Saturday, November 9, 2019

Historic Moments in Berlin, a Personal Perspective

Thirty years ago today, the first cracks in the Berlin Wall appeared. Not cracks in the wall itself, but rather in the restrictions East Germans had in traveling to West Germany. Through a fortuitous, confusing and seemingly uncharacteristically incompetent set of actions by East German officials, unfettered access to and from East Berlin began 30 years ago on November 9 (for an hour by hour playback click on this link:

Hanging on a wall in my home office is large chunk of the Berlin Wall. Another sizable portion, next to a picture of me chipping away at history, rests on the built-in wall unit of our living room. I wasn’t in Berlin November 9. I didn’t get there until February 16, 1990, a few days before the wall near the Brandenburg Gate was knocked down.

I flew in from Dusseldorf from where I had been attending EuroShop, a once every three year trade exposition devoted to store design and construction. I headed to a Woolworth store (btw, Germans for years thought Woolworth was a home grown company, not an America import), 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. I barely made a dent in the reinforced concrete.

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 his tools. I still failed to break off pieces larger than a pebble. He pitied me once more. He 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.

My memories of the Berlin Wall are tinged with personal links. November 9 is more than just the date unification of Berlin began. On that date in 1938 the Nazis began a massive pogrom against Jews under their control in Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and the Free City of Danzig. Known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), the assaults continued into Danzig on November 12-13. My father lived in Danzig (now known as Gdansk). He would leave for America within two months. 

February 16, when I visited Berlin in 1990, marked four years since my mother died on that very same date.