Tuesday, November 09, 2004

November 9th, 1989

A few weeks ago I visited a colleague in his class to speak (together with another colleague) about life in a communist country. Before we started our talk the students and I watched a movie about Ceaucescu and the Rumanian revolution of 1989. In this movie we also saw coverage from November 9th, 1989 - the day the wall came down. It sent a shiver up my spine. I still remember that day and the following day well.

November 9th, 1989 I was a teenager in Leipzig/ East Germany. I was 13 years old and my parents were in the middle of their rather ugly divorce.
November 9th was a Friday (if I remember correctly). It was a friend's birthday. So we had a great party. Played and laughed, had nice food. The friend lived in the same house as we did, just a floor above us. At 9pm the party was over and my sister and I went home. We saw mom in front of the TV looking at the pictures with disbelief. The wall was open. People could freely go to West Berlin. People could travel to West Germany. We thought, this is not gonna last, this is just gonna be for the weekend, then they close the wall again.
The 10th of November was spent entirely in front of the TV. Seeing the kilometers of Trabis and Wartburgs rolling West, people dancing on the wall. It seemed surreal. We were in disbelief and excited at the same time. Would we be able to go to West Berlin or West Germany ourselves?
The wall stayed open. Not just that weekend. It stayed open the week after, and the month after and the years after. The weeks after were characterized by reports of people traveling to the West, very crowded trains. We too went to West Berlin. Must have been late November or early December that we went. Mom, Grandma, my sister and me. The train was packed. It took forever to get to Berlin. And then we arrived, crossed over to West Berlin without anyone stopping us. We drove with one of the double decker busses through West Berlin to a place where we could get the "Begruessungsgeld" - 100DM given to every East German that arrived for the first time in the West. I think we stood in line for this for hours (but then again a kid's perception of time is always different). My sister and I did not like standing in line and were running around a bit, seeing the fruits the stores sold. I remember after we got the money, we went shopping. We did not buy much. We bought some fruit and I remember we bought an umbrella for my mom. The rest we saved. We spent it the next March for a real trip to the West - not to West Germany, but to Paris. Paris for a day. For a cold and rainy day in March.
I remember I wasn't truly impressed with either of the two "Western" places we went to first: West Berlin and Paris did not impress me much. But I liked it when we traveled to Bavaria and to visit relatives in Lower Saxony in 1990.

To be given the chance to travel around was for me the most significant gain from the fall of the wall. And of course, with the opening of the wall and unification of Germany we got better produce - more fruit, a better selection of groceries. As a kid of course, I never realized any restrictions on freedom of expression. I think this is why the freedom to travel was one of the greatest accomplishments to me from that time. I really appreciated it when I went on a school exchange to Sweden in 1993 and was in disbelief when I got on a plane to "move" to the US in 1999. Who would have thought that all this would happen when we watched the wall come down November 9th, 1989?

PS: You want to read more personal accounts of this day look here and if you are able to read German definitely look here.