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Heroes Welcome

Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.

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Katharin Brandt lived in Friedenau during the blockade, in what was once the American zone. She lives in the same district today and recalls that in the first weeks of the blockade, her greatest fear was that the Americans would abandon the city to the Russians. "I remember that in the night when I heard trucks moving in the streets, I thought--we all thought--Oh, now maybe the Western allies are moving out of Berlin," she says. Brandt was a secretary in the U.S. liaison office of the Kommandatura, the four-power military administration that governed the city. The liaison offices were located in the Russian sector--in the same building as the city's elected government--and Brandt remembers the violence that terrorized Berliners as the city divided.

"There were riots in the streets," she says. "When Parliament was in session, the Russians mobilized workers to go out in the streets, brought in by trucks. They tried to get into the Stadthaus and disturb the session of the Parliament--they have done that several times before the blockade started."

Waltraud Kuck doesn't remember fear, only hunger. She was an 18-year-old girl in the "working brigade" that built Tegel Airport in the French zone. She earned 15 marks a week and one hot meal a day, which was her only meal. The only time she could forget her hunger, she says, was when she was dancing, and she went out nearly every night. "Even today, I'm not able to throw a bit of bread away," says Kuck.

"The majority of the people there were clearing the ground with shovels. And I was lucky. I was responsible for preparation work, for measurements and things like that," Kuck says through a translator. "The other young girls who really had to work hard--they had blisters on their hands.

"On the working brigade, the atmosphere was great," she continues. "Much better than today. Everybody was helping each other. We had the feeling that things would improve." She also remembers that her father quit smoking because on the black market "with cigarettes you could pay for everything," that some of the young boys who unloaded the aircraft carried sacks of flour that weighed more than they did, and that whenever she and her friends heard an airplane overhead, they would call to it, "Airplane! Please drop some chocolate!"

"Those who lived in this time have a knowledge about it and they will never forget. But it's up to people like me to bring this subject into the city," says Heinz-Gerd Reese, a large, friendly administrator in the city government.

Reese is also the director of Berlin's Airlift Foundation, which the city founded in 1959 to give assistance to the families of the 78 British and American men who died in the airlift. Part of his job as director has been to oversee the stipends and scholarships that are still paid to some of the widows and children. But Reese, who has a zest for public relations, has also been working since 1992 in anticipation of this year's million-dollar celebration. In the elegant Berlin Rathaus, Reese describes his plans.

"I want to shake this city," he says. Berliners who buy tickets to an open air concert in the city this month are making a donation to CARE Germany. The ticket itself is a return address label--to be filled out like a raffle ticket--that will be affixed to a package from CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). "All the CARE parcels will be flown out of Berlin into somewhere where people need it," explains Reese. "Every parcel gets a name so the receiver knows from whom it comes. We want to show that the Berliners have not forgotten what was done for them, and we reverse the airlift to other parts of the world."

This June 27 and 28, the foundation will sponsor an open house at Tempelhof Airport, which will coincide with the opening of the Allied Museum located near the former U.S. military headquarters, and will donate 30 flights around Berlin in a C-54--"a candy bomber," says Reese.

Reese has asked all the Berlin hotels to place on their guests' pillows little chocolate airplanes. He has arranged a parade of flying boats on the Havel River, where British Sunderlands delivered salt, an international conference of scholars and airlift contemporaries, airshows, high school band competitions, and fireworks displays. For 11 months, "we'll cook it," says Reese, "until the last event on the 12th of May 1999, we'll have a military concert in the Olympic Stadium to honor the veterans. They will march in at the gate and then to their seats. And I hope there will be 60,000 Berliners in the Olympic Stadium."

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