Oct 31, 2008

World - Crowds bid fond farewell to airport that saved Berlin

Nicholas Kulish

BERLIN: Berliners turned out on Thursday to say their goodbyes to historic Tempelhof Airport, to share a few memories and to protest its closing one last time.

Two vintage airplanes, a DC-3 and a Junkers Ju-52, took off shortly before midnight as the final flights from the airport, which had been the focus of a legal battle that went on for several years.

To those who advocated for its closing, like Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, Tempelhof was an unprofitable drain on the city's budget. To its supporters it was an architectural masterpiece and a historic monument to freedom.

Tempelhof, although built by the Nazis, is best known as the site of the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949, after the Soviets blocked land access to the city. The United States and Britain brought in supplies by air, over 2 million tons of food, fuel and even machinery. It became a symbol of the Allies' commitment to protecting the city and indeed Western Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out in favor of preserving the airport earlier this year, and more than 60 percent of the voters in an April referendum said they wanted it kept open. But their numbers fell short of the minimum needed to make the referendum valid. No decision has been made as to what will be done with the airport and its grounds, though the building is a protected landmark and cannot be torn down.

There are two other airports that serve Berlin.

"I wanted to see the last plane take off, but they won't let me in," said Gunther Münke, 68, who said that as a young boy he would stand with his brother on a nearby hillside, made famous from photographs of the airlift, where children gathered to catch the sweets dropped by friendly pilots. Münke said he later worked on the building's heating system and felt a bond with the landmark. "It is something old, and you cannot just get rid of the old."

On a chilly, rainy day, a crowd dominated by older locals like Münke, but also dotted with curious foreign tourists and with families with young children, milled in the entryway and outside the building. Visitors were barred from entering the cavernous main hall without a ticket for a flight, as workers prepared for the closing celebration.

"The people stand out here in the rain while the celebrities party inside," said Peter Lubitz, 73, who said he was vehemently opposed to the airport's closing.

Workers preparing for the gala party to mark the closing of the world-famous landmark rolled out a brand-new, royal blue carpet for VIP guests, while posters with the photographs of two sought-after terrorism suspects, Houssain al-Malla and Eric Breininger, still hung in the entryway.

Marina Piccolo, 48, said she had worked at her little airport café, Bottega Piccolo, for 14 years. Asked what she felt as the airport was shut down one last time for the party, she replied, "Sorrow and anger." From her spot in the entryway selling coffee and sandwiches, she said she had watched workers beginning to take out chairs, employees saying their goodbyes and local residents coming to bid farewell.

"In the last few days so many people, old people, have been here, crying," said Piccolo, who herself looked as if she was on the verge of tears.

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