Monday, October 19, 2009

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall”

The German people certainly did not love the partition that scarred their country from 1961 to 1989. On my recent trip to Berlin and Dresden, I heard many stories of the struggles, heartbreaks and resilience of citizens from the East and West who lived through this painful period in German history.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989. Berlin is already abuzz with anticipation. I happened upon a festive street parade on my next to last day in the German capital, not realizing that my trip coincided with The Day of German Unity. October 3rd is their national holiday, celebrating the formal reunification and incorporation of the communist German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990.

Remnants of the Wall are still evident throughout the city, as a reminder of the hated symbol of separation and in memory of the more than one hundred people who lost their lives trying to cross from the GDR to freedom in the West. The Berlin Wall, part of the “Inner German Border” which bisected the entire country, completely encircled West Berlin, making it an isolated island of democracy cut off from the rest of West Germany. The Wall was constructed by the communists, not to keep westerners out, but to keep their own people in. Soldiers guarding the “death strip” between East and West had orders to shoot anyone who attempted escape. Crosses bearing the names of the victims remain scattered throughout Berlin, and flowers and candles commemorate these murders. Perhaps the most poignant were those marked “Unbekannt” to honor the unidentified fatalities.

I had the privilege of hearing personal stories of people who experienced East Germany first-hand. Cosima Curth, now a tour guide in Dresden, was born and raised in the GDR. Her parents were among the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from eastern Europe following World War II. A Roman Catholic, Cosima was made to feel “different” — Christians were barely tolerated by the communist state. One of her earliest memories is her first day of school as a six-year-old. The teacher singled her out, making her stand in front of the class and explain why her God was so great. Cosima returned home in tears, but by the next day had resolved to continue to practice her faith and to persevere. She shared moving stories of events she witnessed leading up to reunification. As protests in the East heated up in the fall of 1989, she found herself in the midst of a street demonstration in Dresden calling for democratic reforms. Confronted by a barrier of armed police officers, her fellow protestors pleaded for the chance to peacefully air their grievances. One courageous man approached the wall of police. They were human beings, after all, he reasoned. And they were, because all at once, they laid down their shields and allowed the man to make a public statement. This was only the beginning of the tidal wave of popular sentiment, the irrepressible outcry for freedom, which soon led to the “Peaceful Revolution” and the fall of the communist state.

The aristocratic family of Georg, Prinz zur Lippe, was forced to flee their ancestral home in Saxony when that region became part of the Soviet Zone of Occupation at the end of World War II. As members of the nobility, they had reason to fear for their safety. Though raised in Munich, West Germany, Georg could not forget his heritage, and his parents dreamed of the day when they might reclaim their land. After reunification, Georg’s father implored him to return to Saxony and do whatever he could to reacquire the estate. The property had been expropriated without compensation decades earlier by the East German government, but Georg slowly succeeded in buying it back and now runs a prosperous winery on the land his family had owned for centuries. My tour group had the pleasure of listening to the prince’s reflections and personal experiences as he graciously hosted our lunch at his “Schloss”.

The last German I encountered who shared his experiences was Harry Hampel, the taxi driver who took me to the airport on the day of my departure from Berlin. In the back of his cab was a stack of flyers for a book about the Wall. Harry invited me to peruse the paperback entitled Where the Wall Stood, which was in the pocket of the door next to me. He then went on to explain that he was the photojournalist who, along with Thomas Friedrich, the writer of the accompanying text, compiled this fascinating testament to Berlin “before and after” the Wall came down. His book was available for sale right there in the cab, his credit card imprinter ready for my purchase. Being a fellow writer, I did not hesitate (well, maybe a little; my suitcase was already ponderous with all the other books I had purchased on my trip and this one cost the equivalent of $30 US) to support him and buy a copy. We exchanged business cards and I told him he would be hearing about my World War II novel when it comes out next year. Of course, I also told him about my blog so he may be reading this right now. Guten Tag, Harry!

This post is dedicated to “Dem Deutschen Volke” as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of the start of their hard-won achievement of “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” as a free and united country, a country without Walls.


1) The title of this post is the first line of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, published in 1914.

2) The phrase “Dem Deutschen Volke” (To the German People) is famously emblazoned on the architrave of the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of the German parliament.

3) “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (Unity and Justice and Freedom) are the first words of the German national anthem.


Mari Miller-Lamb said...

Interesting, sounds like you had a fabulous/interesting trip. I am very interested in the Communist era in Eastern Europe and Russia. Hope you post more on this subject. I feel that this history and the struggle for freedom on the part of the Europeans is not widely known in America and should be!

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Mari! It was fascinating and I was very impressed with how much has been rebuilt in eastern Germany (actually, all over Germany) after the devastation of WWII. It was a privilege to speak to Germans who lived through this time and hear about their experiences. Berlin and Dresden are beautiful cities. I hope you get a chance to go there someday.

Maria Ferrer said...

Has it been 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down?! How time flies. And never more than when one is on vacation. You met a prince and a "pauper". I can't wait to see the pictures too. And to hear more about the heart-rending stories you collected. Thanks.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks for stopping by, Maria!


Lise said...

Sharing the lives of just a few of the people who lived through this strife does a great service, Lis, to educate and illuminate a dark era in history. In recent history there has been no such dismal and forbidding a symbol of the schism that politics can bring. The moment when the wall came down, and people scrambled for freedom must have been seen to be believed. I don't know that most of us in the US can understand how it felt. Today's anniversary stories of reunited family members, and the memories of soldiers, and the name of the last person killed - it all is conveyed beautifully by your blog. Keep these wonderfully insightful and rich posts coming!

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Lise. I've been watching a lot of programs about the fall of the Wall on German TV over the last week or so and it is truly an amazing story of human perseverance. I also just read the transcript of Chancellor Merkel's recent address to the US Congress and it was very moving. She graciously thanked the US for our support of Germany's strives toward democracy. I gives me just a little hope for the rest of the world.
Your comment is insightful, as always!

Polly Guerin said...

Polly Guerin said...
Lis: What fascinating experiences on your trip, the restoration of an ancestral estate, the ordinary people in extraordinary times, but most of all that incident in the taxi cab purchasing a book on the wall...well now that's promotion for you. Might we not consider taxi cab sales for your book in a New York City taxi cab. What a novel approach, tough possibly not feasible to sell a book, but it could garner publicity. Thanks for sharing the adventures with a German accent that you had during your travels.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks for stopping by, Polly!