Ex-Berliner recalls Kennedy’s death

J. Elke Ertle was a Berlin teenager when John F. Kennedy’s death plunged West Berlin into depression and despair. From the end of World War II in 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin was physically divided. In 1961, the East German government, with Soviet backing, surrounded West Berlin with a 12-foot wall. In June 1963, Kennedy gave a historic speech in which he expressed admiration for those who had remained in the tiny capitalist island despite being surrounded by a communist sea.

Excerpt from Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom

Elke writes, “My eighteenth birthday fell on a Thursday. I didn’t celebrate until the following afternoon, November 22. Three girlfriends came for a Kaffeeklatsch and had barely left when the phone rang. It was my American friend. I assumed he wanted to wish me a happy birthday. Instead he asked, “Have you heard the news?”

“What news?”

“President Kennedy has been shot!”

A long silence. I tried to comprehend.

“President Kennedy? When?”

“Less than half hour ago.”

“Shot at? Or shot dead?”

My friend shared what he knew. “Go and turn on the TV,” he said. We quickly said good-bye, and I flicked on the set. In disbelief, I watched as the tragedy in Dallas unfolded. Although the shooting had occurred shortly after noon Texas-time, it was already evening in Berlin. Within hours, thousands of Berliners gathered in the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz in front of city hall where John F. Kennedy had spoken only five months earlier. In a broadcast, the Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, read,

“Eine Flamme ist erloschen. Erloschen fuer alle Menschen, die auf einen gerechten Frieden hoffen und auf ein besseres Leben. Die Welt ist an diesem Abend sehr viel aermer geworden. (A flame has gone out. Gone out for all people who hope for a just peace and a better life. The world has grown considerably poorer this evening.)” 

The following afternoon, my friends and I joined the 15,000 students who walked in silence from the Airlift Memorial to the Schoeneberger Rathaus. We marched behind a banner that read Wir haben einen Freund verloren — We have lost a friend.

On the day of Kennedy’s state funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, 250,000 of us gathered in front of Berlin’s city hall. The Rudolph-Wilde-Platz was renamed John-F.-Kennedy Platz. In West Berlin, where the East-West confrontation could be felt more than anywhere else in the world, the grief for Kennedy was particularly deep. John F. Kennedy had been our hero. Our loss was personal.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of http://www.walled-in-berlin.com. Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.





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