Bathrooms Behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin

I’ve chronicled a bit of my first visit to Berlin in 1975 elsewhere. My father and I spent three days there in May of 1975. During the late afternoon of our second day in the city we ventured over to East Berlin for some self-directed sightseeing, dinner, and a couple of beers. Admittedly the events of that evening are now distant memories, but a few moments stand out, and for years I've related those moments to anyone unable to escape my yammering on about my first trip to Europe. Those moments, those impressions have stayed with me, and I stand by my memory’s accuracy. Strangely, two public bathrooms occupy prominent places in that memory.

We crossed into East Berlin via train. It may have been the S-Bahn; I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is that all westerners were required to get off at the first station in East Berlin. At that station I got my first taste of life in a totalitarian state. I was not impressed. The station was frankly ramshackle. Unpainted sheets of plywood were visible in spots; the rest of the walls and ceiling were painted a sort of dingy green; and the station waiting room was dimly lighted at best. We had to surrender our passports to some uniformed official sitting behind what was probably once a ticket window. Sitting and waiting for 20 minutes or so for our names to be called and our passports to be returned to us was a bit unsettling, but the process seemed to be moving; names were called, passports were returned, and former train passengers were walking out of the building onto the streets of East Berlin.

At one point while waiting for my name to be called I decided to use the station's restroom. At the time it was fairly standard to have to put a 10 pfennig coin into a slot to open a stall door in the public restrooms in Germany. Upon entering the waiting area’s restroom I noticed that the customary coin slots had been taped over and crudely painted on each door was the declaration, in German of course, “It is now free!” Okay, so socialism marches on and I can take a leak for free in the people's toilet!

About ten minutes later when my name was called I went to the window to retrieve my passport. The East German official gave me the once over, looked again at my passport, and returned it to me without comment.  My father and I headed out to explore East Berlin. Once again, I was not impressed.

The contrast with West Berlin was immediate. The lack of commercial activity made the place seem dull. Even those buildings that were relatively new were uninspiring. We searched for a restaurant off the beaten path (always my father’s preference) and eventually happened upon a small restaurant/bar on the second floor of what looked like an old apartment building.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was lively enough although the crowd was small. We shared a table with a young couple from near Leipzig. They used the word “haupstadt” several times to refer to East Berlin and I got the feeling they were thrilled to be in the city that was the heart of the DDR. With little in the way of broad cultural experience, my reaction was to feel somewhat sorry for them. In my view East Berlin couldn’t hold a candle to West Berlin. But of course I saw the entire experience through the lens of my own values.

At one point (here it is again) I used the restaurant’s W.C. About 10 minutes later I did a random almost habitual check to make sure I had my passport. My father had stressed, needlessly, the importance of keeping track of it especially now that we were behind the Iron Curtain. Well, to my horror, I didn’t have it. My first instinct was to relieve myself of responsibility and claim it had been stolen. My father, whose cooler head prevailed, suggested I check the W.C. before we started demanding an investigation by the Volkspolizei. Good call. I nearly ran back to the bathroom and when I opened the door I saw my United States of America passport lying on the linoleum floor next to the toilet. I grabbed it (oblivious to any hygiene questions posed by its location) and put it back in my pants pocket thankful that the parade of horribles I’d imagined in the previous 90 seconds would not come to pass. I don’t know much about these things and didn’t at the time either, but I had to wonder how valuable an official American passport might have been to anyone living on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall in 1975.

My father loved to explore places he’d never been before so we walked around some more after dinner. The walk also helped my pulse return to a more normal rate. Time got away from us and we had to hustle to get back to the station in time to catch the last train back to West Berlin. For the rest of the trip I don’t think I went more than two minutes without checking to make sure I had my passport with me.