we have the time to find out who we are , what we want , where we’re going. And to see the world. Americans are in many ways the greatest people in the world.

I worry sometimes that I’m limiting myself too much by staying in Berlin. My point in being here is to learn German well, experience the political situation, and get a feel for the German temperament.



Letters from West Berlin, Part 1, by Kitty Kroger. 1966: First Impressions of West Berlin

28 Oct

In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a
friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the first of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.


August 1966

West Berlin, August 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie [my brother],

Berlin.TrainAtBahnhofZooFor the first time since I got to Germany I am completely on my own. I’ve been in Berlin a week  now, staying in a Studentenheim (student dorm) at the Free University for $1.66 per night (DM 6.50). I’ve met all kinds of people — three Persians, an Egyptian, an Australian, Americans, an Ethiopian, and a German boy 23 years old, who spent three days helping me find a place to stay in this enormous and confusing city.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for work. [My room] costs DM 100 a month, which is $25. It’s very dead here; most students are on vacation. The city is fascinating, especially the political aspects of it. Yesterday Jeanie [a friend] and I went to East Berlin and met an elderly man who showed us all around.

[Note: At this time, as a result of the postwar settlement, Germany was divided between the Soviet Union and the Allies. The former capital of Germany, Berlin, now in the middle of East Germany, was divided between the Soviet Union, France, England, and the U.S. Bonn became the new capital of West Germany, and the Soviet sector of Berlin remained the capital of East Germany. Berliners were not allowed to visit the Soviet sector, called East Berlin. West Germans could visit, with the proper papers. Foreigners like myself could cross the border into the eastern sector for 24 hours, surrendering our passports at the border.]

Berlin.Map.Red and Blue.blog.craniumfitteds.com


Berlin, August 19, 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie,

Right now I’m working in the small office of a driving school. Often I sit the whole time alone with no telephone calls and no people coming in. It is good and bad, for I have lots of time to read but I am not improving my German. I earn DM 225 ($50) per month.

The other day I finally found a room. It costs DM 75 per month [$19] plus DM 10-15 in winter for coal. I have to prepare the coal myself in the tile oven. The room has a small balcony overlooking the courtyard—like in the movie “Rear Window.” Hot water and bathroom, which I share with another [young woman] renter, and a small hotplate and cupboard for dishes and food just outside the room in the hall. It has a [long] hallway to enter by. Apartments in Berlin are expensive, as is everything, in comparison with wages. Apartments are from DM 350 to 400 and up. The landlady seems very sweet. She’s about 60, I think. The room is right in the center of town near the railway station.

I can’t believe that this is really me here, doing what I’m doing (which is I’m not sure what)!


Berlin, August 25, 1966

It’ll be nice to be settled in my new address on September 1. It’s right in the center of town. [In Charlottenburg.] And from there I plan to spread out and “uncover” the city. My work situation is pretty good. I make barely enough to exist on but I have in return a variety of jobs. My tutoring job is with a very interesting woman  [Marta Mierendorff]. She has her PhD., is writing a cultural book, and lives with a  playwright actor and citizen from L.A.

Walter and Marta, Berlin 1967

Marta Mierendorff and her partner Walter Wicclair. Berlin 1967

Today I “worked” four hours for [a] young “Frau” with three kids. All I did was sit outside and talk to the two older children for an hour, wash a few dishes, and vacuum a rug in the nursery. For that I received DM 15 and a very nice lunch, much conversation with the kids, and some with their mother.

A large flask of wine is only about $1 and beer only 15 – 20 cents.

I enjoy being so entirely independent as I am now until I figure out what I want to be dependent upon. It’s sort of a vacation from life.

I’ve been reading a prodigious amount of German about all sorts of things: Berlin, Deutschland, Vietnam, Draußen vor der Tür [The Man Outside] by Wolfgang Borchert, the relationship between German and American grammar, music, etc. And I’ve talked to some interesting people. A girl on my floor in the Studentendorf, who I’ve cooked dinner with a couple of times—she just finished her exams as a veterinarian, was a high school foreign exchange student to Minnesota, and studied at Munich as well as here in Berlin.

The German worker earns perhaps DM 500 [$125] per month for every $400-$500 that the same worker in America earns. Thus although a furnished apartment may cost only DM 300 –400 [$100] per month, the average worker couldn’t possibly afford it. Thus the Germans live in rooms, not apartments. And it’s customary—not  looked down upon as poverty—as it would be in America.

Coffee is very expensive. 1/10 pound of instant Kaffee cost me 75 cents (DM 3)!!

Telephone calls in public booths cost only 5 cents but to mail a letter within Deutschland, it costs 7 ½ cents, to America 17 cents for 5 grams. Subways are about half-price here in Berlin. Medicine is much cheaper and doesn’t seem to need a prescription.

TV is great! No commercials except for 20 minutes once a day. Many good programs and news analyses.

Billboards consist merely of thick, round poles on street corners, around which many ads are pasted. Whereas our buildings at home are the “tallest” or “biggest,” here the people seem to be proud of having the “oldest” of everything.


Here everyone calls you “Miss” Kroger, unless they know me very well and are approximately my age. All other people call me Miss all the time—with Miss comes the formal or “Sie” form of “you.” Children call me “Fraulein Kitty.”

Trains seem much nicer. The windows are bigger. The seats on trains face each other.

Berlin.Double-deckerBusThe two-decker city buses are very common—and excellent fun for a good bird’s-eye view of the city. A bus ticket costs simply 12 ½ cents for anywhere on that line. You can go all over Berlin for 17 cents on a two-decker bus

There are flowers all over the city. Every balcony has its window box of carnations. No women are ever to be seen in curlers! Everyone almost speaks some English here. I never leave tips [at restaurants] here. It is added on to the end of the bill as 15% extra.

If you say hello (Guten Tag) to some stranger as you pass him or her on the street, he will assume you know him some way or another. I met one woman cyclists on the sidewalk and blithely said hello, upon which she slammed on her brakes, stopped, and asked, astounded, “Do we know each other?” I muttered apologetically, “Nein,” at which she said “Oh,” and rode on.

There are miles and miles of bike-ways in Berlin on the sidewalk next to where one walks. There are also many parks; “places” in the middle of a street with lawn, flowers, benches, and trees; regular forests and camping spots; lakes; farms. And the streets have many trees and flowers. There seems to be much building of new houses and rebuilding or repairing of old ones. There are many brand new apartment buildings.

Beatle pants (bell bottoms with checks, stripes, patterns—English models, especially on the young working men) are worn all over, as well as long haircuts. But the students generally dress “relatively conservatively.” Sandals and thongs of all kinds for both men and women are popular. None of the girls shave their legs. Contrary to popular belief, tennies, blue jeans, and wheat jeans are worn fairly frequently—and any clothes which were “in” in America are definitely “in” over here except for Bermuda and Jamaica-length shorts.

It’s fairly safe to travel alone late at night on subways, S-Bahns, or buses. This town, however, closes down its transportation at 12:30 am.

[In] the Studentendorf  (student village) boys and girls can visit each other any time anywhere—i.e., open dorms with no restrictions. Drinking is allowed in the dorms and liquor is sold in the cafeteria on campus.

Among the students, professors, and “intellectuals” in general, there is much anti-American feeling, some of the Germans resent us because of our Vietnam policy.

[To be continued.]