Six days after I took what turned out to be my final walk along the Berlin Wall, my doorbell rang early in the morning. It was a Friday and I’d just finished dressing and feeding my baby and two year old toddler. This early, it had to be my mother, so I opened the door in my pyjamas, holding Ella in my arm.
It was my friend Mischa, who lived in East Berlin. This made no sense – how did he get across the Wall to be in West Berlin?
“The Wall is open!” Mischa was beaming.
His words didn’t register.
Mischa shouted the news: “The Wall is open.”
I saw the keys hanging right next to the door, each one with its own label. I saw Maxie’s little jacket on the hook, the sisal mat on the wooden floor. It must be true or he wouldn’t be standing here. I squeezed his arm. He hugged us so tight that Ella grumbled, then he twirled us around. Die Mauer ist offen. I repeated the phrase. Maxie bounced into the hallway and I said it to her and she clapped her little hands because she felt the excitement.
I pulled Mischa into the kitchen, put on the kettle to make tea. “Tell me about it.”
There’d been a press conference in East Berlin at 7pm the night before, Novemeber 9th. The speaker of the Communist Party Central Committee, Günther Schabowski, declared that East Germans were free to travel, starting immediately. On West German radio and television, Schabowski’s statement was immediately amplified into the sensational announcement: the Wall is open. By 9 pm, several hundred East Berliners had gathered at the border checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse with their passports in hand, demanding to cross the border. Border guards took their time inspecting and stamping documents and then allowed the East Germans to pass, one by one. A couple of hours later, thousands of people had arrived at the checkpoint. Completely overwhelmed, the guards gave up on procedure. They simply opened the gates. Jubilant individuals streamed across, kept coming all night long. (See my first blog post: Give the Man A Medal for a more detailed description of what happened on November 9, 1989.)
“I can’t believe I slept through that.” I slapped my forehead. “Why didn’t they toll every church bell in the city to wake us up?”
Exhausted from Ella’s nighttime feedings, I’d gone to bed early, in the morning I was too sleepy to turn on the radio. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one who missed those first moments of liberation – another East Berlin friend told me she’d woken up in the middle of the night and turned on the radio .The Wall open? People crossing from East to West? She was certain that this was a fantasy feature, like War of the Worlds, and went back to bed.
“I’ve been dancing on the streets of West Berlin since midnight,” Mischa told me. “Some Easterners went back across early in the morning to get to work on time – can you imagine that?” He laughed, just thinking about it. “Then I thought of you stuck here with the kids and decided to come and get you. Forget the tea, just get dressed and pack up the girls. You have to see this.”
Outside, Mischa’s Lada was wedged in between Audis and VW’s, the only Eastern made car in sight. We tucked the stroller into the trunk, belted Maxie in without a baby seat; I held Ella on my lap. Traffic got thick when we neared the Wall so we parked far away from the Heinrich Heine checkpoint.
On foot, we became part of a human flood: people rushing to witness the historic event. At the checkpoint, East Berliners streamed across the border that had been forbidden to them for three decades, their expressions a mix of joy and wild surprise. Some were wiping away tears. One woman knelt down to kiss the cold asphalt of the street just because it was West Berlin. Strangers embraced like long-lost best friends, people danced and sang together. A bearded man bent low towards Maxie, who was sitting in her stroller. “This is better than every birthday and Christmas put together.” The air vibrated with laughing, shouting, popping champagne corks. West Berliners handed out flowers and chocolate, cigarettes and Deutschmark, they poured champagne into plastic cups and passed them around, toasting their “brothers and sisters from the East.” Staccato chants vibrated: We are the People!
The most fortified of all national boundaries had collapsed under the weight of popular protests and an ecstatic rush of liberation uplifted us all. It felt like all walls were crashing, including those in our minds.
My posts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall are excerpted from a memoir in progress that is set in divided Berlin. Read also: The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 1.