The tank boy and the scooter man - encounters in Eiskeller

August 13th 2011. 50 years since the day in 1961 when East German troops began building what was to become the Berlin wall.

While the great and the good are all making their appearances in the city centre, I decide to head out to Eiskeller, a former exclave of West Berlin. It was the source of a curious story, of schoolboy Erwin Schabe who, in September 1961, came home complaining that he'd been sent back by East German border guards while on his way to school along a narrow path that was surrounded by East German territory. His complaints ended up having rather wider consequences than he imagined. Today, of all days, seems like a good day to visit the place where it all happened, as well as a good chance to tell the story of what happened next...

It's 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrive in Schönwalde, the village to the immediate north of Eiskeller. It's a warm day, with a blue sky punctuated by occasional fluffy white clouds. The village is so idyllic that it's hard to imagine the shock which must have rocked it on this day 30 years ago, when villagers awoke to find themselves separated from the West Berlin bezirk of Spandau.

I follow along the canal which formed the defensive border with West Berlin. The actual border was a few hundred metres away, but running the wall along the canal to leave a large 'no man's land' in between clearly made more sense to East German authorities.
The path is lined with yellow flowers and every now and then, a shiny black beetle scuttles out in front of me. On the other side of the canal, large fields stretch out towards the trees that mark the edges of Schönwalde village.

I'm hoping to be able to get through from here to Eiskeller but, seeing there's no easy way through, I turn back towards the main road.

Coming to the end of the path, I find that a number of cars have arrived and parked where the path meets the main road. A lot of people seem to be milling around and I get the feeling it's some sort of event, though I can't work out what. It becomes more clear as I turn the corner and see a podium has been erected next to a wall memorial. Even though I'd decided to avoid commemorative events today, it seems that one has found me.

I wander over to the information posts next to the memorial. A blond haired man in a suit comes over and shakes hands with the woman next to me. "Hi, good to see you" he says. I start to move away as they exchange a few more words, partly to carry on reading the post and partly to avoid being mistaken for this woman's entourage.
"Hallo" says the man, offering his hand as he turns to me.
"Hallo" I reply cautiously as we shake hands. I have no idea who this man is, but now we've shaken hands, I figure I ought to at least stick around to find out, plus it feels like joining in this village's commemorations might be an interesting way to mark the occasion.

The man turns out to be Bodo Oehme, mayor of Schönwalde, who gets up at the podium and introduces the event with some thoughts on the way Germany has changed since the days of the wall. Then hands over to the woman I'd been standing next to. She is Saskia Ludwig, the CDU leader of the opposition in the Brandenburg Landtag and she carries on in a similar vein. It seems to be as much political posturing as commemoration and I have to admit my eyes glaze over a little during both their speeches. Then the researcher Klaus Schröder gives a speech on the history of the wall.

At the end, Herr Oehme announces that they're going to the local pub, the Schwanenkrug, for a drink. It sounds strangely tempting, if only because I'm curious about what characters I might get to meet, but having come all this way, I really want to get to Eiskeller.

I go along the Berliner Mauerweg, trying to orient myself to where the path would have been that Erwin Schabe took to school. I turn onto a small track leading towards the woods, where a man is sitting on a large Peugeot scooter.

"A man with a camera!" he exclaims as I go past, "What are you going to photograph?" I start to explain about the path and the wall. He interrupts. "Yes, the wall came along here" he says as he gestures across the field, "The path is just in the woods there."

He munches on a half roast duck as he talks, picking at the flesh with his fingers.

"A lot of this land was exchanged, you know?" he says. I say how I'd read about it. "Yes, you're from the generation that reads these things," he says, "we saw them".

He asks how old I think he is. Not wanting to create an awkward situation, I hazard a guess that he might be in his 60s.
"71!" he says proudly, before returning to his reminiscences. "The farmer up there" he continues, pointing vaguely, "runs everything on oil. No electricity at all! There are a few around like that. His son," he adds, "used to be escorted to school by a tank for a long time, along the path there."

And so we come back to what brought me here. Erwin Schabe's complaints, it turned out, were taken very seriously. When news got round that the border guards had been blocking Eiskeller's children on their way to school, the British military decided that an example had to be made. Erwin Schabe found himself being made the poster boy for Western freedom of movement, with newsreels and papers the world over showing him on his way to school accompanied by heavily armoured vehicles (they were, in fact, not technically tanks).
At the time, Eiskeller was more like a pair of exclaves, connected together by tracks, with another track connecting them to nearby Spandau. Eventually, like with Steinstücken, territory was exchanged so that Eiskeller was more solidly part of West Berlin.

The man, meanwhile, drifts onto other subjects. He asks where I'm from then, on finding out, tells me of his travels in the UK, visiting family and sightseeing. "I know where the Queen's father is buried, that I know!" he says with pride.

A woman with a husky comes past. "Ah, a husky!" he says. He offers the dog a piece of his duck leg, but the owner thinks it's a bad idea. She walks off towards the woods. The man turns his attention back to me.

"Do you want anything to eat?" he asks. I say I'm ok. "Do you want an apple?" he asks, switching to English. I say I'm ok. He pulls one out and gives it to me anyway. "Or maybe you want a banana" he suggests, as he switches back to German. I say that the apple is plenty, but he pulls off a banana from a bunch and gives me one of them. "You like strawberries?" he continues, pulling out a punnet. "Fresh from the field!" he says with a smile. I've already started to eat the apple and I have the banana in my other hand. "Go on, please, have some!" he insists. I see that he's not going to be satisfied until I've had a strawberry too, so I put the banana in my pocket and take some strawberries with my free hand.

A couple come past us on the track. "Hallöchen!" he says as they pass.
"Hallöchen" they say in return, as they carry on down the path towards the woods.
They come back the other way a short while later.
"You weren't gone for long!" the man says.
It turns out they went for a smoke. A conversation about smoking ensues.
"I used to smoke 100 a day," the man reveals, "but I gave up! Nicotine patches, that's what helped me, couldn't have done it without them."
He continues on to tell me about his diabetes and the huge syringe he carries on his bike for emergencies, so that the insulin can be administered through his clothes.

The woman with the husky comes back. The dog sniffs at the banana that's still in my hand.
"He'll eat anything" the woman comments.
"Would he like a strawberry?" the scooter man asks. He'd locked up his box in preparation to leave before the couple arrived, but now he opens it again and takes out a strawberry. The dog looks at him expectantly for a moment before the man feeds it to him.
"How about a banana?" he says, peeling a banana and breaking off a piece for the dog. The dog is not so impressed.
"He spat it out!" laughs the other man.

With that, both the husky woman and the couple make their getaway. The man closes the box on his scooter again and gets ready to head off.

"What is it they say in America - see you later alligator?" he says before continuing "I saw alligators, in the USA. Not in Florida, in South Carolina." It almost seems like he's going to launch into another story, but no, he's really going. He wishes me a pleasant trip home, then puts on his helmet, gets on his scooter and rides off down the track towards the road.

As for Erwin Schabe, boys will be boys. Years later, he admitted that he'd made up the story about being bothered by the guards because he didn't want to go to school. Of course, having a pair of armoured vehicles waiting for him every morning no doubt meant that skipping school suddenly got a whole lot harder. Fate works in funny ways sometimes.

Spandau, then take the 671 bus in the direction of 'Paaren im Glien' to the stop Schönwalde Steinerne Brücke. Check for the most current details and timetables!
You can also take a Regional Express train to Falkensee and take the 651 from there (in the direction of Fliegersiedlung). Again, check for the latest!
Eiskeller 13587 Berlin

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