POETRY & WORDS :: Where I was when the Berlin Wall fell

November 9, 1989 —  I’ll never forget that day 25 years ago — well, I didn’t hear the news until Friday morning, the 10th, over breakfast in West Germany. The night before, East German Communist Party spokesperson Günther Schabowski suggested, without much oomph — almost accidentally, it seemed — that travel between East and West could happen “from now”. [1] Humanity surged toward the barrier, climbing over it, smashing at it with axes and hammers, and waiting in endless lines at the now-open gates, disbelief in the air. It’s emotional for me even now to think about this exodus, the pieces that held up the regime crumbling, the people locked in for years. People died trying to cross that wall.

In a giant cloud of exhaust fumes of two-stroke engines, hundreds of East German cars wait bumper to bumper in front of the West German checkpoint Helmstedt to enter the west, Nov. 11, 1989. In front of the eastern checkpoint, the cars wait in line for a distance of 30-40 kilometers, a West German policeman said. The ride from Berlin to Helmstadt (about 200 kilometers) would last about 11 hours. (AP Photo/Claus Eckert)

In a giant cloud of exhaust fumes of two-stroke engines, hundreds of East German cars wait bumper to bumper in front of the West German checkpoint Helmstedt to enter the west, Nov. 11, 1989. In front of the eastern checkpoint, the cars wait in line for a distance of 30-40 kilometers, a West German policeman said. The ride from Berlin to Helmstadt (about 200 kilometers) would last about 11 hours. (AP Photo/Claus Eckert)

“So it was the other side of the roughcast concrete barrier that mattered, the side that people did not spray with aerosol cans but had risked their lives to climb over. The emotional quality of this liberation can only be captured if you can imagine what it was like to live behind that ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’ (its mendacious official name) for all your life, never setting foot in the western half of your own city, and with the expectation that this would continue for years to come.

Here is the other thing that even the finest historians struggle to recover: the sense of what people at the time did not know. To those who lived behind it, the Berlin Wall had become something almost like the Alps, a seemingly unchangeable fact of physical geography. Even when things began to change so dramatically in Poland and Hungary, most people just did not believe the Alps could crumble. After all, there was a nuclear-armed empire holding them up. ” [2]

People now tell me I couldn’t have understood what was happening, I couldn’t have known the significance of the day. I wasn’t yet six. And in a way they are right. I can never fully understand what it was like to have lived under East German rule. During that time, I lived in the former Yugoslavia — officially, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — with an American passport. And I was on the Western side of the wall when it fell.

“It is almost impossible to recreate the emotional intensity of the moment of liberation. For that intensity came from having lived for most, if not all, your life with the aching certainty that something like this was, precisely, impossible.” [Read More: The Berlin Wall: What it Meant to Be There]

But I remember. There is no doubt about that.

And there’s something else: I am going to keep remembering, and keep telling this story. Because I don’t want to forget. I don’t ever want any of us to forget.

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