Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 11, 2005
And the Wall came tumbling down
Sixteen years ago, the Berlin Wall came down after standing for nearly three decades. I remember watching news accounts of the jubilant Berliners, pounding away at the Wall with hammers while sitting on top with arms around their buddies.
It was Nov. 9, 1989 when the East German government lifted travel restrictions, allowing its citizens to enter the West. Germans finished dismantling the eight-foot high, 96-mile long Wall in
1990. This week's 16th anniversary of that event, coupled with having our young German student living with us, made me think about how things have changed in such a relatively short time.
Then it struck me. Young adults such as Nadja haven't known anything but freedom. Her home is in what was part of east Berlin, but she wasn't even a year old when the Wall fell.
In 1991, Art and I made our first trip to what had been East Germany, the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik.) We could tell that the reunification process of the two Germanies had begun, but we were amazed by the differences between West and East.
West Germany had a strong economy, good roads and well-kept villages and cities. East Germany had a weak economy, pothole-filled roads and crumbling, gray, coal-dirtied buildings. The towers and lights of the border stations were still there, but the windows were broken, a sign that the sentries were gone.
While we were in the East, we experienced part of the bureaucracy the people had put up with for years. We waited in long lines at three different banks in Fürstenwalde near the Polish border, only to find that none of them could cash a traveler's check, one clerk commenting she had never seen one before. When we traveled to Poland to visit the village where Art's great-grandparents were born, we waited three hours at the border while vehicles were checked.
There was still a Soviet presence in East Germany, but it was a muted one. Bored Red Army soldiers sat in their military vehicles on street corners. In Wittenberg, the soldiers bought jeans and pizza at the local market. People in small villages were curious about our being there, but suspicious as well. In one village, a woman came out to sweep her sidewalk, or so she wanted us to believe. But she kept sneaking glances to see what we were doing.
Ten years later, when Art and I took the girls to Germany, we could see tremendous changes in the East. In Berlin, the Reichstag - the restored seat of Germany's government - had been renovated. It was covered by a glass dome to let in light and to give people the opportunity to see
inside. We went through the new Sony Center and the Daimler Chrysler building, both extremely modern structures. In ten years, we went from seeing how things were done decades in the past to looking at the newest technology on the planet.
The roads were much improved from a decade earlier. Fürstenwalde boasted a newly-opened shopping mall. McDonald's and Burger King restaurants had a large presence. Some of the old Russian apartments were being renovated by locals who had purchased the structures after the last soldiers left in 1995.
In 2003, we could still see a few remnants of Russian occupation, such as barbed wire fences and abandoned, gray, poured-concrete structures. But most buildings in eastern Germany were brightly painted and had new orange-red roofs. Where we once couldn't cash a traveler's check,
automatic teller machines had popped up in almost every little village.
And the rural people - at least the young ones - were extremely friendly and curious. In Grüssow, where Art's great-grandparents were married, we met teenagers Melanie and Marion, who were so excited to see Americans that they couldn't seem to stop asking questions, half in
English, half in German: "How old are your daughters?" "How much allowance do they make?""Do you have pets?" "How many cars do you have?" "Is that bubble gum?" All this in the same village where 12 years earlier we watched two men plow a field with horses.
When we last visited, we couldn't see any traces of the Wall that separated the two parts of Berlin. Last year, 500 feet was re-erected and 1,065 crosses were placed nearby to represent those who died trying to cross to freedom, a testament that history is best not forgotten.
But while it was only 16 years ago, to children such as Melanie and Marion and our German daughter Nadja, it's just ancient history.
Near Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 1991: People sold memorabilia from DDR era.