Everyone has those moments etched in their memories, where you can say without hesitation exactly where you were and what you were doing, thinking and feeling at a particular moment on a particular day, no matter how long ago in terms of years and months.
9/11 – in the European system of dates – in 1989 was a day of great rejoicing: “So ein Tag so wunderschön wie heute …” sung over and over again throughout both German republics as the Berliners hacked and chopped at the Wall, and crossed and re-crossed at the checkpoints into West Berlin. My husband was German and we had family and friends in both East and West Germany, including some who had undergone the degrading, dehumanising process of Ausbürgerung – the humiliating battle of attrition that began with a request to leave your native land where existence had become intolerable, and culminated several years later in being declared a traitor, deprived of your citizenship and kicked out.
So it was with bated breath and incredulity that we had watched on TV the announcement by the East German government that its citizens were free to travel to the West, generally known in the GDR as “das kapitalistische Ausland” (spoken with a sneer). That event had been shown repeatedly on all the various channels available to us in Switzerland (3 Swiss, 2 Austrian and several German ones) and we still couldn’t believe, no matter how many times we saw and heard what was happening, that it was genuine. The next day, news coverage was still dominated by what was taking place in Germany.
That evening we had friends over for a cheese fondue, a visiting American professor and his wife, and just as we were raising our glasses for the “coup de fin” to mark the last mouthfuls, the phone rang. My husband answered and almost dropped the phone. It was his East German brother R., whom he hadn’t seen since 1961, ringing to say that he was at their mother’s house in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As soon as they heard the news that the border was open, R. and his wife had jumped into their car and driven about 350 km, arriving unannounced and totally unexpected amid tears of joy and relief on his mother’s doorstep.
My husband was stunned, our Californian visitors overwhelmed at witnessing such an historical reunion, even though it was by phone and didn’t involve physical hugs – those came soon afterwards – and I know my knees were weak, though that may have had something to do with the alcohol.
It’s those first seconds that are indelibly engraved in my mind; my brother-in-law’s voice saying, “Ich bin bei der Mutter!” The rest of the evening is a blur. I think we opened a bottle of champagne, but couldn’t swear to it. We certainly celebrated.
The days that followed were symbolised for me by the sight of those smelly little East German cars, Trabis, pouring out of the GDR like water from a leaking barrel, and West Germans greeting their “socialist” brothers and sisters with gifts of bananas and pineapples. Bananas had been unobtainable in the Eastern republic, and had acquired the rank of an exotic status symbol. Now, it became a standing joke that GDR-citizens’ main objective in crossing the border to the Federal Republic was to stock up on bananas, and photos appeared of Trabis parked in West Berlin with bananas stuck to the windshields.
Can it really be twenty-five years since that evening? When I look dispassionately at how much has changed in that last quarter-century, the answer is YES. But when I think of that phone ringing, the scene is as vivid in my mind as if it were yesterday.
Read more about what those 2 days were like here: