More Cold War Stories

Berlin -- Two blocks from my front door, on a Bethaniendamm traffic island behind St. Thomas Church in Kreuzberg, is a small but thriving fruit and vegetable garden with a two story, jerry-built garden house and several arbors that provide seating and shade for two families that tend to the plot. A historical oddity, it is also a much-photographed tourist attraction.

The founder of the garden, Osman Kalin, came from Anatolia to West Berlin six decades ago. In the 1980s, he lived in a nearby apartment building overlooking the Berlin wall, which extended the length of Bethaniendamm. As he looked down on the East German security patrols going back and forth in the death strip, he noticed below him a junk-filled notch of land belonging to East Berlin that the wall by-passed, apparently because enclosing it would have ruined observation lines from the watch towers. On his own initiative, he cleared the plot and started a garden against the wall, technically in East German territory but on the West Berlin side of the daunting structure.

He soon got visits from the East Berlin border police, who suspected the garden might be a ruse for a tunneling effort. Throwing his Turkish passport at their feet, the Anatolian convinced them it was not. They subsequently monitored the height of his sunflowers but the central committee of the SED ruling party decided he was not worth the trouble of continually crossing the border to check on him.

The garden became an accepted part of the neighborhood. Osman Kalin and his wife were befriended by the pastor of the neighboring St. Thomas church, who offered them a reliable water supply. The pastor rescued them one night from a fire that destroyed their hut, whereupon they started coming over to the church (which emphasizes social outreach) for coffee.

The garden thrived. Osman Kalin toted excess vegetables in a wagon over to the Turkish Market on Maybachufer.

But then a neighbor, Mustafa Akyol, took over part of the land Kamil was not using. Disagreements ensued. The two Turkish neighbors ironically put up a dividing fence between them, perpendicular to the dividing wall that separated the Eastern world from the Western.

After the Berlin wall came down, the plot was eventually transferred to the borough of Kreuzberg. The mayor could have evicted the gardeners, but instead gave them a "permit of illegal occupation."

Osman Kalin and Mustafa Akyol have turned the plot over to their descendants; the gardens have never looked better.