As the New Year approaches, I am reminded of a memorable New Year’s Eve in 1989 when I was sharing champagne at the newly opened Berlin Wall! Germans from the East and West were hugging each other and everyone within reach. Many climbed up and sat on the graffiti emblazed Wall! People were also streaming across the line that once separated this city, totally ignoring guards asking to see passports! This would have been unheard of, and even deadly, just months earlier!
In fact, I had been at a seminar in Berlin in October, 1989. It was sponsored by the government of West Germany for a group of American teachers to teach us the history of Berlin and its divide. The day we were scheduled to go into East Berlin, we were told that we would have to postpone that, as Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian President of the Soviet Union, was in East Berlin that day speaking to government officials. The next day of the seminar, a German newspaper editor came to speak to us. When we asked him what Gorbachev said, he told us that he said…”Save what you can. We cannot help you anymore!” Little did we know that by the next month on November 9, 1989, the Wall that closed the border between West and East Berlin would be open to travel freely between that divided city for the first time since August 13, 1961.
The first segment of the Berlin Wall was really barbed wire entanglements and fences through Berlin. It divided The Western part of the city administrated by the Allied countries of the United States, England, and France and the Eastern part of the city administrated by the Soviet Union. Over time, the barbed wire was replaced by concrete slabs and a deadly no man’s land that became known as “The Berlin Wall”. The Wall split a city, a people, and the world, tearing apart families and friends for decades, and becoming a powerful symbol of the “Cold War”! The graffiti on the Western side of “The Wall” expressed the pain and frustration of the people of Berlin. Some graffiti was done by frustrated citizens while much was painted by German artists and was very moving. I recall one scene that particularly touched me. It was of stark white arms and hands stretching across the grey concrete wall with fingertips reaching out to touch each other… Art expressing life in a divided Berlin!
Check Point Charlie was the official crossing between East and West Berlin before the border opened in 1989. Authorized people could travel through there after being frisked and having proper paperwork checked thoroughly by the East German police and guards. It was the Germans who lived on the Eastern side of Berlin, controlled by the Soviet Union, that were desperate to cross over to liberty in West Germany, that were sometimes killed in their efforts. The Check Point Charlie Museum houses a variety of vehicles and other ingenious ways in which Germans tried to escape communism. Some did make it but trained guard dogs were also employed to stop them a various crossing possibilities. There are many sad and heroic personal stories connected with the crossing of the area known as the Berlin Wall.
That is why it was such an emotional and joyous day on November 9, when huge crowds crossed the border, as confused guards were caught “off guard” themselves. The reason for their confusion was that a German official had given an interview on television that day in which he announced that East Germans would be able to travel abroad. When the reporter asked when this would apply, the unsure politician said “immediately”. Within minutes the crowds had gathered at the border. The East German authorities had intended it to start the next day, but in order to avoid violent confrontations, the border was opened. An impromptu celebration erupted on both sides of Berlin. The Wall had been breached and would never be closed again.
That New Year’s Eve celebration at the Berlin Wall in 1989 was, indeed, historic! I feel so privileged to have been there among the people flowing back and forth across the border, and sharing champagne with the liberated Germans!
As a new resident of Brunswick Plantation, I am meeting a diverse group of people who also have original stories of interesting experiences at home and abroad. In fact, one lovely lady I met recently, grew up in Budapest Hungary, and has written a book about growing up under communism.
If you or someone you know has an interesting story they would like to share, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Happy New Year!