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50 years after iconic JFK speech, Obama honors 'magic' moment in Berlin

BERLIN -- For those living on the Cold War's front line, one sentence spoken in German secured John F. Kennedy's place in their hearts forever.

While wrapping up one of the most famous addresses of his presidency, Kennedy told a huge crowd in the German capital that he was one of them: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

The June 26, 1963 speech served as a sign of solidarity that provided hope and comfort to beleaguered residents of the recently divided city, who suddenly found themselves with communist East Germany on their doorstep.

This month, Berlin will pay tribute to Kennedy -- who remains adored by many Germans -- by marking the 50th anniversary of the famed speech with a series of events

The JFK commemorations kick off just days after President Barack Obama's speech on Wednesday in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Obama's visit comes at the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to honor Kennedy's speech. 

Obama proposed reducing the American nuclear arsenal by as much as a third during his first state visit to the German capital. However, Berlin hosted a major foreign policy address during his presidential campaign in 2008.

Alina Heinze, director of Berlin's The Kennedys museum, said JFK verbalized what many people in West Berlin were thinking and feeling at the time.

"During my childhood, my parents, who both stood in the streets to watch Kennedy drive by in 1963, repeatedly told me about the emotions of that day and the impact of his speech," Heinze said. "The magic of that moment lives on here in Berlin."

Obama received a "rock star welcome" when he addressed an estimated 200,000 people at Berlin's Victory Column in 2008. One local newspaper even hailed Obama as "The New Kennedy."

Ahead of the JFK festivities, 83-year-old New York native Jerry Gerber is hoping to be among those in the crowd to witness Obama's speech.

In 1963, Gerber stood among tens of thousands of West Berliners to witness Kennedy's historic address. Many companies had given their employees the day off for the occasion, the first visit by an American president since the Berlin Wall was erected two years earlier.

Crowds spilled the side streets in anxious anticipation of Kennedy's words.

"I personally didn't expect much, I wanted to see my president and only went because I lived close by," Gerber recalled. "But when I stood among this tremendous crowd that seemed to be expecting something special, it became quite infectious."

Kennedy's message resonated with the throng who packed the square in front of the city's Schoeneberg town hall.

"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin," the president proclaimed. "Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: Ich bin ein Berliner."

Looking back on that day, Gerber said Kennedy's oration played a role in his decision to call the city home permanently.

"He encouraged the Berliners to continue their stand for freedom and that kept them alive until things got better in the 1970s," Gerber said.  "I wasn't a Berliner at the time and I never became a German citizen, but I decided to stay and maybe am a Berliner now."

Henning Riecke, head of the US and trans-Atlantic relations program at the German Council of Foreign Affairs, said Kennedy's comments "showed that he saw West Berlin as part of the Western world, a city to be defended."

Among the events on the agenda to mark the anniversary are photo exhibits, lectures and panel discussions, including commemorations at Berlin's John F. Kennedy School, which is home to more than 1,700 German, American and other international students.

Like JFK, Obama remains popular in Germany. A survey conducted in January by Germany's Allensbach Institute showed that 78 percent of those polled have "a positive opinion" of the president. However, that statistic stood at 87 percent in 2008.

"Obama is still much more favorable to the Germans than George W. Bush was," Riecke said. "But for Germans, part of his charisma has vanished as people here start to realize that the American president cannot and will not bring about major shifts in controversial U.S. policies."

Speaking ahead of Obama's address, Gerber suggested the president would struggle to captivate and inspire in the same way Kennedy did 50 years ago this month.

"Germans will be interested in what Obama has to say, but his speech should not be compared to Kennedy's remarks because those were different times," he added. "For Berliners, the visit of an American president will be no less than the meeting of an old friend."