The Fall of the Berlin Wall – The Reunification of Germany: The Reunification of Family

By Deb “Brians” Clark, BAHS, Class of 1974, courtesy of AOSHS

“ABC News Special Report:  We interrupt this program to bring you a Special News Bulletin”.  I thought to myself, “This better be good”, as once again, ABC was interrupting my favorite soap opera during my lunch hour. The date was November 9, 1989, and I was living in Ocala, Florida.  As I was taking the first bite of my turkey sandwich – made with Miracle Whip and sprinkled with extra salt, I heard the announcer say, “Today, the Berlin Wall has come down”.  For me, time stood still for that moment, and as I burst into tears I said, “I want to remember every detail of this moment.”  I remember what I had for lunch. I remember exactly what I did that morning, and I remember what I was wearing.  Unfortunately, spandex was in, and so were shoulder pads and big earrings.   So although I remember the outfit, I’d rather not elaborate on it!

I knew that my cousins, Frank and Conny, native Berliners, would be one of the first on the scene at the Wall to celebrate – to sip champagne and to take part in tearing it down.  Thinking of me and my family in the US, Conny took a nice chunk of the Wall and sent it to me.  I’ve included pictures of Conny and family, holding her toolbox and chunks of the Wall.  I had my pieces of the Wall framed.  This is not just a piece of art hanging in my foyer –  it’s a symbol of freedom and a reunification not only of a country but of a family. My family.  It’s the first thing I see every morning as I go outside to get the newspaper, and it’s the last thing I see at night when I lock up before bed.

My father, a Captain in the U.S. Army, was stationed in Berlin in the early 1950’s and met my mother, a native Berliner, and they married in Andrews Chapel in the American Sector of Berlin in June 1955.  I was born in the American Hospital in Berlin the following year.  As is typical with a military family, we moved around every 2-3 years, so when the Wall was erected in 1961, we were living in Anchorage, Alaska.  (We had several tours of duty in Berlin and Nurnberg in the 60’s and 70’s as well). And when the Wall went up, my mother was separated from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who were living in East Berlin and in Kloetze-Altmark (where ironically my mom’s family sought refuge from the Berlin bombings for a short time during WWII).  There are many adjectives to describe the emotions of this Wall to our family and others:  frustration, anger, loneliness, confusion, and helplessness.  The only means of communicating with each other at that time was via letters, which we knew would be read by authorities.

Checkpoint Charlie

So as the years wore on, and West Berlin became a thriving, modern “hip” city, it’s slogan for years being  “ Berlin ist eine Reise Wert” (meaning, Berlin is the trip worth taking), the East became a forgotten sibling, with renovations and modern conveniences practically coming to a standstill. As a matter of fact, the Trabant was one of the few cars available to the residents of the East, and they were smelly, noisy polluters.  (More on this later).   Life in the West at that time, was by far better than life in the East.  Many East Berliners attempted to escape to the West in search of the good life.  My mother’s cousin, whom I will call “Otto”, (to protect his identity), was one of them.  After trying for several months to make a go of it in the West, Otto desperately missed his family.  When he anonymously asked authorities if there would be any repercussions should he return to the East, he was assured he would be left alone.  He was excited to finally be reunited with his family, but upon his return, he was apprehended, sent to prison for three years – one year of which was spent in solitary confinement. Ironically, his father, during WWII, was sent to a concentration camp for five years for belonging to a faction that did not support Hitler.  Concentration camps were not just for Jewish people!  There were several members of my mother’s family who spent time in concentration camps, and the Wall was a reminder that Germany was still not a “free” country.  You were not free to express your opinion, and if you did, you may be tagged as a spy, and your every movement watched.  This lead to constant paranoia and a true lack of freedom. Sort of hitting a wall, if you pardon the pun.

The Wall meant many things to my family, but what about the “family” of Americans stationed in Berlin who had no native ties to the area?  What did living in a walled city mean to them?

Well, living in a walled city presented a few challenges.  You couldn’t travel but so far, and in any corner of Berlin you reached a barrier, with armed guards present and warning signs of “Achtung!” (Warning!), advising not to trespass.  Think about it:  as Americans living in the US, we take simple freedoms for granted.  We can jump in our cars or grab our bikes and drive or ride as far as we wish.  In Berlin, we were restricted to the West, and armed guards were positioned at checkpoints and at certain U-Bahn stations (subways), where the train would slow down but not stop to let anyone on or off (while passing through the East sector).  As teenagers from military families who lived all over the US and abroad, we adapted well.  That’s not to say there were those that felt uncomfortable in a walled, or restricted city.  Day-passes to tour the East were available to military dependents, but our family, due to its past history, never took advantage of it.  For those who dared to have a sense of adventure and travel into the East, they were subject to strict car searches.  At checkpoints you had to vacate your automobile, and it was searched inside, outside, and underneath, to make sure you were not smuggling someone across the border.

Ironically, despite living in a walled city as a teenager in the 1970’s, whether we were white, black or Asian, we were all “minorities” living in a foreign country.  We bonded well, while we heard reports of riots and forced school busing in some of the US states “back home”, we all shared the same bus, the same school, and participated in sports together.  We didn’t care about the color of our skin, we were just glad to be with fellow Americans! In an odd twist of fate, we found our own sense of freedom in a city that struggled for so long to find its own.

Speaking of freedom….those pesky Trabant automobiles, with the fall of the Wall, invaded West Berlin, much to the ire of many.  They were noisy and polluted the air.  I remember my Aunt telling me, “The only bad thing about the Wall coming down are those darn Trabants.  They are everywhere, and they’re a pain!”  On November 7, 2009, the Berlin Brats had a Gathering in Washington, DC to tour the International Spy Museum where 20 Trabants were on display in commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Wall.  On November 9, 2009, during the 20th Anniversary celebration in Berlin, it was announced the Trabant would make a come back as an electric car!  Let freedom ring!  As for my mother’s family, we are getting together in 2010, in Germany, for a family reunion over the 4th of July holiday, to celebrate Independence Day.  And for our family, that day is also celebrated on November 9th.

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