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... ich bin ein Berliner

June 30th, 2003, I went to the festival marking the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s speech in front of the Schöneberg city hall. It’s events like this which makes living in Berlin so special. Even though today’s occasion is “second-hand” history, participating in it and thus connecting to the historical event is significant. It is special too of course because the JFK School contributed a major part to the festivities.
(See for the program and the speech.)

Went there by myself. Ruth had gone to the hospital today (see below), Maria was at the dentist and then visited Ruth, and Anita is stressed out. But there were a couple of thousand people gathered in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus – nothing of course compared to the half-million who thronged there 40 years ago. Saw several friends and acquaintances in the crowd, for example from JFKS, church, and Scottish dancing. Former U.S. ambassador Kornblum for instance stood in front of me. He knows me from church and also has a son in Maria’s grade level. Dagmar Carpenter came by too. Was surprised to hear that as a 14-year old she had witnessed Kennedy’s speech from just a few meters below the speaker’s platform. She told me later she found the President attractive and that his quote certainly emphasized how sincere his commitment to and support for Berlin was; especially since it was in German.

The program began with an hour of musical entertainment provided by the Kennedy school on an extra stage to the right of the city hall’s entrance. The boys’ and then the girls’ barbershop quartettes sang. One boy was interviewed; he was so nervous he couldn’t get the turn of which century right in which barbershop quartettes got started. Felt really sorry Ruthy couldn’t sing along with the other girls today. She always has the biggest smile when she does sing.

As the Symphonic Band was setting up, a young Kennedy researcher was interviewed. He, A. Densow (20), is basically a super-fan, but evidently has given many speeches and presentations on Kennedy. He had a cardboard figure of Kennedy along, which kept being blown over in the wind.

The Symphonic Band, directed by Mr. Germann, then played the JFK march, some medley, and finally Sousa’s “Star and Stripes” to which I waved my matching little flag and let it dance to the music. Otherwise the flag’s stick was stuck in my shirt pocket and held there by the strap of my satchel.

At precisely 6 p.m. the speeches began on the steps of the town hall. Schöneberg-Templehof’s mayor Ekkhard Band opened with a greeting and focused about how Kennedy’s speech was prepared. Kennedy evidently decided quite late to deliver that important phrase in German and Band said paper had to be looked for so that that phrase could be written down by the interpreter for Kennedy.

Kennedy School’s principal Charles Hanna spoke of the pedagogical lesson from Kennedy’s speech on “hope of tomorrow” and “advance of freedom.” It was valid then and should be motivation for today’s youth.

The current U.S. ambassador Daniel Coats needed an interpreter for his speech. He focused on the Cold war and how the U.S. protected Germany (the usual). I think he also pointed out Kennedy’s foresight about how the wall must eventually fall.

Next the JFK School American student council president Boin Cheong (she’s in Ruthy’s grade level and, by the way, Ruth is also class representative) read a greeting from Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver who expressed thanks that Kennedy’s legacy was being honored and carried on.

A strong final speech was held then by Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit. He described the exited and festive mood the Berliners were in at Kennedy’s visit and appearance. Schools and factories had closed to allow the Berliners to attend the rally. He was sure thousands from East-Berlin would’ve liked to have come too. I realized two elderly ladies in front of me had been here 40 years ago too. One said something about goose bumps when I asked her about her reaction to the speech. But, she told me she and her family felt perfectly safe under the protection of the allies in those days.

Wowereit also spoke of this gratefulness of the Berliners and that there are broad “Gemeinschaftswerte” (current catch word for common values) between Americans and Germans despite the (difficult) day-to-day politics of today. He (or was it Band) likened Kennedy to the statesman who has his eye on the next generation as opposed to the politician who has his eye on the next election. In closing he asked the ambassador to convey thanks to Ms. Kennedy Shriver for her special greeting.

Then came “the speech.” A film was shown on two super-sized TV monitors. Had forgotten that “ich bin ein Berliner” was said twice. But it was the concluding statement that aroused the crowd then and today as well.

The official part closed with the deep, solemn tolling of the freedom bell in the Rathaus bell tower above. I was deeply moved. An off-voice recited the inscription of the bell about the rights and duties of freedom. In the meantime the dignitaries signed a guest book on the pulpit.

Then more entertainment followed. The audience hung around at the dozens of refreshment, snack, and beer booths around the square. There’s also a Croatian Kennedy-Grill restaurant across the street. Many youngsters were wearing purple base-caps that said “… ich bin ein Berliner – JFKS” on it. They told me where I can buy these caps at school, so I’ll purchase one for each one in my family who went to or goes to this school.

As I left, an American guitarist, Tom Cunningham, started some country-western numbers like “Born in the USA”. He said he’s got a daughter enrolled in JFKS too. Then he had to crack that old joke of Kennedy saying, back-translated “I am a jelly doughnut.” No one laughed near me; only I did, more out of surprised shock.

I then went to visit Ruth in the St. Gertrauden hospital near Heidelberger Platz. She suddenly had some abscesses in one armpit and a real painful one on her knee, so she’s in hospital as of this morning. It’s being treated, but it may need to be operated. She wanted to hear all about the event. Talked also about our travel plans for America. Hope she’s well enough for that.