Memories of love across the divide 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall
As Bob Hind glances out across the shrubbery to his front garden wall, rather surprisingly, it brings back memories of a love affair carried out at the geographical heart of the Cold War more than three decades ago.
Many of you will know Bob from our nostalgia pages, he is a well-known and respected local historian.
As the world marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bob, now 68, recalls his years spent crossing the wall that physically and ideologically divided Germany from 1961 to 1989.
It all began in 1986 when Bob, a then-divorced 35-year-old father-of-one, met 20-year-old German medical student Corinna Walgar while he was working as a guard at Woking railway station.
A few weeks later he received an invitation to visit her in Berlin.
Here he takes up the story: ‘In those days there was no Channel Tunnel but there was an international train service from London Liverpool Street to Warsaw via Harwich.
‘There followed a ferry to the Hook of Holland and a train across Holland to Berlin Zoo. Passengers going to Berlin Zoo were blocked from entering the front three cars.
‘When they arrived at Berlin Zoo the three cars were detached and then travelled onward across the Iron Curtain to Warsaw.
‘Over the ensuing three years I made the journey about eight times and every trip was like travelling during the Second World War’, says Bob, ‘especially when passing through the East German section.’
Leaving his flat in Elphinstone Road, Southsea, at 6pm Bob would arrive in Berlin Zoo 24 hours later to be met by Corinna.
The most exciting stop, for Bob, was Helmstedt, on the border of East and West Germany, where the train entered a compound.
‘Here Stasi boarded the train’, says Bob. ‘They were very strict East German police who wore smart green uniforms. They travelled on the train checking passports and issuing visas.
‘West Berlin at that time was a very exciting city to be in and somewhat mysterious when arriving at checkpoints. Checkpoint Charlie was perhaps the most famous crossing. This was where the free part of West Berlin crossed to East Berlin to arrive in Alexanderplatz. I crossed here several times.
‘I could feel the tension when we passed the East Berlin border guards. In some places it felt as though the war had only just ended, it was so sparse. There was a railway station the size of Waterloo which stood destroyed and empty from the bombing.’
One of the most worrying incidents happened in a back street bar that Corinna took him to. She said to him, ‘Whatever you do Bob, just agree with what is being said. They will know you are English when overhearing you speak.’
To Bob’s horror, he discovered it was a pro-Nazi bar and, always a dapper dresser, his clothes gave him away as an English gent as soon as he entered.
He says: ‘Everyone was friendly and spoke English but politics soon came to the fore. Two of the men sat uninvited at our table.
“So, where are you from in England?” one asked.
“Portsmouth” I replied. “A large naval city in the south.” “Did we do damage in the war?” the other asked.
‘I told them we had indeed been bombed, but nowhere as bad as Berlin had been. “Do you know”, he continued, “if you had joined with us at the start of the war we could have beaten everyone including the Russians and had a joint Germanic/ UK empire”
‘I put to him that many more would have died if we had joined forces. I wanted to, but dare not, bring up concentration camps. I don’t think I would have got out of the bar alive.’
On his weekends with Corinna Bob also visited the Olympic Stadium where Hitler made many hate-filled speeches and where the black American athlete Jessie Owens was such a success.
The homeward trips were the most exciting for Bob, especially at night. He says: ‘I would leave Berlin about 7pm and when the train arrived again at the compound in Helmstadt it was like something from the Great Escape film.
‘Dogs could be heard barking underneath the train and the Stasi shouting “Raus, raus!”
‘They were on the look-out for East Germans trying to escape. Perhaps they were under the train or on checking visas they had done a runner.
‘It was all very worrying but exciting at the same time.’
Bob arrived for one of his final visits to see Corinna two days after the wall came down.
His face lights up as he says: ‘There was great joy in the city even two days later.
‘We in the UK could never in a month of Sundays know what it must have been like to be captured in a city.
‘There were parts of the wall lying all over the place so I purchased a haversack and filled it with bits of the wall.
‘They now make up part of the wall in my front garden.’
Corinna, who was studying to be a doctor and could speak five languages, visited Bob several times in Southsea.
They lost touch after she graduated and went off to China to study. But Bob has never forgotten his Cold War love.