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The Fall of the Iron Curtain. My Experience

September 25, 2009 by · No comments

Claudia Bierschenk
ironcurtain Photo: L-plate big cheese

9 November 1989 was the day of our weekly school disco. That particular day was supposed to be the last time I’d ever go to the school disco. It was the night I said goodbye to all my friends, because it was very likely I would never see them again. I lived in East Germany and was three months away from my fourteenth birthday.

My family and I lived in a small village, only three kilometers from the Iron Curtain. I had grown up accepting that I would say one thing at school, i.e. whatever was in tune with the Communist doctrine, although I held a completely different opinion at home. My parents had the sense to raise my sister and me as free spirits, teaching us that freedom of opinion and speech were human rights, as was the freedom of travel, none of which we had.

Most of our relatives lived in West Germany and West Berlin, and I had always refused to believe the teachers’ propaganda that anyone west of the “protective fence” and “antifascist protection wall”, i.e. the Berlin Wall, wanted to inflict war on our peaceful little country. I couldn’t fathom that my aunties and uncles, who relentlessly sent us care parcels with all the things that were so hard to come by in the East (nylon tights, bed sheets, oranges, coffee) were imperialist warmongers.

Living so close to the border with West Germany, we were able to tune into some of their TV channels, something which was obviously illegal, but everyone did it anyway. There were lots of western TV shows, although the commercials were my favorite. I used to marvel at the creamy yogurts with bits of real fruit, the chocolate in colorful wrappers. Whenever our relatives sent their parcels, there were always some sweets packed in for my sister and me. We didn’t get many western sweets so I used to save them until the chocolate had a white coating.

The summer of ’89 my mother was granted a visit to the West for the first time since the Wall went up. In general, ordinary people were never allowed out of East Germany to visit capitalist countries. You could however apply for a permission to visit relatives in the West, if there was a special occasion, an 80th birthday, a christening, or death in the family. After having been turned down twice, and after many visits to the local police station, my mother finally got a visa for a two-week visit for an aunt’s 80th birthday in Hessia, which was only 10 km away. It was the longest two weeks of my life. The day she came back I couldn’t stop hugging her. Not only because she smelled like a care parcel from the West (fresh coffee, oranges, perfume), I had also feared she would have just stayed over there. This was a strategy applied by many in order to get the rest of the family over to the West, although it didn’t always work out.

It was also the summer of unrest and upheaval in our little country. Hungary had opened its borders to Austria, and with our eyes glued to the TV we watched in disbelief how hundreds of East Germans, who had camped on the sidewalks in Hungarian border towns, just ran across to the other side with bagpacks, suitcases, and sometimes only with whatever they were wearing (only shown on the West German channels, of course). The Prague embassy had been squatted by hundreds of East Germans demanding their right to leave for the West.

My father was ready to just get in the car and join the crowds in the embassy, but by the time my parents had decided to take that step, the East German government had sealed off all its borders. There was no way to get out now. My parents finally settled for the “legal” path. They applied for “expatriation” to West Germany. They didn’t tell me at first. I was rummaging through the drawer in our front room, where my mom kept her jewelry, along with our passports and important documents (I liked to try on her bracelets and earrings every so often, when she was out), and that’s when I came across a handwritten draft outlining our reasons for wanting to leave East Germany.

I will never forget the flush of excitement running through me as I thought, “My God, we’re enemies of the State now”. This step usually meant years of waiting, repressions by the government, and surveillance by the secret police, along with interrogations to convince such dissidents to stay. With the way things were going, my father was convinced they would let us go quickly. He still lost his job as a teacher and worked illegally as a car mechanic to be able to support our family. We packed our suitcases; I gave my pets to my best friend, which included my beloved budgie, Otto. Once you had applied for expatriation, they could make you wait for years, but once the time had come, you would only get a day’s notice before you were transported to the West, hence the need to be prepared.

Summer ended and the demonstrations all over East Germany started – Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin and lots of other cities and towns. The squatters of the embassy in Prague had finally been granted permission to leave for West Germany. My parents expected us to be given the “go ahead” any day now. On November 9th, the day of the school disco, my mother said, “Claudi, you best say goodbye to your friends tonight, I have a feeling we might be gone by Monday.”

My mother has always had an incredible sense of things. There’s one more important thing to note and that’s that I had recently fallen in love for the first time and I was convinced I would never fall in love again. That, and a growing fear of the “West”, not because I finally believed any of the Eastern propaganda, but because I was afraid of being laughed at for being a poor East German. After all, I was a teenager and convinced I would never fit in with the western fashion in my hand-me-down clothes and old trainers.

The disco was always supervised by the headmaster or one of the teachers and usually ended quite early. I had hugged all my friends goodbye and trudged home, clutching my notebook in which all of them had written little goodbye notes. I noticed that a lot of people were out on the street, talking excitedly. My grandmother stood in the middle of the street in her dressing gown, excitedly chatting to the neighbors.

My mom came running towards me, tears streaming down her face. She embraced me so hard, I could barely breathe. “Claudi, they’ve opened the borders!” My little sister, only five at the time, was dancing around the house, not really understanding what was going on, but excited at the prospect of stopping up late. My parents and I sat in front of the TV and flicked through all the channels, watching again and again how Minister Schabowski announced the opening of all borders, with immediate effect.

My Dad was skeptical; he was convinced it was all just a trick, and that they would close the borders again the next day. In the meantime, the whole village was underway, in cars, on mopeds, trying to go to the next border crossing and see if it was true. Most of them just wanted to have a look and them come back. My dad decided we would have to stay put. “We’re not moving from here until we know what’s going to happen next,” he said.

We didn’t know what to do. Should we just get our stuff, load the car and leave, or wait for the official notification? My parents decided to wait and see how things developed. If the borders stayed open, we could always stay. On November 11th, over breakfast, my Dad suddenly said, “Oh come on then, let’s go and visit auntie Gretchen.”

I couldn’t believe it: We were going to the West! Although we lived so close to the border with less than five miles from our actual destination on the other side, they had only opened certain checkpoints, so we had to go “the long way round”, a journey of approximately two hours. It was going to be a twelve-hour journey. We set off in the early afternoon and arrived at two in the morning, because we got stuck in the longest but best traffic jam of our lives. Never had we seen so many Trabants, Ladas and Wartburgs as we did on that day. All were heading westward. The smell of exhaust fumes was overpowering, people were honking their horns, playing loud music on their car radios, singing and shouting. It was an incredible atmosphere!

As we approached the border crossing, my parents suddenly became very nervous. Would this really work? Would they let us through? The border guards’ uniforms were adorned with flowers given to them by overjoyed East Germans on their way to see their families on the other side. All went very smoothly, they even smiled as they stamped our passports and waved us through.

And then suddenly…we were in the West! While the whole journey to the border crossing had already been exciting enough, nothing could prepare us for what waited on the western side. Both sides of the road were crowded with people, applauding, shouting “Welcome, welcome”, banging on car roofs, throwing flowers and sweets through the open car windows. Hands stretched to the inside of our car, patting my Dad on the shoulder, shaking hands with my mom. My parents were crying, my little sister was shrieking with joy, and I thought I would awake any moment and none of this would be real.

The traffic was going really slow and we passed a stand where people were handing out coffee and Coca-Cola. I had tasted it before on holiday in Hungary, but my little sister never had. She was more impressed with the can itself. “I am going to save this”, she said, a true little East German. Although it was the middle of the night, I immediately noticed the difference to the East. No smell of coal in the air and the houses all shone white in the streetlight.

Our auntie was still up when we arrived. Crying and laughing we kept hugging each other, not believing any of this. Could it really be this easy?

The next morning, my auntie took us down to the local shop. We nearly collapsed at the sight of all the colorful products; there was so much that we had never seen before! She handed me five Deutschmarks. “Go on, buy yourself something nice!” I had no idea what to get until I ended up in front of the pet section. I could not believe the variety of cat, dog and bird food. “Those Westerners must really love their pets”, I thought. It might be hard to believe, but the first thing I ever bought in West Germany, was a packet of bird food, with real fruit bits. I was determined to get my budgie Otto back, should my parents decide to stay, and with the way things were going that was very likely.

We did stay, because the State did not close the borders and less than a year later, Germany was reunited. I cannot believe it’s been twenty years since those events. So much has happened, and the older I get, the more I wonder what would have happened, had the Wall not come down. Would we have ended up waiting for years and years to be let go to the West, and if we had gone, what sort of person would I be now?

I am glad things developed the way they did. Without the fall of the Wall, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Uni and study English, I wouldn’t have traveled, I wouldn’t have met an amazing Englishman who I am engaged to now, and I wouldn’t have made England my second home.

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