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 when November 10th dawned. I begin to tell my story, and they quickly interrupt. No, I couldn’t have known the significance of the day. I wasn’t yet six years old, they remind me.

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 did not live in Berlin. I lived in the former Yugoslavia — officially, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And I was on the Western side of the wall when it fell.

But unlike many six-year-olds, I knew about the secret police. I knew about the checkpoints. I knew about smuggling, and borders, and visas and papers and freedom. And on November 10th, I could feel the wild mix of jubilation, uncertainty, and the thrill of the unfettered unknown.

People who’ve always lived in freedom don’t always know how to describe it. And people who’ve always lived in fetters can’t always articulate the lack of freedom, either.

“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]

Oh, 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.

5 thoughts on “Where I was when the Berlin Wall fell”

  1. My best friend from college and his family were in the Hotel Moscow in the eastern sector the night that the Russians left. He was in the very last vehicle out of the east at Checkpoint Charlie before the guards gave up even trying to control the exodus.

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  2. Gina – your reminiscence of the Berlin Wall provoked my own look back into the somewhat dusty memory banks. It’s also a bit timely given our current political climate – but looking back ala ”Where we’re you when..” has refreshed me by taking me back to formative events and so reminding me again how it is I came to hold some the views I do. For example, the encounters with East German military members I’ll relate in a moment undoubtedly shape my thinking, and of course what I’m likely to say (or at least want to say) whenever I hear some young idealist (or old fool) hold forth on the superiority of socialism over capitalism. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    I’m not writing because I think my experiences are particularly unique rather because I’ve got the time, and as you so aptly said we should never let ourselves forget. It’s helpful that these events are so memorable.

    What you first reminded me of is where I was when the wall came down. I recall watching it unfold on TV utterly in stunned disbelief. Earlier when President Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and declared, ”Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” I thought fat chance, but here it was being torn down. Still I thought, ”Moscow isn’t going to stand for this, ” and I gave it a week before the tanks would come rolling in to restore the iron grip. But as the weeks rolled by it slowly settled in that we had seen historic events unfold and the world would never be the same.

    My experiences prior to that were more intimate, that is to say there were fewer people involved. After graduating from High School in 1973, I traveled to Bonn, West Germany where my mom and brother (yup, the guy you now know as your father-in-law) had recently been sent by the State Department. During my time there, my mom being the excellent tour guide you might have guessed her to be arranged for us to take the train to West Berlin. That meant we loaded onto the train and departed the station, then we stopped at the border so they could change locomotive (the two regions operated under different power sources – electricity vs coal or diesel electric). This was also when the communist military types came to check that our papers were in order. I’ll never forget that encounter. Their smug countenance just aggravated me, not to mention how they acted like they were doing us a favor by letting us proceed. I remember my mom glancing up at me and whispering ”Don’t do it…please don’t do it.,” I was good, but boy was it a struggle. After we got underway again we opened a window and I shouted, ”Your mother wears army boots!” Then feeling quite satisfied with myself, I sat down and laughed because I was pretty sure there was no one to hear me. How brave I was though!

    Later we went on a tour of East Berlin, so we passed through Checkpoint Charlie. The whole undertaking just reeked of oppression – we were required to off load the bus and assemble beside it as our papers were again reviewed. After this exercise in making sure we knew who was in charge, we loaded back onto the bus which then wove it’s way around the anti-tank barriers and passed under the glare of the soldiers manning their machine guns looking very serious about their jobs. Then as we made our way on from the checkpoint I remember everywhere I looked I saw buildings still showing the scars of bombs, mortars, machine gun fire from WW2. I was stunned to say the least. Red banners hung from many of the buildings – some bearing the sickle & hammer, others the image of some communist hero or another. Meanwhile the communist tour guide regaled us with their propaganda about how well cared for the citizens were and of course contented, too.

    One thing I realized as I revisited all of this is that I made certain assumptions about the East German military members. To be fair to myself I believe that my image of them is one they encouraged. But I wonder what impression I would have were we to meet today. What did they have to do – what choices did they face in their time – in order to provide for their families that they perhaps wished had been different but knew better than to wish for any longer?

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    1. THANK YOU for taking the time to type all this out! I didn’t realize you’d been to Berlin during that time in history. I absolutely loved hearing your observations and memories. Checkpoint Charlie — what an experience. And I definitely burst out laughing at “Your mother wears army boots!

      And yes. I wonder what choices some of those East German military members actually had? Sobering to ponder, really.

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