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Katarina Witt, from Ghosts of East Berlin

An Excerpt from Eric Friedman and Celeste Barber’s Memoir of Living Behind the Wall


On December 6, 1956 the Hungarian Water Polo Team defeated the Soviet Union 4-0 to win Olympic Gold in a match termed “Blood in the Water.” The gold medal match came just weeks after Soviet tanks violently rolled through Budapest to suppress the growing threat of a Hungarian revolt for independence. When the carnage was done, over 2,500 lives were lost and thousands more injured. This series of events came to define the political theater that made the Olympics some of the most intriguing and historically significant aspects of the Cold War.

With images of the Soviet invasion still fresh in their minds, the gold medal match provided the Hungarians a chance for revenge. Conversely, the Soviets knew a defeat of the Hungarians would land a crushing blow with ramifications felt from Moscow to Budapest to Washington D.C. The “Blood in the Water” match defined what a Gold Medal truly meant, all the way to the final Cold War Olympics of 1988.

By 1988, the theater had shifted from the brutality of “Blood in the Water” to the spectacle of “the Beauty on Ice.” After the U.S. boycott in 1980 and the Soviet boycott of 1984 the tensions were high and the world was anticipating the Superpower showdown of 1988. In America we were all standing behind our athletes and prepared to go to war against the Evil Empire. Our entire country knew that every Gold medal was a not only a victory for America but a triumph of democracy and our values of freedom over those of the Soviet Union and communism. Like the Hungarians in 1956, our athletes had the opportunity to do what our diplomats and Department of Defense could not; kick their ass and put them in their place. As our family quickly learned from our vantage point in East Berlin, the feeling was mutual.

Shortly after we arrived in Berlin, the 1988 winter Olympics began. As the games unfolded and we watched the East German coverage on our black and white television, we realized how important the games were to both the Soviets and the other countries under their rule, but for different reasons. The games for the Soviets had the same connotations as here in the United States. Every gold medal they won, or that their bloc won, was a victory for their political and social philosophy. It was a fight for supremacy that combined their forces, along with those of East Germany and China, in a battle against the United States, West Germany and France. However, there was the intriguing subplot, of the Soviet Bloc countries, most notable East Germany, who also desired to kick the Soviet’s ass. For them, a gold medal was a triumph over both the world superpowers and their rival West Germans. It was three decades later and the contagious fire of the Hungarian revolution from the ’56 games had never been fully extinguished.

My mom, Frank and I would anticipate the Olympic drama every night. Besides being one of the few programs we could watch due to the language barrier, the games also gave the three of us some comfort and sense of home in knowing that all of our friends and families back in the U.S. were watching the same events as we were, although in color. However, even though I was just 10 years old, I knew my version and experience of these games was different from my friends and family back home, and not just because I was aware of the significance of the politics surrounding the games. It was different because of Katarina Witt.

I knew she was a hated East German, but I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her. Every time there was a close up of her smiling on our tiny T.V., I imagined she was smiling at me. I couldn’t wait to turn on the T.V. each night and welcome her into our home. For the first time in my life, I had a physical reaction, an anxiety in a sense, when I saw her. It was so bad that I couldn’t bear to watch her skate because of my own fear for her. Her power over me was so great that before I knew it, I had transformed into an East German and, at least in Figure Skating, found myself rooting against the Americans! But, it wasn’t just me who fell in love with her.

Katarina was the darling of East Germany. With her stunning beauty and unmatched agility on the ice, she single handedly woke the sleepy colorless East Berlin from its winter slumber and created an excitement that burned through the thick Soviet fog that permanently blanketed the city. For those few weeks we couldn’t go anywhere without hearing her name and seeing the lit up smiles on the faces of East Berliners who suddenly walked with an extra kick in their step and possessed a newly found upright posture. With each step toward the gold, she became more myth than reality. Her victories on the ice and her love for the people of East Germany brought a true sense of hope and purpose to its people. Berliners were united in their cheering for her and, for the only time in our experience in the City, there was no fear, no intimidation, no worry of saying the wrong thing and suddenly disappearing. Katarina, for those brief few weeks set the people of East Berlin free. It was in these moments of citywide joy, while lost in my own daydreams of her, that I realized the Olympics have a completely different meaning for other countries.

We noticed this difference in many ways, especially in how the games were televised. Katarina was always shown in the best possible manner. She was constantly smiling and full of energy. She never had an awkward moment. But whenever they showed the Americans, especially Debie Thomas, who was Katarina’s American competition, there was a frown with a look of indifference. In fact, it seemed that when they weren’t showing Katarina, they had a close up of Debbie who always looked as if she was pissed off and didn’t want to be there. The three of us used to laugh out loud at the absurdity of the coverage and then scream at Debie to smile. I couldn’t believe nor understand that she didn’t know she was being used in the communist propaganda machine. “Don’t you know they’re watching you!” I would yell to no avail.

The East German Government used both Katarina and Debie to fit their narrative of the great East triumphing over the morally bankrupt West. It was too easy, the truth be damned! It was the narrative above all else that mattered. To know what was real, we didn’t have to think for ourselves, all we had to do was look at the story as it unfolded on our T.V. and witness an East German goddess capturing the hearts of her country juxtaposed to an ungrateful American with arrogance about her who thought she was entitled to the gold. But it wasn’t just the unfortunate Debie Thomas who had to compete against one of the most memorable Olympic athletes of all time, it was all Americans. The East Germans would limit the showing of American Gold, but always provided a well-timed close-up of the faces of our athletes when another country was raising the precious medal.

Of course the three of us knew that the real Debie Thomas was nothing like the one portrayed on our propaganda box. But in life, reality is what we experience, and to my Mom, Frank and I, we experienced a reality where Debie Thomas never smiled and was jealous of the princess on ice, Katarina.

The culmination of this East German fairy tale concluded with a triumphant Katarina hoisting the Gold, a solemn Debie left with the Bronze and me, heartbroken, that Katarina no longer stopped by to visit.

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