September 20, 2019

Lessons from the Berlin Wall

Last Saturday night in the posh section of Berlin, I took a hammer and chisel and pounded away at the Berlin Wall.

I was staying at the Westin Grand Hotel for the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The hotel offers guests the chance to make their own souvenirs out of a 6-foot-tall block it bought years ago and planted by its entrance.

The manager supplied me with goggles, a hardhat and heavy leather gloves and walked me outside. I looked like a guy whose mother had dressed him for the revolution.

I did feel a little sheepish — after all, I wouldn’t take a shovel to the Gettysburg battlefield. But what begins in horror often ends in kitsch — that’s just the way of the world.

Besides, who doesn’t want a piece of the Wall?

I pressed my chisel against the concrete and struck hard, and a quarter-shaped shard pinged onto the sidewalk. 

Just then, an elderly Berliner passing by confronted the manager in German. “This is wrong!” he shouted. The manager countered, calmly, that the hotel bought this section and could do whatever it wanted with it. As I walked back inside, the old man was still shouting.

But I had to smile at history’s twists: What this man had once yearned to destroy, he was now fighting to protect. After 25 years, a hated symbol of oppression had become a beloved memorial to freedom.

I walked all over the city during the celebratory weekend. Long rows of light-filled helium balloons attached to thin metal rods outlined the 97-mile path of the wall, some 8,000 white orbs in all.  Volunteers were to release each one with the pull of a simple lever during the final ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 9. During the day beforehand, the round balloons served as an almost whimsical reminder of the joy of freedom. At night, their glow reflected in the dark river Spree and lit the huge crowds retracing the once-forbidden path.

I was walking with an archivist who manages the photo collection of the former German Democratic Republic, or GDR, as East Germany was formally known. He pointed out exactly where in the river 19-year-old Günter Litfin was shot in the back of the head by GDR police as he swam for freedom in 1961. Just across from where his lifeless body was pulled from the water, we watched as a little girl grabbed at the pole holding up a balloon and swung it back and forth, laughing. 

All cities are palimpsests of history and civilization, but in Berlin the momentousness is recent. Nov. 9 was also the day in 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II was dethroned and the monarchy ended. In 1923, Hitler attempted his Beer Hall Putsch on Nov. 9. And Nov. 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht, when Nazis burned and looted approximately 7,500 Jewish businesses and synagogues and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men and carted them off to concentration camps. Name another city that offers up such a concise and compelling history of the 20th century in so few footsteps.  

During her remarks at a celebratory event for the fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel began by recalling Kristallnacht. For the older generation of Berliners, the memories are all alloyed. But when a young Berlin man later told me Nov. 9 was “the happiest day in German history,” I knew what he meant; I just wondered whether he did.

One afternoon, I came upon a former East German guardhouse-turned-museum and shook hands with the man who ran it. He was in his late 70s, stout, with a shock of white hair — he was Günter Litfin’s brother.

This anniversary was perhaps the last big-numbered chance to celebrate the fall surrounded by the generation that witnessed it. There were many of them at events around the city last weekend, but I think my favorite you-are-there story came from my friend Burkhard Kieker, CEO of the visitBerlin tourism bureau, who invited me to come to the city to take part in the 25th anniversary celebrations.

Kieker was a 28-year-old journalist in West Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989.

He was at home watching television when the anchorman reported that the hardline communist government of the GDR was allowing East Berliners to cross into West Berlin.

“This anchorman had a reputation for drinking,” Kieker said, “so I thought he was drunk.”

But Kieker rode his bike down to the tall concrete wall that East Germany had erected in August 1961 to keep its population from fleeing to the free West, and, sure enough, something was happening.

From the other side, Kieker could hear people chanting, “Let us go! Let us go!”

An East German guard with a machine gun against his fat belly stood between the masses and the other side.  He was waiting for orders.

“The orders could have just as easily been to shoot,” Kieker told me. Months earlier, then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had issued orders not to suppress peaceful protests with violence.  “Who knows?” Kieker said. “They could have changed their minds.”

Instead the guard, frustrated that his superiors would not give any orders, finally said, “Ach, go now. Go!”

Kieker heard the steel door at the checkpoint creak open. The East German guard stepped aside, and for the first time in 28 years, East Germans were free.

The first man Kieker saw cross over was old, carrying two shopping bags. He took the first step, like Nachshon at the Red Sea, a step that for decades could have meant a bullet in the head.

The old man hesitated, looked up at the guard and said, “But I come back, OK?”

Thousands followed. People ran into the arms of strangers. 

 “The city was beside itself with joy,” Kieker said.

Kieker was wearing a black leather jacket. The next morning, he noticed his jacket had indelible stains on each shoulder — people had hugged him all evening, weeping salty tears.

“It was the desire to be free, to travel, and to say and write what you want,” Kieker said. “That desire had a great beginning that night.”

Two great truths rose up when the Wall came down. First was the power of human potential, unleashed. Free, united Berlin is now a crazy, young, exciting city. The skyline is decorated in cranes. Former abandoned East Berlin neighborhoods have all but gentrified. Prinzlauerberg, close to what was once the East German no-man’s-land, now has so many young yuppie families moving in, they call it Pregnant Hill. In just the last year, 49,000 new jobs and about as many new residents have swelled the capital’s once-depleted ranks. A former bombed-out brewery, abandoned after World War II and neglected in the East, has been refitted with glass and steel walls and is becoming the German headquarters for Twitter.

When one builder proposed to tear down the last remaining continuous section of the Wall for yet another multiuse live-work complex, people took to the streets in protests — like the man who’d confronted us at the hotel. The best monument to the power of freedom will be the city Berlin is striving to become.

The second truth is even more elemental: Change is possible. At a banquet the evening before the celebration, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi leader in microfinance, reminded the audience that no one had predicted the Wall would fall when it did. Experts, journalists, politicians, intelligence agencies — no one saw it coming.

“Great change is always unexpected,” Yunus said, “and it comes from the ground up. Politicians didn’t do this. Soldiers didn’t do this. People did it.”

On the evening of the big celebration, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the surrounding streets filled with tens of thousands of people. Peter Gabriel sang a song in English, followed by German entertainers and eyewitnesses. Daniel Barenboim conducted an orchestra and chorus in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which ended with fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate. The event concluded when a young couple walked on stage, he with a violin, she with a cello, and they played a low, mournful song. It took me a while to realize it was Germany’s national anthem.

The crowd was strangely subdued. If it had been an American patriotic celebration, I said to a German friend, the audience would have been tearing up and singing along. Germans have an uneasy relationship with large, patriotic gatherings, for obvious reasons, she said — just another way memory works.  

In the midst of all this, the visitBerlin people asked me to pull the lever on one of the balloons. But first I was to write a message on a tag and tie it to a string attached to the balloon. My message said, “May the spirit of a free Berlin spread over the world.” I wrote in English, French and Hebrew — who knows how far a helium balloon can go? 

After we set free our balloons, we walked to the Adlon Hotel for a goodbye dinner. Our group happened to include a few Israelis. Sure enough, the conversation turned to the last Gaza war and the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Yes, it was weird — and very Berlin — to be an American Jew and three Israelis arguing about Israel in one of the Nazis’ favorite hotels, where East German bureaucrats had encamped during the Cold War.

Our discussion ended as so many conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about Iran, about ISIS, about all the world’s intractable problems and divisions do — with the feeling that things will just get worse, that nothing will ever change.

Then again I remembered: One day not so long ago, people rose up, without violence, and led the way, and their leaders followed. The Wall came down, and all at once the world changed for the better:  The city was beside itself with joy. 

Like I said, who wouldn’t want a piece of the Wall?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.