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Germans have celebrated a weekend fraught with symbolism, remembering and commemorating a day 25 years ago — the 9th of November 1989 — when East Germans pushed through the gates in the Berlin Wall, danced on top of it, and brought it down, ending the Cold War along with it. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Curt Nickisch of WBUR brought us this story from Berlin.
The city erected a temporary border of light, where a wall of concrete divided East and West Berlin 25 years ago. Big white balloons perched on poles as high the Berlin Wall glowed. Marking the nine miles of the wall that cut right through the heart of the city. Hundreds of thousands of people came to follow the lights, and to remember.
"Remember coming home and my mom was sitting in front of the television, crying. That they had opened and it was like: ‘What?!’" said Jenny Parkinson.
Parkinson is a German who grew up in Berlin. Her dad is American, and her mom left East Germany in the 1950s to come to the west. After seeing her mother in tears, Parkinson squeezed through the crowds to climb the 12-foot-high Berlin Wall.
"And I remember being amazed at how wide it actually was across the top. That you could stand there with so many people. And then helping people from the other side up, and suddenly being able to see what was behind it." she said.
It was just as surreal for Enrico Karl, a soldier in the East German Army who was on duty that November night. He says no order ever came to stop what was happening, and the next day, he crossed the border, too — the first time he had ever left his country.
It was strange, he said, to cross over the wide, white line. It felt unreal to him to leave his home for somewhere else. In the back of his mind, he wondered if maybe they would close the door behind him.
In the months that followed, most of that hated wall was dismantled and chopped into millions of souvenirs. New construction covered the scars. The city grew and changed. Today, only half of Berliners actually lived with the wall. The rest were born later, or came here after. Moritz van Dulmen helped design the light installation with that in mind.
"Since 25 years, always the people are asking, where stood the wall? And we invite to discover the former course of the wall, and we try to give the impression of the dimensions of the former division of the city of Berlin," said van Dulmen.
"I remember being amazed at how wide it actually was across the top. That you could stand there with so many people. And then helping people from the other side up, and suddenly being able to see what was behind it."Jenny Parkinson
Hundreds of thousands of people followed the glowing white balloons, walking the border of light, often stopping to read the personal messages attached to each balloon. They walked across streets that the wall had blocked. They followed the lights where they cut through a cemetery, through apartment buildings, through neighborhoods. And they walked past crosses honoring those who died trying to escape. For the first, who jumped out of a building as the wall was going up in August of 1961. And for the last person shot and killed, in 1989, just months before the wall came down.
For former East German Christiana Novak, walking from light to light evoked strong memories. In the fall of 1989, she remembers that they also made chains of light. They put candles in their windows, went to demonstrations and made chains of people holding candles.
Novak was with Peter Hoberg, a former West German. He says walking the route gave him more to think about.
"Of course it’s great to remember that this wall has fallen down, and it’s great what we have achieved in 25 years, but it’s also an occasion to really remember that this is not the only wall that’s left. There’s other walls, and there’s thousands of people dying, like all these refugees who are trying to enter Europe. There’s – it’s a wall more or less between Mexico and the U.S. Or it’s a wall between Israel and Palestine. There’s still a lot of division in the world, and there’s a lot to do," Hoberg said.
At a formal ceremony, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remembered those who died while escaping. She placed a rose in a crack in the concrete at the Berlin Wall Memorial. She was a young scientist in East Berlin and got her taste of freedom on the 9th of November, crossing into West Berlin. In a speech, Merkel said it’s important to remember the day. The same day in 1938 was Kristallnacht, a night of terror when Nazis attacked Jewish synagogues. And in 1989, Merkel said, it was a night of joy, a night of peaceful revolution.
"People have the power to shape destiny and change things for the good," Merkel said. "The fall of the Berlin Wall shows that dreams can come true — and that nothing has to stay the way it is, no matter how high the hurdles might seem to be."
Later, Merkel was joined by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at a state celebration at a concert hall in what used to be East Berlin. The ceremony ended with a scene from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, about a woman who rescues her husband from death in a political prison.
And outside, the masses celebrated just a few blocks away at the Brandenburg Gate. On a grand stage where the wall used to stand, eyewitnesses told their stories and so did East German dissidents. As black-and-white images of people protesting the Berlin Wall illuminated him, musician Peter Gabriel performed an arrangement of “Heroes,” the song David Bowie wrote in Berlin and recorded at a studio by the wall.
More than one million people crammed the plaza and the former route of the Berlin Wall, illuminated by the trail of white balloons. Then the mayor of Berlin set off the chain release by letting the first balloon go. This temporary border of light was removed just like the concrete one 25 years ago, by a collective action of a common people. One by one, the citizens of Berlin tugged at the ropes holding down the balloons, and they sprang into the sky.
Some 7,000 balloons, carrying with them 7,000 messages. Messages of thanks. Messages of hope. One simply said: Freiheit. Freedom.
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