International How Berlin Wall's fall sparked joy and upended lives

How Berlin Wall’s fall sparked joy and upended lives

"it smelled good inside, the freshly-ground coffee. We weren't used to those kinds of smells in the state-run shops in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)," says the former East Germany citizen

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by Yacine LE FORESTIER and Yannick PASQUET

Three citizens of former East Germany recount how they experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the joy of November 9, 1989 when the barriers opened, to the three decades of economic hardship and rebuilding that followed.

Thomas Wendt, 67: ‘The most important moment of my life!’
The Berlin Wall appeared just a few hundred metres away from the house where Thomas Wendt grew up when he was nine years old.

On family walks, his father would visibly “bristle” every time their path was blocked by “this impassable structure”.

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When news came that the border crossings were open on November 9, Wendt raced to the nearest one.

“It was crazy” being able to cross into the West “just a few minutes after the border guards first opened the barrier,” he remembers.

Once across, “I was hugging anyone who wanted a hug from me. Total strangers!” he smiles, clearly moved.

“It was the most important moment of my life!”

A former journalist who worked for a weekly that was “frowned upon” by East German authorities, Wendt had imagined the West as “simply a beautiful, smooth world where everything is shiny.”

But the end of socialism quickly threw up difficulties, putting him out of work as the old newspapers closed one by one.

Finally, he found a job in politics, as assistant to a Social Democratic Party (SPD) manager.

Now retired, Wendt sees a mixed picture 30 years after that first step towards reunification.

“Three-quarters of Germans in the east lost their job or had to change career” after the Wall fell, he recalls.

Their “effort is completely underestimated by western Germans… who told us ‘Stop complaining, things aren’t that bad for you’.”

Stefan Newie, 37: ‘Freedom is the most precious possession’
Just seven years old in 1989, Newie’s family “missed the fall of the Wall”, the television technician jokes.

While capital-H History was unfolding on East German streets, “my parents didn’t watch TV that night”.

Only the next day at school did he realise something big had happened.

“The class was half-empty, and the teacher wondered ‘where are all the children?’. One of my classmates replied, ‘they’ve all gone to the West!'”

That same day, he and his parents took their first steps across the frontier.

He mainly remembers “the colours” that set West Berlin apart from the East.

And when they entered a supermarket packed with groceries, “it smelled good inside, the freshly-ground coffee. We weren’t used to those kinds of smells in the state-run shops in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).”

When the family later paid a visit to his great-grandparents in a retirement home in the west, the surprise was overwhelming.

“My father knocked at the door and they didn’t recognise him. They couldn’t imagine that he could be standing on their doorstep,” Newie says.

Now, 30 years later, he sees only benefits to the historic transition.

“Freedom is the most precious possession,” he says.

“I can say what I want, I can travel anywhere in the world and I’m happy not to have spent my entire youth in a dictatorship.”

Helga Dreher, 74: ‘I don’t want to go back!’
At 45 when the Berlin Wall fell, Helga had suffered the bite of division more keenly than most.

The teacher had a daughter with a Frenchman in the 1970s, but the Iron Curtain kept their encounters few and hard to organise.

On the evening of November 9, Helga was watching live as government officials announced the border crossings were open but “I didn’t believe it, I turned the set off.”

The next morning, the father of her child called and said, “you can come to Paris! The Wall has fallen!”

Helga remained distrustful of the government, wondering “if the GDR wouldn’t close the borders behind us once we’d all gone to the West,” she remembers.

Those first encounters on November 10 didn’t all make for good memories.

Knowing that exotic fruits were rare in the GDR, the West Berliners “threw bananas at us,” like monkeys in the zoo. “It was horrible.”

“Me and my daughter went back to East Berlin after half an hour”.

Things quickly got better. Helga went to Paris for New Year’s Eve, and “I was so happy that my daughter could see her father!”

Luckily, she was able to keep her teaching job through the hard times that followed reunification.

Not all were so lucky, and women especially saw their position worsen compared with the years of work supported by state childcare under the GDR.

“Among my friends, many ended up unemployed and only a few were able to find their feet again,” Helga complains.

Nevertheless, “as far as I’m concerned, the changes that have happened have still been for the better. I don’t want to go back to the past!” Helga says.

© Agence France-Presse

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