A Berlinerin’s Story

by Johanna Lawler - wife of John Lawler (64-66)

From the May, 2008 Newsletter

I was born in an air-raid-shelter in Berlin during a bombing raid.  Luckily, I don’t remember any of it.  My parents had moved from Vienna (their home town) to Berlin in 1933 because my father, a PhD electrical engineer, was not able to find a job in Vienna.  Historically speaking, it was one heck of a time for them to relocate to Germany!

My earliest recollection was that we were living in a very small town by the name of Rossla in the Harz Mountains in central Germany.  My father did not have to go and fight in the war.  He and a handful of other engineers were working in a secret location on developing new-generation, electric-propulsion systems for submarines. All very hush-hush, but sure enough, that’s where I had my very first encounter with Americans.

In the middle of the night, tanks moved into the quiet streets of that small village.  Fortunately, they were American – not Russian.  That came later.  The day after they arrived, we were peering over our garden fence and those kind young American tankers tossed oranges to us children.  I had never seen an orange before and bit right into it!  Sure didn’t like the taste until my mother – overjoyed with the rare gift – peeled it for me.  The second thing I remember the Americans doing was playing football and baseball.  It was all very interesting and amusing for the locals.

One day the Americans pulled out, heading back toward the West.  The Russians arrived early the next day from the East.  In stark contrast to the friendly, courteous and well-equipped Americans, the peasant troops straggled in with pony carts and shabby uniforms and took over our home for themselves.  Fortunately, my family was never mistreated by them.  In fact, they had my father show them how the water could be made to (magically) appear from the faucets.  The first time they witnessed it, they clapped their hands and ran around to the other side of the wall, trying to see where it had come from!

Very shortly after the war, my father, an accomplished research engineer, was picked up by Russian agents who were looking for “assets” to remove to the motherland.  They took him away for interrogation but, because he had a terrible head cold and hacking cough at the time (which he played to the hilt during his “interview”), the Russians released him, possibly to avoid catching whatever he had!  We dodged a bullet there!

After the war my father found a low-level engineering job and we moved to Erfurt, in what was then, of course, East Germany, for a few years.  When things started to get politically uncomfortable and my father saw the communist handwriting on the wall, we fled back to West Berlin.  My mother, brother and I took the midnight train to West Berlin, and my father caught it at the very last minute, getting on the last car of the train.  A family traveling together would have been stopped.  I thought the whole thing was very exciting! My parents must have had other ideas until we were safely in West Berlin.  In fact, the day following our departure, when my father didn’t show up for work and my brother missed school, the police went to our home trying to locate us!

We arrived back in Berlin in 1950, and my father returned to his pre-war position with AEG (a huge corporation roughly equivalent to GE in the US).  We found a lovely apartment in Schmargendorf (near the Grunewald, between the American Army Headquarters and PX and the beginning of the Kurfürstendamm).  We had a good life there and it remained my family’s home for the next 40 years.  After having lived with food shortages in East Germany for a few years, I remember that all I wanted for my first Christmas in bountiful Berlin was a large sausage. My brother got a yummy chunk of cheese! 

I certainly remember the day The Wall went up.  We all went down to watch the East German soldiers putting the first blocks and barbed wire barriers in place.  It was a chilling sight, as you can imagine.  We soon learned to live with the situation and our everyday lives slowly returned to normal.  There was always a bit of subconscious stress, but we didn’t let it rule us.  Berlin was still a great place for me to grow up.

After finishing high school and a few semesters at the Free University, I got a job at the RTO (the Army’s Rail Transportation Office, the Duty Train’s terminus) as a secretary.  Having studied English in school, I really thought I knew it well, until I had my first conversation with an American!  It sure didn’t sound like English to me!  But I learned, and when I got a better job as the Tempelhof education officer’s secretary a few years later, I was reasonably fluent.

The education officer (Mr. White) was great to work for, even though he had the habit of surprising everybody who walked into the reception area (my office) by calling most of them by their name, even though he was in the adjoining office!  He had a mirror in a corner of my office where he could see the door from his desk.  I guess he thought that was funny.  It was a very people-oriented job and I enjoyed meeting and helping the Airmen who were either working on University of Maryland courses or getting information on colleges in the States.  I also coached one of the young American U of M German 101 teachers on how to pronounce the words in the lessons he was about to “teach” that evening!  (For those of you who may have taken his classes, as John did, you now know “the rest of the story”!)

John and I met while he was taking his U of M classes and, three weeks after we met, we decided to get married!  Of course it took another three weeks for all the Air Force paperwork to get done, but April 1st, l966 was the big day.  (Yup, April Fool’s Day). 

We left Berlin together in June, 1966 and went directly to California for John to finish his degree.  He graduated from Berkeley with a major in German.  He had a live-in tutor.  I worked as a secretary while John was studying.  While my father had earned his PhD, I was credited with a PHT – “Put Hubby Through”! 

I had no problem getting adjusted to living in the US.  Years later, when John was commissioned in the Navy and made flying jets his career, we moved every 2 to 3 years and I enjoyed that too.  The only thing we didn’t much enjoy were the 6 to 8 month-long separations during his “cruises”.  But that was part of  the deal and we never regretted it.  It gave us the wonderful opportunity to make great friends and eventually be stationed in Italy, Belgium and Germany again.  We traveled a lot, saw every capitol of every NATO country and enjoyed the military life.  We were stationed in Stuttgart when The Wall fell!  I had visited my mother in Berlin just one week prior to the fall and there was no inkling that it was about to happen.  Of course, we closely watched the unfolding events from our home in Stuttgart where John was stationed as a staff officer with EUCOM (European Command, the US headquarters for all forces in Europe). 

Now that we are both retired, we are “sun-birds”.  We enjoy Florida (our main home) in the winter, but escape the heat and humidity and go to Germany, Austria and Switzerland every summer.  Last year, for the first time, we spent four months in Europe doing “home exchanges”.  (You can see us and our home at www.homeforexchange.com, Property ID 13788 on the “advanced search” page).  Since it worked out so well, we’ll continue doing that.  Luckily for me, John loves Europe and, since he is fluent in German and pretty darned good in French, we enjoy living part of our lives there.  His Russian has “gone dormant” as he says, so we have no plan to exchange homes in that area of the world.

So, those are the some of the memories of this Berlinerin.  I always found it extremely interesting to ponder the steps that brought our lives into focus – John being trained as a Russian linguist for duty with the 6912th, and me being trained and working in the language that allowed us to run into each other (and stick!).  Although having been born an Austrian in Germany, I’ve been associated with Americans in one way or another all my life.  I would never change a minute of my experience!

Johanna & John - Alaska - 2006

© 2008, The Berlin Island Association

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