Arriving in Berlin for the first time felt like going back home. That’s because my grandparents were German immigrants, and the language I heard growing up was German.
Maybe because of that, and of the stories I heard about World War II as a child, Berlin touched me deeply. The German capital is a city of many layers, and while discovering it I felt I was witnessing history – everything important that happened in the world in the last 100 years started or was centered in Berlin.
I heard a lot about the Wall there. Parts of it were still standing (pic 2), so people won’t forget it. The Wall was built overnight in 1961 by the Communist government of East Germany, to keep its citizens from escaping to the West. For decades the ugly structure was the symbol of a divided Germany, and the embodiment of the repression imposed upon East Germans by their government. Since Germany lost WWII, in 1945, East Germany fell under the control of the Soviet Union, with a government that was a mere puppet of Moscow. The Wall also separated families, and many people lost their lives trying to escape to the West.
The day the Wall fell was commemorated around the world. I remember it clearly: it was November 9, 1989. I was at home in Manhattan when news programs started to broadcast from Berlin, showing images of young people on top of the Wall. Some had hammers in their hands and were breaking pieces of it, others embraced and waved German flags. While they celebrated, huge crowds of East Germans crossed from East to the West, under the confused stare of the East German police. The event marked the end of the Iron Curtain, and the final blow to Communism. I was moved to tears.
The site where thousands were shot trying to escape was very near my hotel in Berlin, a somber reminder of those dark days. The day I visited it a few other people were looking silently at the names on the white crosses placed on the exact place where many where shot to death by the East German police. The poignant moment made me think of the words American president Ronald Reagan pronounced right there, when he visited Berlin in 1987: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’, he said. And to the astonishment of the world, the Soviet leader did just that. Or at the very least, he allowed it to happen.
Unified Berlin is again a glowing and vibrant metropolis. There’s no more East Germany, but the German capital – and the world – will never forget its infamous Wall.