Memories of Checkpoint Charlie
How I Came to Own The Most Famous Sign in History
It was June 22, 1990, a day I will never forget. It was a special day in Berlin, there was to be a large ceremony at the former border crossing between East and West Berlin called “Checkpoint Charlie.” This was the day the checkpoint was to be officially dismantled and the Allied soldiers (American, British and French) who had guarded the checkpoint since 1961 would go home, never to return.
The barracks the guards kept watch from was to be lifted with a crane, placed on the back of a flatbed truck and taken to an American military base in a Northern neighborhood of Berlin and kept as a memento in a military museum.
I owned a shop 50 yards from the Checkpoint, it was a souvenir shop named “After The Fall.” We sold T-Shirts silk-screened with graffiti from the Berlin Wall to tourists visiting Berlin from all over the world. I had been eyeing the famous sign at Checkpoint Charlie since I opened the shop 6 months earlier. While everyone else was hacking away at the actual Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels in order to collect chunks of the wall as souvenirs, I coveted the actual sign which hung proudly over the Checkpoint.
One side of the sign said “You Are Leaving the American Sector” (Y.A.L.T.A.S.) in 4 languages, while the other side of the sign said “You Are Entering The American Sector.”
Much to my great surprise and glee, when the Allies marched away that day with the barracks on a truck, they left behind the Y.A.L.T.A.S. sign. From that day on there were no longer Allied military guards stationed at the Checkpoint round the clock. There were, however, still East German border guards still manning the border crossing on the Eastern side of the wall, but more about that later.
So that day my plan was hatched. I was going to show up in the middle of the night with a rented truck, two metal saws and 3 friends. We were going to saw down the sign from its wooden posts and abscond with the sign before daybreak.
I rented a truck from the only truck rental business in Berlin at the time Robben & Wientjes. Anyone who lived in Berlin during this time will remember seeing the ubiquitous Robben & Wientjes box trucks all over the city with their memorable seal logo. They were the only game in town.
We waited up until 2am before making our move. We were nervous about hitting Checkpoint Charlie at first because we knew the East German border guards were still there. And these guys were armed with legit machine guns, they were no joke.
When we arrived at the Checkpoint, it was deserted just as we had hoped… “All quiet on the Western Front.” We jumped out of the truck and started sawing those posts as quickly as we could. It was taking way longer than we had envisioned, man those posts were solid.
Out of the blue we suddenly spot two East German border guards approaching us from the East. Holy Scheisse, Batman! We quickly stash the saws in the back of the truck, I grab a camera, and speaking loudly in English, we pretend to be photographing each other in front of the sign. Apparently, East German border patrolmen were not selected for their high IQ’s because they immediately bought our cover story and even offered to take a picture with all of us. I somehow convinced them to let us take a picture with them and us in it. You’re going to just have to believe me that such a picture actually existed, although after that night I never actually saw the photo; it was in my friend’s camera and well, you know how that goes, it was way before the days of digital photos.
After the guards walked away and rounded a corner, we fetched the saws and frantically resumed our efforts. Within minutes the sign toppled over onto the top of the truck. No time to maneuver it into the cargo hold. We hopped in the truck and drove off to a safer location, from which we lowered the sign off the roof and into the back of the truck.
We drove back to my apartment, which was on the 4th floor of a walkup building in Neukoeln. I still remember the address, Anzengruber Str. 5. It was an old, pre-war building. So old in fact that I heated that apartment by burning coal bricks in an old furnace in my apartment. I lived next door to a guy named Markus, who was a German-English translator and I’m almost sure he still lives in that exact same apartment, almost 30 years later. If you stop by, tell him I say hi, he’ll verify my story.
I kept that sign in my apartment for another 4 years, at which time I decided to move back to New York City. I wrapped the sign in fake art, just in case customs came across it, then packed it into a shipping container with all my furniture and shipped it to the States.
I’ve held onto that sign ever since, schlepping it from apartment to apartment, office to office over the years. In 2010, I moved from New York to Los Angeles and the sign came with me. Currently the sign is wall-mounted in my living room where it give me great pleasure multiple times each day as I walk under it.
In September 2013, The Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s most prestigious newspapers, found out about my story and interviewed me here in Los Angeles. Here’s the photo they took of me with the sign in my garage before we had it hung:
Here’s the article they wrote in case you want to read it. Warning: You Are Entering The German Language…
Another newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung (BZ), more like the New York Post than the New York Times, picked up the story and told its readers I was willing to sell the sign back to Berlin for the lofty sum of 1 Million Euros.
Berlin’s Mayor at the time, Klaus Woworeit, said they’re not paying a Pfennig for the sign back.
I’m assuming I’m not getting any juicy offers and that our children will be inheriting the sign (it comes with the house).
Sadly, by then I doubt anyone will remember The Cold War, the division of Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie and what was, at the time, the most famous sign in the world.
“YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR”