Tuesday, November 10, 2009


"All in all you’re just another brick in the wall." — Pink Floyd

It is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I remember this event as if it happened yesterday; it is still so fresh in my mind. This momentous event shook the world with the sound of sledgehammers and pickaxes slamming away against concrete, wielded by young and old alike with such ferocity that it seemed they were banging away at the regime that placed it there.

Having a mother who was of German descent, I always had an interest in Germany and its history and culture. As a young boy I was fascinated by the strength of the people and its art and literature, but was bothered by the fact that at one time “Germania” was seen as the home of barbarians during Roman times. That warlike nature certainly followed the people across the centuries, right up to the modern era when the Kaiser and then Hitler made war and caused agony for millions of people.

This interest first brought me to Germany in the early 1980s, and of course that eventually meant a trip to Berlin. Now that the country is reunited, it can seem to some, especially those born since the wall came down, like it was only a bad dream, but I saw the reality of the formidable guard towers along the West German-East German border, and there was more than a goosestep in the gait of East German soldiers, their perfect uniforms and dark boots reminiscent of the Nazi era.

I recall being on the bus joking with my friends, but the truth is that when you went through that border control, it was no laughing matter. One of my friends was Jewish, and all our cockiness evaporated as the stone-faced guard looked at our passports and decided to take David into a separate room. We all waited an hour and forty minutes until the guards escorted him back to our group and we resumed our journey.

Back on the bus and heading toward West Berlin, we all breathed a sigh of relief but drove through the stark landscape knowing we would have to go through this again. I leaned over and asked David what happened in the room, and he told me they just kept him there. The guards spoke on the phone, asked him questions about New York, and basically intimidated him with the prospect of a long-term detention. I could see how shaken he was, and I felt nervous too about the rest of the trip ahead of us.

The remainder of our trip went off splendidly. We got to tour West Berlin, drink coffee in a cafĂ©, and listen to Germans speaking freely. American soldiers could be seen walking around as we came closer to Checkpoint Charlie. We had an uneventful “tour” on the Eastern side, where it was obvious how the wall had divided some neighborhoods going straight through where houses once stood.

East Berlin definitely seemed lost in another time, the grim streets and dour buildings going on for block after block. It started to rain as we made our way back to the west, and I saw East German children sitting on the steps of a building staring at the wall with blank expressions, knowing we could go through but they could not. All these years later, I can still see those kids, sitting in the rain and feeling like they symbolized everything wrong with the wall.

Back on the West German side, the tour guide was now free to speak, and he said that his family was split up by the wall. His children were stuck in the East because they moved there when they were married, never expecting that monstrosity to go up on August 13, 1961. He told of how the Stasi (East German secret police) would spy on them because they knew their parents lived in the West, and that even when Westerners went across that they were spied on too.

I left Germany that year feeling markedly different about my ancestry and life in a divided Germany. I couldn’t understand how people could live like that, and how some of them couldn’t be free. I was so disenchanted, I didn’t think I’d ever return to the country despite enjoying my time in West Germany. Large steins of beer and sizzling bratwurst aside, I felt too sad after seeing the East and avoided going to Germany again on future trips to Europe.

Then the wall fell. I watched it at home in New York and just stared at the screen as if it were a movie. How could this be happening? Without an army and without a shot being fired, the wall came tumbling down at the hands of normal citizens disgusted by years of oppression. I recalled President Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” and thinking, that will never happen in a million years, but here it was happening in a matter of two years after Reagan said that.

In the summer of 1990 I returned to Germany. As we drove through the old West German-East German border, the abandoned guard towers, while still imposing, were really just a point of interest, a blip on the radar as we made our way to Berlin unimpeded by guards and passport checks.

I was on my own this time, having lost touch with most of my college friends who made the trip the last time. I had David’s number and called him, but he was recently married and couldn’t come with me, but I quickly made new friends and, since this was their first time visiting Germany, they saw everything in a more carefree way, unencumbered by memories of a divided country.

By the time we got to Berlin, I was amazed at how everything had changed with the wall gone, and the enterprising locals had set up tables on both sides of Brandenburg Gate, hawking everything from authentic Soviet-era hats, badges, and uniforms, to “certified” chunks of the Berlin Wall mounted on plaques and frames. A good deal of the wall had come down, but a short walk brought us to a place where the wall still stood, and here old men were renting hammers and chisels so we could take home a piece of the action.

I must admit that I succumbed to this gimmick on a purely visceral level, for I could in some small way feel like I was a part of that glorious night of November 9, 1989, as I stood in Berlin with a hammer and chisel. As I chopped away at the wall where graffiti covered most of the concrete, I got a chunk off about the size of a baseball.

Another tourist a few feet away from me managed to yank a complete brick out of the wall. He rubbed his hand over it to remove the dust and debris and walked away with it very contentedly. I thought about that old Pink Floyd song, and looked down at the piece I had in my hand. Satisfied with that, I put it in my pocket and I still have it to this day, kept in a special box labeled “Berlin Wall 1990.”

As we walked around town, there was such an overwhelming euphoria and a true feeling of freedom. I passed near where I had seen those boys sitting on the steps in the rain years ago, and there were teenagers standing there holding a basketball and dressed ostensibly like American teens in jeans, sneakers, and backwards baseball caps. Freedom indeed had come to East Berlin.

I traveled to other places in Eastern Europe that summer of 1990, and I encountered much of the same excitement and saw people reveling in the sun openly, literally laughing and dancing in the streets. Buskers could be found in all the big cities like Dresden, Prague, and Budapest, and other street performers filled the squares with colorful entertainment. Also, American products were being advertised everywhere, as the move toward the West came complete with Marlboro cigarettes, Budweiser beer, and McDonald’s hamburgers.

One moment I remember very vividly occurred on Charles Bridge in Prague. On a very warm summer night, there must have been a thousand people on the bridge from end to end. The city was exploding with color and light, and the members of my group and I spoke with a number of people as we walked over the bridge above the black Vltava River. All of them expressed such happiness to be able to see us. Our presence was not only welcomed but celebrated.

One Czech fellow stopped us and asked if we were Americans. We said we were, and he talked for a long time about his new life. “Old life is bad; new life is very good. We never go back to the old life. Ever again.” I will never forget the enlightened look on his face as he said these words with a passion that came from being free after so many years of suppression.

It has been a long time since I’ve been to Germany, but all this attention to the 20th anniversary has made me long to go back again. I wonder what I will find there after all these years of freedom. I know from what I read and hear that Germany has come a long way from that time, but I wonder if anything could match the jubilation I saw in that summer of 1990.

I know I will go back someday, probably to bring my children to see the country of their ancestors. I do know as someone of German descent that I feel particularly happy when I see a map that shows the unified Germany, and I think all Americans want that country to keep moving forward away from a sometimes dark past into the bright light that only freedom can bring.