Sunday, November 9, 2014

Recalling History at the Berlin Wall

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the breach in the Berlin Wall, when East Germans streamed across the unnatural divide that kept them apart from West Berliners. It would be another three months before the Wall was torn down with a little, read that miniscule, assist by yours truly. I’ve reprinted my chiseling exploits from a blog posting five years ago. 


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.