Weekend in Potsdam   3 comments

Potsdam House

 

Dear BJ,

One of the most interesting memories I have of our time stationed in Berlin during the early 1970s was when my father was the weekend Duty Officer at the Potsdam house in East Germany. I would like to share the logistics involved in moving a family of eight from the free West side to Potsdam. Provide some impressions of East Germany. And finally, I would like to describe the Potsdam house. I know it was a chore for my Mom to get us ready and extra work for the administrative staff to cut the orders but these special trips will always remain in my mind forever.

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My father, Lt. Col. William A, Burhans, USAF retired, was assigned to the United States Military Liaison Mission (USMLM) in the summer of 1971. While he was based in Berlin at the mission, the Potsdam house in East Germany was the representational Headquarters and as such was manned by the US military 24/7. One of his assigned duties was to man the Potsdam house as Duty Officer on the weekends. Our family had to pack up and be over at the mission in Berlin Friday afternoon and transfer to a military vehicle to start the journey to East Germany. The mission was using Ford Galaxy 500s to tour in the GDR those years and it took two vehicles to haul us out there. Once the head count was complete and required passes accounted for we were able to start our journey.

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The next stop was the freedom bridge. The Glenicke Brucke was a working military crossing point into the GDR that was the site of a several famous prisoner exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. There was no guard shack on the West approach and the first barriers became visible at the midpoint of the bridge. Long strands of rusty barbed wire were strung over everything in sight. Jersey barriers formed a serpentine approach to the East end of the bridge. Once we cleared the barriers we had to wait for a sliding gate to open then approach a weighted cross arm. The Soviet guard shack was on the left side of the bridge as we stopped at the barrier and an East German shack was manned on the right side. My father proceeded into the Soviet guard shack with our passes while we sat anxiously in the car like gold fish under the creepy scrutiny of armed Soviet and East German conscripts.

Once we cleared the checkpoint and drove into the East it felt like we stepped back in time and it was apparent that we were in a different world. The first indication was a pall of gritty coal smoke that permeated every sense of the body. The horizon and entire landscape became grey and it immediately felt like the world was smaller. One of the sites that I clearly remember is a group of little old ladies wearing head scarves armed with brooms made from tree twigs bound to a handle sweeping the street in front a gated house. The grey buildings on the side of the road were scarred with bullets holes and tangled electric wires were strung overhead for the trolleys. All of the cars seemed dilapidated and spewed diesel exhaust into the already polluted air. At the turn off of the highway there was a cobbled together shack manned 24 hours a day by the Volks Polizei who tracked the comings and goings of the mission members. We used it as a waypoint to start searching for a glimpse of the American flag. The first child to see the flag won, but we all felt a real sense of relief and pride knowing that we were soon going to be back on American held ground.
The end of the road revealed a majestic 4.5 acre complex on the Lehnitzsee. The circular driveway approached a four story white building with a red tiled roof. The grand entrance off the foyer was open to two stories and flanked by two staircases. There was a large ball room on the first floor with raised ceilings. It felt like we had stepped back in time. We really felt like royalty when we visited Potsdam. The house was staffed and I clearly remember Gudi and Dagmar, two statuesque East German women who prepared and served the meals and cleaned the house. There is a good chance they passed information to the Soviets and East German Stasi. The formal dining room’s windows extended from floor to ceiling revealed a striking view of the Lehnitzsee. I loved having dinner there on Sunday afternoon. It seemed like a formal dining experience. The table was fully set and the first course was usually egg drop soup presented in a tureen. We were served the best schnitzel along with platters of the amazing fried potatoes and purple cabbage that only the Germans know how to make. Potsdam was also the first place I ever tried goose or rabbit and for some magical reason the food was always excellent.

There was always something interesting to see or do while we were visiting Potsdam. On the 3rd floor was a grand game room filled with a full sized pool table. The enlisted drivers had papered the wall with Playboy centerfolds. All of the movies that cycled through AFN theatres in Berlin played in the ball room at Potsdam too. I remember watching such classics as Yog monster from space, My Name is Trinity and my first R rated movie The Last Tango in Paris there. For some reason the staircase to the 4th floor was blocked off, I remember lots of antennas on the roof perhaps there were some radios up there. We found time to play soccer and hide and seek grounds and one winter we even got to skate on the lake when it froze over. We always had a great family experience at Potsdam.

My family had several moves after our assignment in Berlin but that is the city I came of age in. The experiences I had in West Germany were colorful and exciting and I will always remember them fondly. The trips to the East side however were quite different; they were serious, sobering journeys that helped me realize why my father was assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe. I for one am very glad the wall came down, but I am also proud to say I got to visit an unforgettable bastion of freedom in the middle of the GDR. I recommend a visit to: http://www.usmlm.org/, for pictures of the house at Potsdam, the men that manned it, and the Mission.

William A Burhans Jr
BAHS class of 1976

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Posted June 9, 2013 by Balvah in Uncategorized

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3 responses to “Weekend in Potsdam

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  1. Hello Bill Burhans Jr.,

    My father is Gerald H Gilbert, Capt. USAF – retired and was part of the USMLM during the same time as Mr Burhans father. I remember the Burhans lived at the other end of Thanner Pfad – we lived in #11- the street we lived on in West Berlin. I am younger than Bill Jr. but the descriptions in his letter are spot on. It was an amazing opportunity and I am so thankful that I was able to experience this historic time in our lives, first hand. I have seen the Berlin Wall in person, I have been detained at Check Point Charlie…we would play with the swans at the lake behind the Potsdam house and my sister and I would slide down the grand front staircase on pillow cases…normal things done in an extra-ordinary setting and time.

    Thank you for reminding me of how fortunate I am to have lived this life.

    Sincerely,
    Paul G. Gilbert

    • Hello Paul,
      I remember your family well. Your Mother and Father were our sponsors when we arrived in Berlin. They had food set up in the house and made us feel really welcome. I remember your sister and wonder if you are younger than she is. We were blessed with opportunity that not many folks had. I will never forget how we sought to be the first to see the American flag flying at the Potsdam house. I am really touched by your comments and very happy that you took time to post them. If you don’y mind me asking, how to you run across this post?
      Bill

      • Hi Bill,
        I am the youngest of the 4 – Michael, Caren, Julie and me – aka Beaver. I found your wonderful website when I was searching images of “the house”. I remember Dagmar trying to teach my sister and me German and the amazing 4th of July parties. If you have other photos, I would love to see them.
        Thanks,
        Paul

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