I came back to Berlin this week though I had just been here in August. I couldn’t be here when the Wall first opened on November 9, 1989, and so I wanted to come for the 25th anniversary to honor all of the people who made it come down – mostly the East Germans themselves, through a powerful and peaceful revolution – and all of those who lost their lives trying to escape to the West. For 5 years during the Cold War, I lived here, and as anyone who was here then will tell you, it was an unforgettable place.
If you were a West Berliner, as I was, you lived surrounded by thousands of American, French and British troops who were here to keep the Russians in check, not to mention an impressive number of “civilians” who did secret government work, like my best friend Nancy’s father who was, it can now be told, the Berlin station chief for the NSA. In many ways, West Berlin was the safest place on Earth at that time, or if it wasn’t, it felt that way to me, a teenager who grew blasé about tanks rolling down the street in front of my school. But for the millions of people who lived in East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (the DDR, as it was known in German) on the other side of the Wall, life wasn’t safe, free or particularly plentiful, unless you were well-connected politically.
When what eventually became the Wall – barbed wire to start with – went up at an astonishing pace in 1961 in a desperate effort to stem the tide of more than a million East Germans who fled the Communist regime, it cleaved a nation still coming to grips with its horrific role in World War II. On top of that shameful legacy, suddenly there were no longer just Germans, there were East and West Germans, essentially at war with each other, sometimes with their own families who, through a twist of geography, were dealt a very different fate.
Tomorrow will be a joyous celebration, but in the days leading up to it, I’ve quietly walked the entire 15 kilometer stretch of the Lichtgrenze, or Light border, which was illuminated for two nights and will be one last time tomorrow night before the balloons are released. It has been a deeply moving experience, akin to a spiritual pilgrimage, made much more pleasant by unusually warm and beautiful fall weather here.
Many thousands of us have been stopping at temporary commemorative displays, as well as in front of giant screens that the city of Berlin has erected along the route, transfixed by the old, often grainy video images that show everything from tragically bungled escapes to the surges of people heading towards the finally opened borders in 1989.
My ear catches snippets of heart wrenching and heart warming stories every few feet, it seems. Many who have come to walk have a story or a connection of some sort, and German families seem to be using the anniversary as an opportunity to teach their young children about this piece of their history, one that seems almost inconceivable to those who did not live it, regardless of which side of the Wall they lived.