Time Travel

My Favorite Easter: East Berlin, 1964

Memories of spending the holiday behind the Iron Curtain.

Mark McMahon/Getty

I have celebrated all but one of the Easters of my life at home in New York, but the exception is what I most recall whenever the season approaches. The year was 1964 and I was traveling through Germany gathering material for a cookbook. I spent most of Holy Week in Munich and left for Berlin the Saturday before Easter, planning to be in the then-walled-off and exotic East Berlin for the holiday.

My main purpose was to research traditional Easter foods, among them the special sweet yeast breads (Osterfladen), holiday hams (Osterschinken), the so-called round white Easter egg radishes cut in spiral curls and the dazzlement of decorated chocolates. Most especially, I wanted to try versions of the green springtime soup (Frühlingssuppe) that is a favorite on Holy (or Green) Thursday. This beautifully creamy leaf-green soup most authentically includes a whip of spinach, watercress, lettuce, parsley, chives, the sour grass that is sorrel and plenty of delicately aromatic chervil. It is bound with béchamel and egg yolk, and is garnished with slices of hard-boiled eggs. (I was fortunate to get an authentic recipe that I included in my book, The German Cookbook.)

In addition, I was interested in the whole Easter week observance, an especially serious and somber one in the mostly Catholic region of Bavaria. The lively and lyrical Munich, I knew turned somewhat restrained during that week. Many statues and icons in the beautiful Gothic churches were shrouded in cloth, to be unfurled only just before Easter Sunday. The altars were banked with fragrant bouquets of hyacinths, tulips and tuberoses and on the floors in front, were rows of glass bowls filled with water of different colors, each backed by a burning candle, creating a flickering rainbow.

The tempting Konditorein (pastry shops) offered the beloved Easter breads, plain or studded with raisins and citron and in standard loaves or in forms of doves, eggs and rabbits. Similarly, and even more enticingly, confectioners’ shop windows displayed breathtaking chocolate sculptures. There were eggs in all sizes, plus rabbits, chicks and giant roosters with arched tail feathers magically formed of ruffled ribbons of chocolate. Many of the delicacies were covered with sugar pussy willows (Kätzchen), the heralder of spring in Germany. So much so that the distinctive fuzzy branches are given out to worshippers on Palm Sunday (Palmensonntag) instead of the palms that are traditional here in the United States.

Good or Grieving Friday (Karfreitag) was the most sobering day of all. In front of every museum, most shops and other sights was a sign announcing geschlossen (Closed). Never have I learned the meaning of a foreign word so quickly, and never in my life have I been so geschlossened. Perhaps for visitors or non-observers, movie theaters were open and so I spent Good Friday afternoon watching Fredric March magnificently play a targeted president in the film, Seven Days in May. Expecting captions in German, I was surprised that the film was actually dubbed. The language sounded surprisingly convincing coming from the all-star mouths of March, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and even the very non-Nordic looking Ava Gardner.

When I arrived in West Berlin on the Saturday evening before Easter, the city was aglow with activity. The bars, glassed-in cafes, restaurants and streets were bustling. Waking early to a chorus of pealing church bells, I was disappointed at the weather—all looked gray and cold with a wet snow falling intermittently. After a quick breakfast, I took a taxi to the famed Checkpoint Charlie and after about half-an-hour of document checking and stamping and changing currency, I crossed the border, happy to be wearing thick, warm clothing.

As soon as I began walking along broad avenues and their narrow off-shoots, I felt as though I had entered another world. Where West Berlin was alive and humming, East Berlin was gray and drab. The weather even seemed somehow more raw and penetrating, the wet snow even wetter.

No shops were open and as I rode the metro to the Pergamon Museum, I noticed passengers dressed warmly and cleanly, if neither colorfully nor fashionably. But the train cars were simply gorgeous. Being very old, they were made of golden oak and all metal fittings were of gleaming, immaculately polished brass. I suppose all have been replaced by modern wonders, but I hope some of these cars were salvaged and refitted as small, romantic bars or cafes.

The Pergamon Museum proved to be colder inside than the outdoors and not a single electric light shone on any exhibits, including the magnificent altar after which the museum is named.

Then came time for a late lunch. I was aware that as in all Iron Curtains countries, there would be a restaurant representing each of the other republics in the union: i.e., Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia, Moscva, Praha, Berlin, Belgrade, Warsaw and, for good communist measure, Peking. (If there was an Albanian outpost, I missed it.)

I chose Budapest, thinking it the best possibility for good food and also because I figured goulash and fiery Szeged paprika would be warming. I found myself in a huge, bright, humming dining room. Being alone, I was seated as a single with a family that was about to order dessert. Having more or less introduced myself and my work in a mishmash of German and English, I asked what they had eaten. They said that because of the expense, they had dinner at home but for the festive holiday they came out for dessert.

They were also surprisingly open about expressing their dissatisfaction with the regime in power, and like the taxi driver who finally took me back to Checkpoint Charlie, said that everything in East Berlin was “todt”—dead. Having about $30 left in the East Berlin currency, and knowing it was useless elsewhere, I gave it to the cab driver. An hour later I was back at the luxurious Hotel Adlon, wondering if I had imagined the overall chill on the other side of that infamous wall.