Shadow of the Wall

Living on the Death Strip in East Berlin

Shadow of the Wall

Herbert Neumann and his wife were confused when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) began the construction of a wall in 1961 in East Berlin, a mere five feet from their apartment front door. For the next thirty years, the Neumanns lived in the dark shadow of the wall as their street became known as the “death strip.” Although photography of the wall was strictly forbidden, Herbert Neumann secretly documented the fortification of his street from his bathroom window and developed the film in his bathtub. Journalist Thalia Gigerenzer visits the Neumanns, who still live in the very same apartment, and shares the couple’s firsthand account of what it was like to live in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

At first glance, Bouché Straße seems almost identical to any other street in the sleepy residential area on the border of the Treptow and Neukölln neighbourhoods. The parade of five-story apartment blocks is interrupted briefly by a boxy, bright yellow Edeka supermarket that squats in a nondescript parking lot. Tall trees line the street on both sides.

Aside from the occasional jangle of shopping carts and muffled laughter coming from the corner shop, it is very still. But there is something a little strange about this seemingly unremarkable street; it feels somehow unbalanced. The trees on the eastern side of the street are skinny and young and the streetlights ungainly and imposing. On the opposite side, the trees are gnarled, thick and mature, and the sidewalks are lined with stately gas lamps.

The houses, too, seem ever so slightly out of sync: the apartment blocks facing west have been painted a frenzy of pastels — blue, yellow and orange — while those facing east are an assortment of faded brown tones. A cursory glance at the brick trail running through the asphalt reveals that these tiny discrepancies are not coincidental. They are, in fact, the only remaining traces of the street’s prior division by the Berlin Wall.

From 1961 to 1989, for the two-block stretch between Heidelberger Straße and Harzer Straße, the wall cut right through the middle of Bouché Straße. Almost overnight, this sleepy, tree-lined street became the so-called “death strip” — and residents on both sides literally had the wall on their doorsteps.

While it remained an abstract, political symbol to many Berliners, for those who were confronted daily by its physical apparatus — ninety-six miles of concrete slabs, mesh wire fencing and barbed wire — the wall had a very different meaning. And no one knew the intricacies of the wall’s architecture better than the Neumanns, whose front door stood a mere five feet from the Hinterlandmauer (the eastern side of the wall), for almost thirty years.

Herbet and Sonja Neumann. Photo by Thalia  Gigerenzer.
Herbet and Sonja Neumann. Photo by Thalia Gigerenzer.

When they first moved into their apartment on Bouché Straße in the Spring of 1961, the Neumanns were no strangers to claustrophobic living conditions. They had spent the last three years stuck in a cramped apartment in Adlershof with Frau Neumann’s family, desperately waiting for their Wohnungszuweisung (apartment allocation), which, due to the apartment shortage in East Berlin at the time, took a very long time.

After Herr Neumann (born in 1934) finished his studies to be a camera technician, the Neumanns were married in 1958, though since he had studied at an institution in West Berlin, he struggled to find a job in the Soviet sector.

The apartment block the Neumanns would move into was an Arbeiter-Wohnungsbau-Genossenschaft (AWG) — a housing collective for employees of various firms — that required every resident to contribute a certain amount of hours to the building of the apartment block. After months of long construction shifts, the Neumanns were overjoyed when they finally moved into their brand new, tiny apartment that they had helped build. Sure, the walls were slightly crooked, and, if you looked closely, the angles were a bit off — but they finally had a place to call their own.

That summer, the Neumanns took a trip over to West Berlin to buy building materials and other items for their new apartment that were not available in the East, including speakers bought from an American soldier and light switches, both of which remain fixtures in the apartment today. “Our Trabi was jammed to the brim with all this stuff,” laughs Herr Neumann, before adding somewhat soberly, “thank God we made that trip in time.”

A Volkspolizei car pulls up across the street on August 13, 1961. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
A Volkspolizei car pulls up across the street on August 13, 1961. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

On Sunday morning, August 13th, 1961, Herr and Frau Neumann awoke to a strange scene outside their study window. A large Volkspolizei car was parked across the street while the police were patrolling the street. A rudimentary barrier of wooden logs had been laid along the sidewalk in front of their building. Herr Neumann, who took his first photographs with a handmade camera as an 11-year-old in 1945, immediately grabbed his camera and started taking photos. For the rest of the day he barely moved from his perch at his study window, documenting the gradual fortification of his own home.

The logs were quickly replaced by barbed wire; Herr Neumann’s bicycle was suddenly caught between East and West. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
The logs were quickly replaced by barbed wire; Herr Neumann’s bicycle was suddenly caught between East Berlin and West Berlin. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

That morning, a friend from West Berlin paid the Neumanns a visit and parked his car in front of their building. By the time he left the Neumanns, several East German soldiers had surrounded his vehicle — the wooden logs had been replaced by barbed wire and his car was now smack in the middle of the border zone. Herr Neumann’s bicycle, too, was suddenly surrounded by barbed wire.

In the meantime, a small crowd of neighbors had gathered at the corner of Bouché Straße and Heidelberger Straße. “It was a complete surprise, everyone was astounded. No one knew what to make of it, but there was no talk of a wall, we thought it was just a temporary measure,” says Herr Neumann. “But when I saw them roll out the barbed wire, I knew something awful was happening.” An old man waved to a little boy across the barbed wire. The crowd of neighbors stayed, rooted in their spot, until the evening.

Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße – the trees have been cut down and the Wall sealed. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.
Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße — the trees have been cut down and the wall sealed. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.

Over the next few weeks, the barbed wire was replaced by a tall cement fence on the sidewalk that darkened the entrance to their glass front door. The asphalt gave way to a strip of sand, and a twelve-foot-high wall was constructed on the west side of the street. The trees on the Neumann’s sidewalk had been cut down, the streetlights had been replaced by tall, imposing floodlights that illuminated the death strip at night. There were rumors that the residents would be kicked out of their houses — it was a common precautionary procedure for houses near the wall to be cleared and sealed off — but fortunately, the Neumanns were allowed to stay.

Life in the border zone became increasingly constrained: the attic of the Neumann’s building was boarded shut. Border guards drilled holes into the basement door in an attempt to exercise control over potential escape tunnels. Residents of the border zone had to show their passports upon entering and leaving their homes. In order to invite friends or relatives over, residents had to put in a request weeks in advance; getting Frau Neumann’s mother over from West Berlin was close to impossible, so they stayed in touch mainly by letters. When a work colleague helped Herr Neumann carry a television home one day, a border soldier interrogated his colleague for an hour, threatening him with arrest.

In addition to these daily frustrations there was a more subtle — but no less real — feeling of physical disorientation and claustrophobia. “We could only turn left. In front of us was the wall, to the right of us was the wall,” says Frau Neumann (at the corner of Bouché Straße and Heidelberger Straße, the wall curved to the right and ran along Heidelberger Straße). “It was a terrible feeling, an uncanny feeling, it’s very hard to describe.”

The Wall stood a mere 1.5 meters from the Neumann’s front door. Photo taken ca. 1989. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
The wall stood a mere five feet from the Neumann’s front door, circa 1989. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

Helpless in the face of his increasingly confined life, Herr Neumann coped by secretly documenting the gradual fortification of his street with his camera. “I documented the whole process from day one, one photo after the other. Whenever I saw something change, I would rush to the window and take pictures,” he says. Because any photography of the wall was strictly forbidden in East Berlin, Herr Neumann had to be very careful. He would look out of his bathroom window toward the watchtower sixty feet away from his home to make sure the soldiers weren’t watching him, and then quickly press the shutter. He developed the illegal photos he took in his apartment bathtub.

Aside from propagandist images, there are very few photographs of the wall from the East Berlin side, and so, Herr Neumann’s photos offer a rare, up-close glimpse of the wall. Although he risked arrest, Herr Neumann says his secret photography was in no way meant as an act of resistance. “I did it out of the simple curiosity of someone who is interested in their surroundings! I never thought about publishing them. I just did it for myself, to capture the moment.”

Herr Neumann’s photographs act as silent evidence of the attempt to perfect the border apparatus over the years, as paranoia about escape attempts grew. When the west side of the wall was replaced by a higher, sturdier wall around 1975, he was there to take photos.

Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße – the Wall is replaced by a new, sturdier and higher Wall ca. 1975. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.
Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße – the wall is replaced by a new, sturdier, higher wall circa 1975. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.

Life in the border zone became routine, but there were surreal moments that interrupted the daily grind. One day, when he was walking home from S-Bahnhof Treptow, a tank stopped next to Herr Neumann and a soldier poked his head out, yelling, “Does anyone want to go to Neukölln?” Herr Neumann, caught completely off guard, did not take the soldier up on the offer. Later, he heard that the soldier had successfully driven his tank through the wall. Soon after, so-called “Spanish Riders” (anti-tank trenches) appeared on the death strip in Bouché Straße.

In one of his rare night photos, taken around 1975, Herr Neumann caught these trenches in particularly striking lighting. “I was fascinated by the way the light cast shadows in the form of crosses on the trenches,” he says softly.

Anti-tank trenches. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.
Anti-tank trenches photographed at night. Photo taken by Herbert Neumann.

People can adapt to even the most constraining situations: the Neumanns went about their daily lives as Grenzbürger (border residents). They worked hard, he at the factory and she as a typist writing instruction manuals for appliances. Sometimes they were awoken in the night by alarms that had been set off by the numerous escape attempts staged on their street. They adapted because they thought the situation would be permanent. “We never thought the wall would fall,” says Herr Neumann.

But despite their routine, the constraints were taking a toll on the Neumann’s psychological well-being — again, Herr Neumann speaks of how difficult it is to pinpoint the feeling. “As the years went by it got worse and worse, and at some point I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to stand it anymore,” he says.

The first time the Neumanns had an inkling that change was in the air was when they went to the demonstration on November 4, 1989, at Alexanderplatz. “We didn’t think the wall would fall but we did think it would be easier to see people we hadn’t been able to see before,” says Herr Neumann. Convinced that things in the GDR were about to change, he took out his camera and gleefully photographed the demonstration. And instead of developing the photos secretly in his bathtub, he brought the negatives to be developed in a store. But he had been too optimistic; the store claimed to have lost the film, and he never saw the photos again.

Five days later, just as they had witnessed its beginning, they watched the wall fall from their perch by the study window. They rushed down to celebrate the opening of the wall with thousands of other people at the nearby Puschkinallee. And, just as he documented its construction, Herr Neumann meticulously documented its dismantling, from the first crack that appeared in the West Wall to its eventual complete erasure, this time with glorious color film.

Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße – the first tear in the Wall ca. 1989. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
Corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße — the first tear in the wall circa 1989. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

Everything came full circle as they watched East German soldiers, the people who had constructed the wall, tear it down with heavy machinery. New trees were planted on the sidewalk and the GDR brown-gray colors of the buildings were painted over with splashes of bright color. One segment of the wall’s apparatus fell after the other, ending, finally, with the Hinterlandmauer in front of their door.

Sonja Neumann scavenging for pieces of the Wall at the corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße, ca. 1990. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
Sonja Neumann scavenging for pieces of the wall at the corner of Heidelberger and Bouché Straße, circa 1990. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

“If you forget the time in between, things are pretty much as they used to be before the wall,” Frau Neumann laughs. And it’s true, traces of the wall were erased so completely that people who live here now would hardly know the street was once divided. The brick trail marking where the wall once stood doesn’t mean much to the Neumanns, “after all, it only demarcates where the western wall stood,” says Herr Neumann dismissively. These days, the most drastic changes to the street are seen in the steady parade of supermarkets in the former death strip across the street.

The dismantling of the Wall in Bouché Straße around 1990. Photo by Herbert Neumann.
The dismantling of the wall in Bouché Straße around 1990. Photo by Herbert Neumann.

There’s a sense that the era when the wall stood is starting to seem farther and farther away. The initial euphoria, too, is gone; when the wall first fell, the neighbors from both sides of the street met several times at the local pub. But the Neumanns, who were never politically involved, soon stopped going to the meetings after they had been accused of being in the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, referred to as the SED), as the West Berliners were convinced that only high-ranking party officials had been allowed to live so close to the wall. The ritual of waving to one another across the street on New Year’s Eve, too, has ended.

During my second visit to the Neumanns, I can tell they are growing tired of talking about all this. While the wall has ballooned into a tourist-friendly symbol of Berlin over the past twenty-four years (evidenced by the numerous endeavours to painstakingly reconstruct the wall through sophisticated virtual reality simulations and mapping projects), for the Neumanns — who are now in their eighties — it’s over. Done.

Bouché Straße – from the Neumann’s window, 2014. Photo by Thalia Gigerenzer.
Bouché Straße from the Neumann’s window, 2014. Photo by Thalia Gigerenzer.

I ask them if they still have the uncanny, claustrophobic feeling of living so close to the wall. Something flickers in Frau Neumann’s eyes and she pauses, articulating her thoughts, “The feeling is always there, it was almost thirty years after all, and that doesn’t go away. Most of the time I don’t notice it, it runs in the background…but there are moments, when I cross the street to go to Edeka, when the wall is suddenly there again, and then I am so relieved that it’s gone. It no longer haunts me, but the memory lingers. It’s like a ghost, but thank God it can’t hurt me anymore.”

For Herr Neumann, the feeling has faded with time, but sometimes the memories catch him off guard. “When I go down the stairs to the front door and stand on the last stair, where the entrance was darkened for so many years by the wall, and [now] see that it’s light outside, I suddenly remember and think, thank God it’s light.”

Leaving the Neumanns, I step out onto Bouché Straße at night. The smooth asphalt reveals nothing of the corner’s turbulent history, but, with the shadowplays in Herr Neumann’s photographs still fresh in my mind, I notice the peculiar lighting. The east side of the street is bathed in the orange light of the street’s last two remaining death strip floodlights that tower high above the other streetlights. And still, the gas lamps on the west side of the street glow a soft white-yellow.

“In The Shadow of the Wall” first appeared in Slow Travel Berlin.