The Balloons are Gone, the Party is Over. What a Night it Was.

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Some of the balloons just before their releast.

Some of the balloons just before their release at the end of the Lichtgrenze, or light border, next to the Oberbaumbrücke, a crossing over the Spree River that was closed when the Wall went up.

It was like no other celebration I’ve been to, and just as the rest of the million plus people who turned out won’t forget Mauerfall 25, the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I never will, either.

It was the rare, perfect mix of somber and celebratory. The Chancellor tucked a single yellow rose into a remnant of the Wall, paying tribute to the people who had died trying to cross it. The political speeches were short. One of the key activists from the former East Berlin had a leading role in the ceremonies. Along the Lichtgrenze, one could read 100 different stories of ordinary people’s lives who were changed forever by the Wall.  And the illuminated balloons, stretched along a 15 kilometer stretch, evoked UFOs, which was really the perfect way to represent the Wall – as an alien body.

But the balloons each had a “godparent” or Pate, as they are called in German, and each (biodegradable) balloon had an individualized, hand written message attached to it.   As my friends Peter and Barbara and their son Daniel and his girlfriend Tania and I walked about a three-mile stretch of the Lichtgrenze last night, we stopped to read some of the messages along the way.  Like virtually everything about these past few days, they offered a welter of emotions, some as airy as the helium gas that filled the balloons, others in memory of some of the 136 people who were killed trying to cross the Wall, others still demanding that all of the remaining political walls in the world be torn down.

The crowds along the route never forgot why we were there, and so while there was an undeniably festive air to the foggy night, it was also laced with serious discussions between parents and children and friends and foreigners about what the Wall had represented. Everyone was talking about it, in dozens of different languages, and, for the Germans, in an uncharacteristically open way.  I probably heard a hundred of those conversations myself as I walked the entire stretch over two days.

Waiting for the balloons to rise

Waiting for the balloons to rise

We opted to stay away from the Brandenburg Gate and the hundreds of thousands of people who congregated there to hear the politicians speak and listen to Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Instead, we watched on giant screens erected at the very end of the Lichtgrenze, across from what is the longest remaining stretch of the Wall, now called the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art gallery, and near the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge crossing over the Spree that was closed when the Wall went up. Our crowd consisted of a lot of locals, people who lived in the apartments looking right over the Wall at the water’s edge, and some of them recalled the horrors they had witnessed from their own living rooms, safe in the West.   As they talked and we waited for our balloons to go up – they were released sequentially –  a few people on standup paddle boards plied the waters of the Spree, where they could not have when the Wall was up.  As the temporary balloon Wall lifted skyward, a pair of mallards flew overhead, backlit by the glow.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze near the Brandenburg Gate.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze, swapping stories and sharing memories.

Somehow, it all fit together, magically and poetically.

This morning early, heading to an appointment at the American Embassy, right next to the Brandenburg Gate, I marveled at how clean the city looked. Crews had worked all night, and the barriers were down, the streets were swept and the trash had been emptied.  Even the bases of the balloon holders had disappeared. The Wall truly was gone, and by 9:00 a.m., Berlin was nearly back to normal.  I can’t say the same thing about myself.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin's streets.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin’s streets.

 

 

 

 

25 Years After the Wall Came Down

 

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

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.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

 

 

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.

The Licht Grenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

The Lichtgrenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

 

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.

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, "Germans, don't shoot your own countrymen."

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, “Germans, don’t shoot your own countrymen.”

 

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.

 

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.