As a nine-year-old boy, Klaus Eisermann watched American and British planes land at Tempelhof airport as often as every 90 seconds with supplies for West Berliners cut off by a Soviet blockade.
"It was bad. Hunger, cold, darkness," Eisermann said.
Men queued back then to unload powdered eggs, freeze-dried vegetables and canned potatoes not for the daily wage of 75 pfennig but for the hot meal in the middle of the shift.
Sixty years later, Eisermann is watching Germany's capital divide over the future of the Nazi-era airport that came to symbolize West Berlin's stubborn survival in the middle of communist East Germany at the start of the Cold War.
Berliners vote Sunday on whether Tempelhof should be kept open to air traffic despite the city government's plans to shut it down on October 31. The measure needs a majority in favour and at least 611,000 total votes to be considered valid. By Wednesday 239,499 residents had already voted via absentee ballot.
The first city-wide referendum in Berlin, the measure is not binding. But a vote to keep the airport open would be a political challenge to the city-state's ruling coalition of centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the hard-line socialist Left Party.
The city government, under Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, says it makes economic and environmental sense to consolidate traffic from the city's three airports at the new Berlin Brandenburg International, set to open in 2011 at the site of Berlin-Schönefeld airport to the city's southeast. About 20 million people flew in and out of Berlin last year.
"It's economic nonsense to have two or three airports," said Ralf Kunkel, a spokesman for Berlin Airports, the public agency that runs Tempelhof, Schönefeld and the city's western hub Tegel.
But the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the main opposition in Berlin politics, are backing the campaign to keep the airport open. The German federal government, run by a right-left coalition of the CDU and SPD, has a 26-percent stake in Berlin Airports and has offered to cover Tempelhof's operating deficit of about €12 million a year if the ballot measure passes. But Berlin's city government has rejected the offer so far.
National leaders of the Left Party also signalled their willingness this week to follow voters on Tempelhof. A referendum is a referendum and should be followed even if politicians don't like the outcome, Left leader Lothar Bisky said in parliamentary debate on Thursday, according to a report from German news service DPA.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, encouraged Berliners to vote for keeping Tempelhof open, telling the Berlin-based tabloid B.Z. the airport is "important for more than jobs and the economy."
"For many people, including me personally, because of the Berlin Airlift the airport is a symbol of the history of this city," said Merkel, who grew up in eastern Germany.
"Mother of all airports"
Famed British architect Norman Foster – currently winning accolades for his Terminal 3 in Beijing – once called Tempelhof "the mother of all airports."
It's a quote Eisermann cited several times as he made his way down the old airport's central hall, 90 metres long under 15-metre ceilings. He went to work at Tempelhof 44 years ago as a cargo loader because of the steady paycheck, he said, then got attached to the airport and found he couldn't work anywhere else. He retired four years ago as director of a transport services unit, then stuck around to give tours.
Eisermann has watched Tempelhof through most of its postwar incarnations—a sleek home of international flights until being replaced by newly-built Tegel airport in 1975, a US military base until 1993, and a domestic commuter airport in reunified Berlin up to today.
Tempelhof has served as an airport since 1923, though its iconic, vast terminal was only begun in 1936 under Nazi architect Ernst Sagebiel. The 1.4-kilometre-long building was already the biggest in the world when World War II halted construction in 1940, and Eisermann said that Sagebiel's original plans had called for it to be 30 percent bigger. The building was used as a factory during the war.
The roof was supposed to be an stadium for 100,000 people to watch Nazi air shows, with another 1 million spectators seated around the runways. Planes pull up underneath an overhang in the inner curve of the terminal, allowing passengers to disembark out of the weather. There is also space for 9,000 offices, which Eisermann said are about half occupied.
Walking the airport's unfinished stairwells, subterranean bunkers and the empty common rooms where US soldiers stationed at the airport used go bowling and have a few drinks, Eisermann sounded wistful for a time when Tempelhof was bustling with military and civilian traffic. The terminal is a historic protected building and can't be torn down, but Eisermann said the city doesn't need another empty monument.
"Of course it should remain an airport," he said, scoffing at the city's preliminary plan to turn the runways into a park lined with new neighbourhoods and then adding in English: "With projects like this they always say, 'What about the money, honey?'"
A symbolic airport
About 350,000 people flew in and out of Tempelhof last year, down from about 600,000 in 2006, according to Kunkel, the Berlin Airports spokesman. Most of the passengers are business travellers on quick flights around Germany or to Belgium, where Brussels Airlines still flies out of Tempelhof.
As commuters crowd the subway a few hundred metres away during rush hour on a recent weekday, Tempelhof's terminal was an oasis of calm. A few passengers in business suits walked through security or ate sandwiches in the café.
Kunkel made a point of showing how the sparsely filled arrivals board had enough space to list flights through 2:25 pm the next day.
Theoretically, Tempelhof could remain in operation for the next few years, Kunkel said, but that could delay the opening of Berlin-Brandenburg International, for which the agency has already signed €860 million in contracts. Approvals for the new central airport were predicated on closing Berlin's other two airports, he said, arguing that the infrastructure project is the most important in the region and will create 10,000 jobs.
"This airport has zero economic effect," he said, gesturing around Tempelhof's soaring, but empty concourse. "It's purely a symbolic airport."
Berlin's voters will decide on Sunday just how much that symbolism means to them.
About 1,200 polling places will be open across the city from 8 am to 6 pm. A list of places to vote is available here: www.wahlen-berlin.de