Reflections on the Wall
I used to ride the S-Bahn (over-ground train) from my neighborhood in Wedding, Berlin in 1984. The Station, Wollankstasse Bahnhof, actually lay within the confines of the Wall and no-man’s-land that separated West from East Berlin. One could stand on the platform and look to the left and see the brightly painted apartments on the Western side with their window-boxes overflowing with flowers in the spring and summer. On the right one could see the grey backs of eviscerated Old Berlin Hinterhofs (the back tenement courtyards of the older buildings) and glimpses of the streets that no longer ran to the West. Down these streets could be seen hints of the gold, red, and black East German flags which were supposedly hung with patriotism from the nearest windows. Flags answered flowers. One bright day I heard children’s voices from the old Hinterhofs to the east. Straining my ears to discern what song these children of the GDR might be singing my curiosity turned to incredulity as across the No Man’s Land drifted the undeniable lyrics: “Plop, plop, fiz, fiz, Oh what a relief it is…”
6 years later I returned to Berlin and to my old neighborhood. My apartment sat just a few blocks from the Bornholmer Straße crossing where, on November 9th, 1989, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, had opened the gate and allowed unrestricted passage to the thousands of East Berliners who had come out to test the uncertain declaration of freedom of movement for GDR citizens. My neighborhood had been the flashpoint. As I walked it’s streets in 1990 the proximity of the old crossing was still palatable, but mainly so as the sidewalks in front of every building in the vicinity had been converted into open-air denim bazaars. There were denim caps, jean jackets, blue jeans and denim shirts. Crowds from the East slowly promenaded about this blue-jean fantasy world, their eyes seemingly glazed and their arms over-loaded with the side-walk fares. At the nearby U-bahn station I saw an entire family (father, mother, son and daughter) decked out in blue denim from head to toe. They wore vests and jackets and even blue denim sneakers. Upon their faces were that same daze I saw in the streets and in their hands were denim-filled shopping bags.
It reminded me of how Sylvester (New Years Eve) was celebrated in Berlin before the Wall fell. I remember climbing with a friend atop the ruins of an old church near the Wall and making it to the top just as the bells nearby rang the hour of midnight. Everything suddenly stilled as bells all over the city joined in, East and West and then, simultaneously, fireworks erupted on both sides of the wall. In the West they were of all colors. In the East they were uniformly white. A year after the Wall had fallen the distinction between the two sides of the city remained just as stark, despite the fact that Sylvester would never again be celebrated within the Cold War city Berlin had been.
Leading up to the official reunification of East and West Germany in the year after the Wall came down, there were a number of changes that had long been wished for but which occurred with such a mix of emotion for people in the east of the city. Notable to East Germans was the piecemeal withdrawal of Soviet forces, first to their bases ringing greater Berlin and then bit by bit from Germany itself. For East Germans who had lived alongside the soldiers of this occupying army the sentiments were as mixed as relations, but rarely was there any public expression of regret.
On the morning of the official reunification, October 3rd of 1990, I ventured early into the East. As usual, my first goal was to see the streets in the city center and to visit Museumsinsel (Museum Island) where the Lustgarten, the Berlin Dom, the Altes Museum (and the Neues as well), the National Gallery, the Bode and, of greatest interest to me, the Pergamon Museum where I could never but marvel beneath the stolen blue walls of ancient Babylon and the Isthar Gate, the ancient processional way of kings returning from great pillage, itself pillaged and resurrected in a city that also had been nearly so completely stripped and then resurrected.
This for me was the place to first reflect upon the tumult of history that this day was to be a fast footnote to. Today, though, there was to be no blood, no tears, just celebration. So I believed until I arrived by the Dom and the Lustgarten and heard the most plaintive and incredible sound. The voices were Russian and the soldiers were in what had to pass as their finest uniforms.
This small chorus of soldiers and their lone accordion player at first struck me as despondent just for their presence that day, but the soloist captivated me. His tears were real, whether brought on by the passion of his voice, the sadness of its tale or the tears that fell from the eyes of all of the onlookers, and I cannot tell you what first brought tears to my eyes, but it did not matter. Within a verse of my stillness I was nearly blind from them.
I never thought to wipe them away as I, like all around me, was rapt in that moment, by that voice and by the bursting heart we all seemed to share together. And I knew I could understand nothing of this, not really – not as a Berliner, not as an East German, not a Russian, not as anyone who had lived so thoroughly through all that ran in time to that one experience. But that fraction of a degree of commonality – of being present for that voice… there is no relating what that was. It was simply incredible. It was simply incredible. That voice defined “departure” for me in such a way that my sense of it can never be abstracted – never – not really.