It was early afternoon on June 26, 1963, when Christian Sack first saw John F. Kennedy. His West Berlin high school had given its students the day off for the U.S. president’s visit to the city, which had become a front line of the Cold War. Twenty-two months earlier the East German communist regime had rammed a wall through Berlin.
Sack was one of an estimated 1 million Berliners who lined the streets that day.
As a teenager, he recalled, he was “more interested in music and girls than politics,” but Kennedy captured his attention when he proclaimed his solidarity with the isolated city, in a speech that ended with the famous line “as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’” — “I am a Berliner.”
“The atmosphere was explosive — explosive with excitement,” Sack said. “You have to imagine the wall had only stood for two years and the politicians in West Germany just wanted quiet and never said much about it, so it was naturally almost a feeling of liberation that a politician would take it up and put it on the agenda.”
Five months later, Sack was on the Kurfuerstendamm, the city’s liveliest boulevard. “People just stopped and started talking — Kennedy had been killed,” he said. “There was a huge disbelief, and sadness.”
Some 60,000 people, many in tears and carrying torches, gathered at the place where Kennedy gave his famous speech.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Berliners remembered “I am a Berliner.” Many of those who gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in sympathy carried signs that said: “We are all New Yorkers.”