Historic November Memories

Two historic anniversaries this month, both which impacted on me for different reasons.

The first event, because for the first time I saw my mother looking terrified, and the second, because it was a place I’d visited.

The event which terrified Mum.

On 22nd November 1963, 60 years ago, John F Kennedy, was assassinated.

I was eleven years old, and as strange as this will sound to anyone these days, I was being washed by my mum, in front of an open fire in our living room. In those days we didn’t have central heating, and the bathroom was always freezing.

The black and white TV was on tuned to the only channel we had at that time, BBC. A newsflash appeared to say that President John F Kennedy had been shot dead in Dallas.

Mum went very quiet. She wasn’t just worried, she was scared. At the time I had no understanding of why she was feeling so upset. I didn’t understand the importance, or the implications his death could have on the world at that time.

Mum, having been born in December 1913 just before the start of the First World War, (where an assassination was one of the things that led to the outbreak of the war), believed this could start World War 3.

Sarajevo, 28th June 1914, was when the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie, were killed in a bomb attack on their carriage.

For those of you who are too young to remember, JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was then shot and killed by Jack Ruby. For Mum, the event happened at a very tense time, when the US and Soviet Union came closest to nuclear conflict, due to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. This was when an American U-2-spy plane photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union in Cuba.

 From the very beginning, the assassination of JFK was thought to be a conspiracy rather than just an individual gunman. Some thought it was Cuba, or Russia – a communist plot… The fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was a supporter of the communist regime, just added to the rumours. All these decades later, there is still no definitive explanation of what happened and after investigations and speculation the conspiracy theories are still out there.

The second event, which took place on the 8th Nov, 1989, is when the Berlin Wall fell.

In 1961, the wall was erected in 4 days, and overnight streets, families and neighbours were cut off from each other; a concrete division between East and West Berlin.  

After the 2nd World War, Berlin, which was located far inside the eastern side of Germany, was controlled by the Soviet Union. The Western portion of the city was controlled by the British, French and the United States.

Back in 1969, I travelled to West Berlin with Leicestershire Schools County Orchestra. We went to perform in several place in Berlin, which was an amazing experience. We travelled from Leicestershire on coaches, with all of the instruments, including the harp I played, in the back of the bus.

When we entered Germany, to get to the city of Berlin we had to travel through a ‘corridor’ of Eastern Germany to get to the Western sector of Berlin.  It was a very strange experience.

I remember looking at the countryside and houses and feeling a little nervous that it was Soviet owned and communist, which in the 60s was the nemesis of the West. Whilst driving down the badly-made concrete road, the only traffic we saw were East German tanks driving in the opposite direction. This didn’t make us feel any safer!

Around midnight, we arrived at a checkpoint, surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, and harsh lighting. We were all made to get off the bus via the driver’s door – which meant the soldiers had to help us as we clambered down.

The staff members accompanying us were very worried that they might make them remove all of the musical instruments from the bus, which would have taken hours, and if not done with care, could have caused thousands of pounds worth of damage.

The East German soldiers, all carrying guns, were eyeing up us teenage girls, which was a little un-nerving. In the end, we didn’t have to move the instruments, and after a few hours and lots of paperwork, we were allowed on our way.

On a trip, we were taken into East Berlin, travelling through Check-Point Charlie, which was a very weird experience. I noticed that everything was grey. There were no advertisements on walls, the housing was all very grey and sombre, and the whole place lacked colour.  Back in West Berlin, it was the complete opposite, a bright, shiny, bustling city.

In 2014 my husband and I took a city-break in Berlin. I had wanted to visit ever since seeing the amazing images of the wall coming down in 1989. The changes were incredible. Our hotel was situated in what had been East Berlin, and it was interesting to see the new buildings, and old buildings being rejuvenated.

Travelling on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn, you pass through stations that were closed during the time the wall existed – called ‘ghost’ lines. These were stations where passengers from West Berlin travelled through deserted stations, which were guarded by soldiers or police. Many of these stations were boarded up, which was to try and stop people from escaping the East.

As we found on visits to the many museums in Berlin, people were desperate to escape, and some of the attempts were bizarre, and some experienced incredibly harrowing flights of freedom.

At the age of 17 when visiting Berlin for the first time, I didn’t even consider I’d be visiting a wall-free city, 45 years later. Although initially, I’m sure financially and possibly in other ways, there were some difficulties after the wall fell, as an outside, it was wonderful to see the city reunited.