Sunday, November 9, 2014

Walls (and Bridges)

Today, a quarter of a century ago, the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart erected by the Democratic People’s Republic of Germany (DDR) dividing the traditional capital of Germany, Berlin, in two as it continued it journey for 1,393 kilometers from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia, became past tense. 

The government of the DDR (we called them East Germans) who had held their own citizens hostage for a generation announced all could now freely visit the West. No one, to my knowledge needed to be told twice.  

As someone who was in the Federal Republic of Germany when it happened, I can only say it was an amazing moment to be alive. When all was said and done, tanks and bombs and barbed wire were beaten by bananas, blue jeans and rock and roll. We had the latter three in abundance and Ivan & Co. had no chance and even less choice.

The eastern zone, under the boot of the Red Army since the collapse of the Third Reich, had the highest standard of living within the Warsaw Pact and was still pathetically poor. Watching tiny cars like the Trabant and the (only) slightly larger Wartburg, with their small national identifying oval “DDR” on the trunk lids, struggle to keep up with the traffic in the slowest lane of the autobahn zwischen Koln and Munchen, I felt sorry for people whom we had feared for decades.

Meeting East Germans in small groups in those days, always together for safety perhaps from a world that had passed them by, I felt I was speaking with the German equivalent of Rip Van Winkle (he would, of course, have been Von), awakened from the nightmare of a Worker’s Paradise to find themselves in a Kapitalist Nirvana waiting to take their butts for every ost-mark they had.

I’d see them in the Kaufhof or irgendein lebensmittel markt and watch as they shyly picked up the different tubes of toothpaste, wordlessly marveling over a universe of choices for a mundane household item we took for granted but about which they could have only dreamed. For some, fresh fruit was nectar at an oasis.

I sent a video crew to Berlin just as the trickle became a flood because I ‘knew’ the moment had arrived. I was lucky; the people I worked for trusted me and I was beyond grateful when Mark C, the principal videographer, came back not only with remarkable footage and interviews but with a piece of the wall that was spontaneously being deconstructed, weighing some twenty pounds or so (unlike these).

He gave it to me with a smile saying he knew of no one who would appreciate it more. He was right. I still have it. Flat, in a box swathed in bubble wrap, having survived not only Mark’s trip from Berlin to The West but ours from Offenbach am Main to Norwich, Connecticut. The places where you can find pieces of the wall scattered around the world are thought-provoking and awe-inspiring. And, not so coincidentally, the stuff of governmental reports.

It’s not been very often since that I’ve felt again that unfettered optimism, that belief that the solution to most, if not all, of our world problems was actually within our grasp as I did during those heady days after the brick wall had been torn into a million pieces but before the one in our heads had been rebuilt, even higher than before.   

-bill kenny

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