Monday, November 9, 2009

Chipping Away at History

Today marks the official twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the climactic events of the last century.

I wasn’t present when East Germany relaxed the rules on border crossings on Nov. 9, 1989. East and West Berliners rushed to the Wall, climbing atop the 12-foot high barrier to celebrate. But I did make a side trip to Berlin on February 16, 1990, just three days before the section of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate was to be torn down.

I had been attending a conference in Dusseldorf, inside Germany’s western border. It was a no-brainer to make a quick, one-day jaunt to Berlin and back, to be able to walk through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, to say, “I was there.”

I knew in advance people were chipping away at the Wall, so I stopped at a Woolworth store in Berlin to buy a small chisel and standard-sized hammer. When I arrived at the Wall that rainy and snowy day, I discovered how pitiful my purchases were to the task at hand. The reinforced concrete gave no quarter. You couldn’t even classify as pebbles the pieces I managed to dislodge.

Standing next to me was a man with a huge sledgehammer and 30-inch chisel. He was breaking off softball-size or larger chunks. He took pity on me and offered me his tools. As I remember it today, my new efforts were hardly more rewarding. He took pity on me once more, and gave the Wall a few choice whacks for me. I left Berlin with a bagful of souvenirs, most of which I gave away to family, friends and colleagues at work. I kept the two largest pieces, one to display in our living room, the other to be mounted on a plaque and hung in my office.

For the April 1990 issue of Chain Store Age, I wrote a column about my exploits, aptly titled, “Chipping Away at History.” Berlin today is a vibrant city, unified and culturally important. It’s hard to reconcile the Berlin of today with what I saw 20 years ago. But all I have to do is pick up the piece of the Wall in my living room to recall the divisions of an earlier era. And recall that I was there when at least part of it ended.

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