Americans weren’t the only ones impressed by JFK’s Berlin speech

In this 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s first year as president of the United States, historians still consider his June 1963 Berlin speech a notable moment in the Cold War with Russia.

At the time, newspapers, television and radio had emphasized the impact the speech had on West Berlin residents living in an enclave surrounded by Russian territory. Like many others, I had questioned whether the publicized reaction to the speech was mere hyperbole, but I had a rare opportunity to learn that it was genuine.

It was June 1964, less than a year after Kennedy’s assassination, when memories of the horrifying event and its aftermath were still raw in American minds. I was traveling by air from Frankfurt, Germany, to Berlin to meet Army relatives who were arriving in Berlin the next day aboard an American military train.

American Army personnel and their families could travel by military train into Berlin that year, but ordinary civilians—and I was one—could not use that form of transportation.  So I had booked a Lufthansa flight, grateful for the knowledge that flight attendants were making announcements in English as well as German.

This was post-World War II Germany, where the wall separating East and West Berlin had been erected by the Russians in 1961, and the Germanic nation had been separated since the war into four sectors, occupied by Americans, French, English and Russians.  The wall would remain intact until 1989, and the four sectors would not be reunited until 1990.

Seated on the plane next to me were an obviously German man and his wife. I was paying no attention to them because my German consisted of six months of night school classes in what was then Mesa College. I should mention that my mother, who had spoken German with her grandparents until she moved to Colorado at age eight, would usually be overcome with laughter as I fought my way through the multi-layered nouns and difficult vowel sounds.

All at once the man began to talk to me — in German, of course — asking if I were an American. I did the quick query in German, “Do you speak English?” And there came the equally rapid reply, “Nein.”

I can’t remember what I said, but somehow I managed to tell him that I spoke a little German, and he was off on a roll.  He explained that he had been in the crowd in Berlin on June 26, 1963, when JFK had said those now-famous words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

His eyes gleamed, his face took on a glow, and he seemed almost shaking with excitement at the idea of telling an American how much the occasion had meant to him.

His wife was glowering at me, but I was unsure whether she was annoyed that I was talking to her husband or that my German syntax left a great deal to be desired.

Then, as if it was the most natural question in the world, the man naively asked me if I knew Kennedy.  I told him — or at least I think I told him, since I was speaking German — that I was a newspaper reporter in a small Western Colorado city and had interviewed JFK when he was running for president.  Whatever I said, the man seemed to understand what I was trying to tell him, and he beamed.

To my considerable relief, because I was worn out trying to think in German on such a weighty subject, we were about to land, and that ended our conversation.

But as I took off in a taxi for my small hotel on a side street off Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s famous boulevard, I mulled over the incident.

I remembered that, after the JFK speech a year earlier, there had been considerable mirth when a story surfaced that Kennedy had exclaimed “I am a doughnut,” rather than “I am a Berliner.”  In Germany, a “berliner”  is a type of jelly doughnut or pancake.

But in subsequent stories, including interviews with German grammarians,  JFK’s usage of “ein Berliner” was defined as he had intended it to mean — “I am a citizen of Berlin” — and to underline the United States’ solidarity with the beleagured German city.

As we sat aboard the airplane that day in June 1964, and I looked into the German’s shining eyes when he spoke about the JFK speech, I knew that he, too, had interpreted the president’s remark as a tribute to residents of his home town and that to him being “ein Berliner” was a sincere compliment and not a “pancake.”

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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