Sunday, May 19, 2024

Plattsburgh community celebrates Berlin Wall demise

Marking the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Plattsburgh hosted a talk by Ingeborg Sapp Nov. 8. The church’s youth group organized the event, inviting the community, young and old, to hear Sapp’s story and ask questions.

Attendees learned that one good thing happened during the Russian occupation of Leipzig, Germany, after World War II: private businesses and services became public — they were for the people. In Leipzig, there was an exclusive rowing club with sponsors and beautiful boats, and now it belonged to the people. This intrigued young Sapp and some of her classmates, and they started to train and row.

Sapp’s quad was composed of four women, and they did very well in competitions in other towns. She recalled one day being invited to compete in West Berlin, which was surrounded by East Berlin and Germany and occupied by the United States and Britain at the time.

“There was literature from all over the world,” Sapp, now 82 years old, said. “There was viable food, viable clothes. There were people smiling and having fun and laughing. It was the first time we saw what life could be like.”
It was then that Sapp and her friends planned to make the escape to the Western World.

Maureen Marcellus, the church’s religious education committee chairperson, teaches children of various ages at the church. She said church members, particularly the youth group, knew Sapp had this story and Sapp herself thought it would be a good idea for the kids to hear.

“With having one of our own members having such a rich life and story to share, we felt that it was important for our youth group to experience that story directly from her,” Marcellus said.

Sapp, an only child, was born in 1932, just a year before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Growing up, her Saturday afternoons were spent watching the Hitler youths patrolling the streets in uniform, chanting. At a young age, she couldn’t wait to reach age 10 to join the youths. People in the public square were told that they were quite lucky to live under the Nazi system and how wonderful their leaders were. Once she reached the age of 10, she waved the flag in front of her unit with pride. She wanted to display the flag out in the open, but her father put it in a corner of the room.

“I wasn’t too happy about that,” Sapp said. She remembered going into the living room of her home later that day and seeing her father listening to Radio Free Europe.

“He was almost crawling into the radio and he blushed,” she said. “And I couldn’t understand why, but later I was aware that he was afraid that I would report him, which we were encouraged to do.”

“I think we hear a lot of Holocaust survivors, and that’s really important,” said Connie Shemo, an associate professor in the history department at Plattsburgh State. “But it’s very interesting to hear from someone who got caught up in the Nazi Youth.”

Shemo attended the event with her sons. Rory Fisher, one of Shemo’s sons, said it was definitely a different experience from learning in the classroom.

“It’s one thing to sit in a class and hear about a section for like, two weeks on it,” Fisher said. “And you think you know everything just because you got an A on the test. But then you have [Sapp] speak and it adds a whole new dimension to it. It goes beyond what they teach you in the classroom.”

After seeing West Berlin, Sapp said she and her friends would speak about leaving East Berlin in open air, for fear of being overhead in a closed building. Her parents wished a better life for their only child, but they were sad to see her leave.

Sapp knew the address of a man who was known to help people cross to West Berlin. She, 18 years old then, and her five companions, thought he would take them across the border, which was a clear-cut area, but he would bring them only to the border.

After getting to the other side, Sapp and her companions ran into Americans, who gave them chocolate and informed them that if they had taken another path, they would have ended up back in East Berlin. They continued into Frankfurt, where Sapp stayed for several years.

“There were two concerts — one indoor, one outdoor,” Sapp said of one summer night in a town near Frankfurt. “As I reached for the program, there was another hand reaching for the program. And that’s how I met my husband-to-be.”

Ben Ouellette, another attendee, found that it was interesting to see what people thought of Sapp and her history.

“You really get much more of a story from a person telling you about that, like a primary source, than from a textbook or news report,” Ouellette said.

Email Reggianie Francois at

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