Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 28, 2014

"Wir sind ein Volk"

Twenty-five years ago this month, the world changed a bit for the better. It began as a misunderstanding.

Throughout the year, it was obvious that the Soviet Union, a dominant force in world politics since the end of World War II, was crumbling. But officials in East Germany, one of Moscow's satellites, were doing whatever they could to hold on. The Berlin Wall was a key element in that effort. Built in the 1960s, the 12-foot high and 96-mile-long concrete barrier separated East Germans from their richer brothers in the West.

As the prospect of freedom arose, East Germans became restless. During a television interview broadcast on November 9, 1989, Guenther Schabowski, a member of the ruling Politburo, stated that people would immediately be able to travel to the West. He didn't mean it. It was apparently nothing more than an attempt to calm East Germans.

But many believed him. Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger, who was in charge at Berlin's Bornholmer Street border crossing, heard Shabowski while he was eating his supper. Calls to his superiors indicated nothing had changed. But as the crowd at his crossing swelled to more than 10,000 people, Jaeger ordered the guards to open the gates to avoid a riot.

Less than two years later, husband Art, his mother Donna and I traveled into what had been East Germany. The reunification process of the two Germanies was under way, but the differences between the two were stark. In West Germany, the economy was strong, the roads were good, its colorful villages and cities were well-kept, and industries were modern. In contrast, East Germany's economy was weak, the roads were filled with potholes, and industries used methods abandoned in the West decades earlier.

Two items immediately caught our attention. One was watching men plowing fields with plows pulled by horses. The other was the run-down condition of the cities and villages. Almost every building was gray, the result of the soot created by burning soft coal and the fumes from the Trabant automobile's two-cycle engine. Crossing the old border was like switching from a color movie to one shot in black and white.

Ten years later, the changes in Berlin were dramatic. The Reichstag, located on the former border, was again the seat of a united German government. It had been renovated, including the addition of a glass dome to let in light and to give people the opportunity to see inside. We visited the new Sony Center and the Daimler Chrysler building, both extremely modern structures. In the countryside, villages were brightly painted with new orange-red roofs.

By 2003, only remnants of the Russian occupation, such as barbed wire fences and abandoned gray poured-concrete structures remained, largely hidden behind tall grass and trees.

At the "Fall of the Wall" 20th anniversary celebration in Berlin's Alexanderplatz, signboards included photos of the divided city, of people reaching across barbed wire to family members, of jubilant students dancing on top of the wall, and of maps showing where the wall had been.

Some of the concrete sections that had made up the wall now reside in museums around the world. One is at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas. But many more make up Berlin's East Side Gallery near the city center. The nearly mile-long segment consists of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world and serves as an international memorial to freedom. When city officials attempted to dismantle the gallery in 2013 to make way for luxury apartments, Berliners were having none of it.

Earlier this month, on the 25th anniversary of the day Jaeger told his men to open the gates, Germans celebrated. Along more than eight miles of the former border, 8,000 illuminated balloons were released.

The "Lichtgrenze" or "Border of Light" was meant to "evoke the brutal division of the past," according to a New York Times News Service article.

Our "adopted" German daughter Nadja and some of her friends were at the celebration. She was less than 1 year old when the wall came down and so she has no direct memory of what happened.

"... So many people were everywhere where the light wall was set up. Crowds of tourists came to see the event and so many people from other countries came to see it. We went to the East Side Gallery, to Checkpoint Charlie [another former border crossing point] and to the Brandenburg Gate, which was already closed because too many people were there. So we walked a little farther almost to the Potsdamer Platz to see the balloons flying away. ... when they started to let them fly away, everybody said, 'Oh, wow, yay' so it was a stunning moment because so many people were there to watch and celebrate ..."

Because the crowds were so large, they couldn't get to what had been the west side of the wall. Nadja said they pretended it was like when the wall was built, adding, "It felt really real, but wasn't."

Christopher Bauder is the Berlin lighting designer who, along with his brother Marc, had the idea for the lighted balloons. In the Times article, he said:

"So many things have changed. There's buildings where the wall was. The scars are slowly growing over, but I think it's good from time to time to tear it open just a little bit and take a peek at what it might have been like to live in this city back then."

The collapse of the Soviet Union has yet to bring prosperity to most of its former member states or satellites. But a few have done well. Among those, East Germany is by far the most successful. And much of that success can be credited to the great sacrifices made by West Germans in helping their brothers and sisters to the east. The attitude that inspired the country may be best expressed by a spray-painted sign we saw on an overpass during our 1991 trip. It said, "Wir sind ein Volk" - We are one people.

These photos are two of those taken by Nadja and friends during the November 9 25th anniversary celebration of the Berlin Wall being opened. In the right photo, Nadja holds the cord attached to one of the lighted balloons.

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