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Jewish World Review / May 18, 1998 / 22 Iyar, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Roses for Buba

BERLIN -- The old woman stood clutching two pink roses in her hand along with a piece of plain white paper on which she had written four words: "Danke, USA! Thank you."

Traudel Jannietz is 75 now, her hair white, her step not as sure as it was 50 years ago when she lived in West Berlin and waited every day for the planes of the Berlin airlift to come and deliver the food and coal that kept her, her family and her city alive.

"I had two small sisters," she said, standing patiently in the bleachers at the edge of the tarmac at Tempelhof Airport. "I had to bring them food."

It was June 1948. Much of Berlin still rubble and ash, but it was home to 2 million people in the Western zones, including hundreds of thousands of those displaced by the war. Berlin was an island surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany, and Josef Stalin was sure he could starve the island into submission.

So he cut off all the access routes from the West, stopped food supplies and switched off the electric power.

President Truman, rejecting a plan for a U.S. convoy to shoot its way to Berlin, told his generals to supply the city by air. And so, first scores and then hundreds of cargo planes took off from the West carrying everything from coal to potatoes to machinery for a makeshift power plant.

At the height of the airlift, April 16, 1949, a maximum effort that became known as the "Easter Parade" made 1,398 sorties, with one plane landing in Berlin every minute.

And Traudel Jannietz remembers. So Thursday, when President Clinton came to Tempelhof to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the airlift, she came, too, standing in the bleachers and now reaching into a voluminous black bag at her feet and pulling out a 50-year-old unopened can of Crisco that the airlift had brought her.

She grew emotional remembering the airmen who risked their lives, flying at rooftop level through fog and low clouds over hostile territory, and the 78 who died, 31 of them American.

"Thank you," she said, reaching up and stroking the face of the American reporter interviewing her. "Thank you."

It was what she wanted to tell Bill Clinton. It is why she brought the roses to give him and made her sign for him to see. But it did not bother her that he was impossibly far away on the tarmac, flanked by German and American flags whipping in the warm breeze and standing behind a lectern so huge that he had to climb steps to mount it.

"From the moment the largest airlift in history began, the Western allies became protectors instead of occupiers of Germany," Clinton said during his speech. "If the communists could fight with fear, then we would fight back with friendship and faith."

It was a near thing, however. Few thought a city actually could be supplied solely by air. "Even the Air Force chiefs themselves at first had serious doubts it could be done," Truman wrote in his diary.

But it succeeded, Stalin backed down, and 15 months after it began, the airlift ended. It is still looked upon with deep emotion here. The airlift is commemorated every year, and several streets in the city are named after the servicemen who died during it.

One pilot is remembered with special fondness -- Gail Halvorsen, 77, a farmer from Utah, who Thursday joined Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in speaking to the large crowd at Tempelhof.

"When I first flew into this great city in 1948," Halvorsen, wearing a khaki flying suit, said, "I landed with 20,000 pounds of flour, and the German workers came on board to unload it, and I learned that freedom was more important to them than flour."

Later that day, walking over to the edge of the airfield, where German children hung onto the fence, Halvorsen distributed chewing gum and learned that in the desperate first days of the airlift nobody had remembered candy for the children.

So on future flights, he started dropping chocolates and raisins by parachutes that he fashioned from handkerchiefs, and soon, children in the United States were donating their candy for the children of Berlin.

Fifty years later, Halvorsen drew one conclusion. "Berlin bleibt Berlin," he said in German. "Berlin remains Berlin."

In the bleachers, Traudel Jannietz put her can of Crisco back in her bag, her mundane but comforting symbol of a great moment in history.

"What do I want for me personally?" she said. "That the people of Berlin will not be forgotten."

"More than food and supplies were dropped from the skies," Clinton said. "As the planes came and went and came and went again, the airlift became a sharing of the soul."

It was, Clinton said, a story that tells people never to give up, never to lose faith.

"Adversity can be conquered, prayers can be answered, hopes realized," Clinton said. "Freedom is worth standing up for."


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.