A Souvenir of Terror

Twenty-five years ago it was torn down. I was a little boy when it was erected and I remember thinking, "What kind of country needs to build a wall to keep its citizens in? Why would anyone want to do that? If Communism is so great, why don't people just go there from countries that aren't communist?" I was 14 years old then. I thought at the time that there should be a three-week period when everyone in the world could settle wherever he/she wanted. I suspected everyone would want to live in New York. In a way, I still do.

In the last years of the Soviet Union, I got to fly into West Berlin a number of times to make recordings of the music banned by the Third Reich. The orchestra we used was called the RIAS Orchestra. Those capital letters had to be translated for me: Radio in the American Sector Orchestra. The American Sector of a divided Berlin sat in the middle of a divided Germany, and right in the middle of communist East Germany. The Second World War ended just before I was born, and here I was a grown-up, conducting the music of the German refugee composer Kurt Weill, entering something called "the American Sector" in a plane that could only fly through a special corridor to Berlin.

Arriving at Tegel Airport, luggage would invariably be held back for 24 hours to intimidate those of us who entered the Communist Empire, which, in Germany, was ironically called the DDR: The Democratic German Republic. Those teenage boys at the border, in their pressed uniforms and their pistols, looked at us with hatred and suspicion.

We made our records and I taught the German musicians their own suppressed culture -- yes, even in the West. One older Berliner in the violin section told me a joke: "What's the difference between an East German violinist and a West German violinist?" The answer is, "A West German has a new car and an old violin and an East German has an old car and a brand new violin!"

In the autumn of 1989, Ute Lemper and I recorded Kurt Weill's 1933 "ballet chanté" The Seven Deadly Sins (die Sieben Todsünden), which he composed in Paris, having fled from Berlin after the rise of Adolph Hitler. I wrote the following in the liner notes to the Decca release

"Rehearsing and recording Sieben Todsünden in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche on those autumnal days shortly before the Berlin Wall fell is an experience none of us will forget. Weill's last home was only a few miles away in the East and we could not visit it. But we all knew we were near his last images of Berlin. Once again this orchestra of Berliners was learning a work it had never played before, something of their unknown and yet well-understood past was confronted during those Berlin days ..."

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down!"

I well remember learning that poem when I was a boy and I well remember seeing the Berlin Wall for the first time in the 1980s -- ... and then we got the news, twenty-five years ago. I was not there and I cried for that and I cried for Germany and all freedom-loving people. That war which casts its sickly light to this day was perhaps finally over.

Last night I got an email from a German hero who had actually escaped from East Berlin, risking his life and making it to the West. When I met him in West Berlin he told me his terrible story: that on the eve of his planned escape he could not even tell his mother for fear that she might tell someone. She looked at her boy and said, "There is something happening. What is it?" But her son said there was nothing. When he arrived back in West Germany, it took little time for the East German police to call her and tell her that her son was a traitor -- and did she know he was also a homosexual? That young man thought he might never see his family again.

And last night he wrote to me from Berlin:

I still remember your phone call that night. I was in Munich and had absolutely no idea of what was going on in Berlin. The German TV stations had finished their evening program and it was not until the morning news that everyone received pictures of the new situation. I remember asking you if you were watching a satirical production, a kind of scripted documentation ... However, following your call my phone did not stop throughout the night, each time another friend or family member telling me the same wonderful news.

I did not remember calling him, but was so happy to know I was the one to tell him that it was OK then, and that he would see his mother and father and sister again. It was over.

When I returned a few months after the Wall had fallen, Berlin was in what I can only call an electric state. The hotels could not handle the weekends when people from the East would come for breakfast and take fruit and biscuits with them by the armfuls. No one denied them this.

Ute and I had also gone to Leipzig in that first year after the Wall fell to perform the very same Seven Deadly Sins with the MDR, or Middle-German Radio Orchestra. Ute, who was born in West Germany, was visiting the East for the first time since there was no longer an East. There were still bullets in the buildings, left there since the 1940s. Our second performance was a run out in the town of Ehrfurt. I well remember the car that drove us back to Leipzig after the performance. We were so hungry and we saw something unimaginable in the unlit road between Ehrfurt and Leipzig: Golden Arches!

Ute howled with laughter. We went into Ehrfurt's first McDonalds and ordered everything!

Berlin, however, taught me the most profound lesson. On a day in the winter of 1990, when I had no rehearsals or recordings, I decided to go to No Man's Land -- a place where there were no buildings, a desert carved out as a border between East and West. If I had walked there six months before, I would have been shot. But on this winter afternoon I found a thriving market. Soviet uniforms, fur hats from Russia, boots, red star pins and pieces of the Wall were on sale. The very artifacts of terror and repression had been turned into souvenirs.

I remember thinking: It was all theater! Lethal theater, of course, but it was all pretend nonetheless. For a few marks I could own a piece of this terrible, terrible time. I remember once arriving out of a New York subway on Good Friday, 1967, to find people selling remnants of the old Metropolitan Opera House shortly after it had been demolished and I was nauseated at the thought of buying a piece of it ... but, somehow this was different.

I stared at the pieces of the Wall. Twenty-five marks for a small piece of cement with remnants of spray-paint on it. I wanted to celebrate freedom and I wanted to have a little piece of something that had meant so much to me, even though I did not live through it; even though I was just a visitor bringing back German music to Germans by composers who were their greatest gift to civilization -- who died as American citizens and who would have been murdered had they remained in this very city. Here I was for some inexplicable reason carrying it back, teaching it, explaining it, translating it and letting it seep back into the souls of these musicians who were only just beginning to hear what survived and now must be reckoned with, embraced and accepted as both German and American. We had begun a process that was only in its early stages, but one that continues through this day, because while visual art can be found and hung in a museum, music, which is invisible, must be performed and heard to exist at all, and this takes time.

And so I bought a little piece of that Wall and keep it near me in my New York studio. In January, Ute and I bring Weill's Seven Deadly Sins to Cologne and the WDR (West German Radio Orchestra). The other day, someone asked me to put together a program for a Berlin orchestra, and when I suggested the Seven Deadly Sins, he said, "Oh, no. That's played all the time."

That's when I knew a wall had indeed fallen. Now we must continue to build the roads and above all, the bridges that link us all together.

November 10, 2014
New York City