One week ago at dinner we were discussing the news headline of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The children wondered what that was and why they should care. Zeus and I began explaining about the end of World War II and communism and the Cold War, and quickly we could see that it was a hefty topic for taco night and kind of tricky to explain while passing the cheese and salsa around the table. So I opted for telling a story instead.
In the autumn of 1989, I was a student in Geneva and shared some classes with a group of German law students, also studying abroad. Their names have vanished from my memory, but what remains is the collective look of incredulity and amazement on their faces the morning of November 9, 1989. The East German government had declared that it would henceforth allow freedom of travel for any of its citizens. The Berlin Wall was opened, and people could go freely from the East to West Berlin for the first time in nearly thirty years. The Germany that those students had known all their lives, one of division, hostility and separation - including that of some of their own families - was about to change.
It was the beginning of the end of the Wall itself, as news footage shows West Berliners clambering up on the Wall on November 10th, and instead of bullets, the East German border guards using only water spray jets to try to get them down. By the time I arrived in Berlin on December 30th to bring in the New Year, with what seemed like a large portion of the rest of the world, sizeable chunks of graffitied concrete had been hammered out of the Wall, as seen in famous photos of that time. By then, the East German guards were up on the Wall themselves, in front of Brandenburg Gate, helping pull us up, along with all the other tourists, to stand for a few moments on a piece of history. Then they shooed us all back down again, and we passed them chewing gum through the holes made in the wall by the hammering. They were young, our age.
The next night we wandered back to join the huge crowd on the Western side of the Wall at Brandenburg Gate, Brandenburger Tor, the monument in the center of the city which had become a symbol of a divided city and a divided Germany. We could hear the matching crowd on the Eastern side. As it approached midnight, the masses on both sides counted down together, unified by the time and place and the sheer volume of the counting voices. Though less than two months had gone by since the East German decree of free travel, everybody in that crowd felt hope and the inevitability of a single Germany, reunified after forty-five years.
Then it was midnight, there were fireworks, and the small door in the wall, where people had been carefully filing past guards all evening, was flung open, and with a great surge of people and no formalities we found ourselves in East Berlin. One of the guards heard us speaking English. "Amerikaner?" When we replied yes, he gave us big drunken hugs of welcome. Under the Brandenburg Gate we met a student our age who introduced himself as, "Mike - understand you?" Excited to meet Americans, he asked if we were from New York City, one of the few American landmarks he was familiar with. Barbara, tried to explain that actually she was New Hampshire, a bit to the northeast of New York City. We soon realized that this was way beyond his English and our German. "Yeah, sure, New York!" she conceded, much to Mike's joy. Christine and I, from small towns in Oregon and Washington, looked at each other and back at Mike. "We're from San Francisco," we said in unison. Again Mike was overjoyed to meet people from such famous cities, and then told us we should come with him to a party.
Looking back, I am surprised that we went, considering the factors against it: dead of night, communist country, unfamiliar city, vast numbers of drunken people, complete stranger. But up Unten den Linden Strasse we walked together to the "Palace of the Republic" which housed the parliament of the DDR. With no hesitation Mike led us through the door and onto the dance floor. It was surreal. I have never seen a sadder looking New Year's Party. This was apparently an official event for the communist party faithful, all dressed up in their fancies, and not one seemed to care a whit that "Mike" and some shabbily dressed American student travelers had just showed up on the dance floor. These were communist leaders, and they too were feeling the wind of change, but this wind was blowing against them.
We shuffled about there with half-drunken communists for awhile, and then we headed back West in the wee hours, feeling slightly nervous since we didn't have tourist visas for East Germany, which were still officially required for Americans. Thankfully, no one at the border was interested in checking passports, and we stumbled back to our hostel, feeling that for once in our lives, our personal stories had intersected with something pivotal in history. New Year's with the Fall of Communism was something to always remember.
So back in the here and now, when the taco remains were cleared away, I got out my old photo albums and showed my proof that I had really been there. Apollo who is eight, looked over and over at the pictures of the Wall, the graffiti on one side, blank white concrete and barbed wire on the other side, but he just didn't understand it. Let me clarify; he understands walls -- we've studied the Middle Ages. Walls around cities - keep out enemy invaders. Great Wall of China - keep out marauding invaders. Hadrian's Wall - keep out marauding blue Scottish invaders. Walls are to keep people out - why would they build a wall to keep people in? When the truth finally sunk in, that they built a wall to divide a city and to keep their own people in, his eyes widened with a mixture of amazement and horror.
And I think when things like that don't make sense to an eight year old, they don't make sense at all.