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Berlin: Vassar Travel Beyond the Wall

Maria Höhn, Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair of History and International Studies, and Berliner Tim Schmutzler, an expert guide with a degree in history, led a six-day Vassar Travel Program tour through Berlin in November, presenting a topic that was vast and complex: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Among the many background visits before heading to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre was the group’s visit to the Allied Museum. Located at the site of a former movie theater and library of the U.S. military base, the museum was established after the end of the Cold War. It pays tribute to the Western Allies and informs younger Germans of such momentous events as the Berlin airlift and other political and military standoffs during the Cold War.

The centerpiece of the museum is a section of a Berlin tunnel, built in the 1950s, that was a joint operation of the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Its purpose was to tap into the telephone lines of the Soviet Army headquarters in Berlin. But British mole George Blake, a double agent who worked for both the KGB and MI6, immediately told the Soviets about the tunnel’s existence. Rather than compromise their spy, the Soviets chose to continue using the tunnel, though only for unimportant messages. (Blake was caught in 1961 and sentenced to prison, but he escaped and still lives in Russia to this day.)

The Americans hired scores of young people to work in Washington, D.C., translating the huge number of tunnel intercepts. By an extraordinary coincidence, one of the Vassar travelers on the trip (one who asked to remain anonymous) had worked as a translator of the tunnel intercepts. Until her visit to the museum, she had no idea that all her Russian-to-English translation work had been for naught.

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, about the same time that Blake was caught. It was a time when everyday life in the German Democratic Republic was a series of catastrophes—lack of power, heat, and consumer goods. In addition to the nation’s economic problems, thousands of well-trained professionals—doctors, lawyers, and engineers—were crossing the border from the Soviet sector into West Berlin. To stem the brain drain and stop East Berliners from crossing over, the first sections of the wall were built in August. When all was said and done, there were 12-foot-high walls and 116 watchtowers around the city.

Christine McKay ’70 remembered the tattered Berlin she first visited some 40 years ago. At that time, she recalled, physical signs of destruction and fresh memories of World War II were still very much a part of daily life. As a traveler to the city in 2014, McKay says she could never have imagined the current liveliness of the former East. “The art galleries, shops, vibrant street life, and public spaces were all astounding,” she said.

Professor Höhn provided fascinating historical footnotes and personal anecdotes at each destination. She also introduced the group to friends and colleagues who experienced the divided city as well as former Vassar students now doing graduate work in Germany.

The Vassar Travel Program tour, organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad, featured many visits not typically associated with a trip to Berlin. One outstanding visit was to St. Mary’s Church in former East Berlin, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 sermon is said to have inspired the desire for peaceful social revolution on both sides of the wall. The church’s director for education, Roland Stolpe, is a friend of Höhn’s and had loaned artifacts from King’s visit to Vassar as part of an exhibition in 2009.

Stolpe invited two women who had witnessed King’s historic sermon at the church on September 13, 1964 to speak to the group. Now in their 60s, they told the travelers and Luke Steele ’13, a former student of Höhn’s, that they vividly remembered King’s words: “We will struggle together and we will be free someday.” His sermon had moved them deeply and had given them courage, even as they were surrounded by a repressive regime, they said.

Another visit was to the Free University, founded in 1948 in Dahlem, a district that, Höhn explained, was part of the American zone of the city where many middle-class German Jews had lived before the war. In the district of Schöneberg, another former center of Jewish life in Berlin, the group viewed an exhibition, “We Were Neighbors,” which presented 150 biographical albums of German Jews who were deported to camps or forced to flee. Several albums, set up along library-style tables, documented the lives of such luminaries as Alfred Einstein, Billy Wilder, and Helmut Newton.

Shortly after the group returned home, Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along eight miles of the wall’s inner-city border, 8,000 balloons illuminated the night sky. They were released to a cheering crowd that heard speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev, whose encouragement of democracy in the Soviet Union helped East Germany break free of communism. Tears of joy were shed during the main event, as Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

The Vassar travelers may have just missed the celebration, but they were grateful to have had the opportunity to embrace the young, dynamic spirit of the city and to see Berlin in a whole new light. At a farewell dinner on the last night of the trip, Jeffrey Lipkowitz ’74 noted: “At this point in my life, the most sublime luxury is to be a student again.” The trip leaders reflected the best qualities of Vassar professors from his past, Lipkowitz said. “They gently coerced us into fresh perspectives, explicated past learning, and stimulated further study of the subject.”

The group of 20 travelers heartily agreed.

—Bobbie Leigh ’55

--Photos by Charles Geiger, except Topography of Terror Museum (courtesy of the museum).

For a complete schedule of upcoming Vassar Travel Programs, visit

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, December 16, 2014