Berlin celebrates 50th anniversary of JFK's speech

Berlin on Wednesday celebrated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famed "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech - a pledge of support to the divided city on the Cold War's front line that still resonates in a much-changed world.

Kennedy made his speech during a several-hour trip to West Berlin on June 26, 1963, nearly two years after communist East Germany cut the city in half by building the Berlin Wall and amid concern that America might abandon the Cold War outpost.

For German reporter Alexander Kulpok, Kennedy's speech feels like just yesterday.

“Kennedy was a politician who could really wake up all the emotions of the people,” he says.

Having reported live from the famed speech for German Radio, Kulpok says it was more of a rock concert than political rally.

“The reception was like a reception for a pop star of a pop group. They cried 'Johnny we love you! Johnny come back! Next time bring Jackie!”

The "freedom bell" at the former West Berlin city hall, where Kennedy spoke to a crowd of some 300,000, tolled to mark Wednesday's anniversary ahead of a ceremony that featured students from Berlin's John F. Kennedy School reading excerpts from the speech in German and English.

As many as 600,000 Berliners were estimated to attend Kennedy's speech. The love for JFK still remains in Berlin.

“There’s Kennedy streets, Kennedy bridges," says Erik Kirschbaum. "Everywhere you go there’s a Kennedy Street. He’s still a big name in Germany. He came here, middle of the Cold War, told Germans 'Don’t worry, we are going to protect your city. Freedom is important in West Berlin. It’s just as important as it is in Washington, D.C. or New York. We are going to protect your city.' They loved that.”

Egon Bahr, 91, then an aide to West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt and later one of West Germany's most prominent politicians, recalled the "explosive applause" that greeted Kennedy's "I am a Berliner" declaration.

"It matched the feelings, the hopes and the expectations of Berliners," Bahr said. "They knew instinctively, 'we can feel safe after this sentence.'"

Kennedy's declaration has become a symbol of strong German-U.S. ties, and President Barack Obama evoked it when he spoke last week at the city's Brandenburg Gate, which in 1963 stood on the communist side of the wall.

Even today, "U.S. presidents ... can feel at home in this city," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said. Still, he alluded to the tensions that preceded Kennedy's euphoric reception.

Many Berliners wondered why the Americans hadn't prevented the building of the wall and used their power to reverse it, he said. "People in the divided city were desperate and angry. They feared that the Western powers would back down and give up West Berlin."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.