On my way home from work on Nov. 9, I bought a German newspaper to remember my experiences as an East German teenager and to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall some two decades ago.
I read the records of contemporaries, of an East German border policeman who struggled to make the right decision, of curious Berliners who were pulled along in the current of events with hundreds of Trabi cars heading for the other side of the separated city. I read of a reporter’s fateful question and one of the most consequential and most glorious errors, or premature announcements, at a press conference ever: “As far as I know … yes, starting immediately … it is possible for them to go through the border.”
Many have asked me where I was on that evening, 20 years ago, and what I felt. For the longest time I couldn’t remember anything in particular, and then I recalled why. We thought it was a trick of the communist regime. We were waiting it out in our little village in Southeast Germany, dreading the tanks that were standing by.
But then, a week later, my dad packed us four kids in the Trabi car and we hit the concrete Autobahn for Berlin. Emotions well up with the memories — standing in front of a shopping mall in the first snow, blinded by the thousands of Christmas stars that seemed to fill the cold dark sky.
I remember thinking, “So it is true, after all.” Not long before that, I had stood in the kitchen with my dad and counted the years until I turned 18 so I could at least apply for a visa to check out if golden West Germany was just a fairy tale. Working in a factory in East Germany’s retarded textile industry was not exactly my dream, but about the only outlook. I had grown up learning that you better keep your dreams of the big wide world to yourself.
Now I was there. I wasn’t bitter about the years spent in the confinement of the Eastern Bloc. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the glittering of capitalism. I was just utterly pleased to find that even the faintest hope was rewarded with such wonderful reality. I remember us children with our fashionable East German plastic glasses standing at the counter that was supposed to present us with our “welcome money” from the West German government and had just closed down, and dad explaining what a long way we had come. We each walked out like Bill Gates with our DM100 bill. I also remember how some of us, under the wise investment counsel of dad, took our first real money and put it in the offering for orphans in Bethlehem at the church around the corner, with the exhilarating joy of being able to make a difference somewhere.
I remember how we stopped at a gas station on the way and I, thrilled by the splendid choice, made my first Western purchase — a deodorant. Not until weeks later when it was almost empty did I realize it was a gentleman’s fragrance. East Germany wasn’t very good at fragrances.
I remember how hot and tasty the hot chocolate in the plastic cup was that the Salvation Army was passing out to the strangers in the street.
What a Thanksgiving.
I just opened a bottle of Rottkäppchen sparkling wine that had been waiting for the
right moment, and I toasted to the god of history.