Holidays in the Sun

Sex Pistols – Holidays in the Sun

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember being absolutely glued to the tv during the weeks and days leading up to that moment. It was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime and there it was unfolding in front of our eyes.

I was a history major and geography minor in college. Only a year or two before the Wall was cracked open, I’d taken a class called Divided Germany Since 1945 and there were no signs of anything changing. I’d taken German language classes up through Advanced Conversation and Composition. This was a subject I knew a lot about and it was personal.

My grandfather’s family had emigrated from a small town in central Germany back in the late 1800s. There were enough German immigrants in Brooklyn that they still spoke German at home and their name didn’t become anglicized. Once my grandfather’s oldest sister started school, that all changed and by the time my grandfather was born in the early 1900s, the only thing that remained of their German heritage was the name.

Fast forward 70 years, one of my uncles received a letter out of the blue from someone in East Germany. My uncle had written an article in a scientific journal and it had been read by a science teacher living in Karl-Marx-Stadt with the same last name. It’s a very rare name even in Germany. The science teacher figured they must be related and he sent a letter saying his family had come from the same dinky hamlet in what had become East Germany after World War II. Letters were exchanged and indeed, they were cousins separated by a few generations.

My grandfather was involved in international sports and even though most westerners weren’t allowed behind the Iron Curtain, exceptions were made now and then for people working on behalf of institutions like his. On a trip to West Germany, he and my grandmother were granted permission to travel to East Germany to meet this long lost cousin in the dinky little town near the East/West border. They rode around in a Trabi and showed my grandparents the sights and the places where the family had come from.

When my grandparents returned from their trip, my grandmother asked me to be a pen-pal with the cousin’s oldest daughter who was learning English in school. We corresponded for several years. Her life was very different from mine and her opportunities were very limited. I always assumed I would never meet her. I found several of her letters in the boxes that were in my mother’s attic, with their DDR stamps and return address of Karl-Marx-Stadt.

As I sat in front of the tv watching the Wall being chipped at and climbed upon and eventually toppled, I thought of her and wondered what she might be feeling and might she be there? What was going to happen? Even though it was clear people were going to be allowed to travel, it didn’t seem like the DDR would be gone in less than a year. The pace at which things crumbled is staggering when you think about it, even in hindsight.

In February of 1994, I went to Europe for the first time. I flew into Berlin and stayed with a friend who had been an intern at the museum I worked at in DC. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum and I insisted on going to the eastern part of Berlin, to see what was left of the Wall, to see what it looked like for myself. Even 4 1/4 years after the Wall came down, the eastern half of the city still looked depressed and bore the scars of isolation. We went to an art performance/party in a building that looked like it had been bombed in 1945 and no one had ever cleaned it up.

After a week in Berlin I took the train down to Chemnitz, the name the town of Karl-Marx-Stadt had reclaimed after the DDR fell apart and stayed with “the East German cousins” for a few days. My pen-pal cousin had moved to Stuttgart but she came home to be able to meet me. My German was pretty rusty but their English was better and we talked and looked at old pictures. She had been very active in the demonstrations that occurred throughout East Germany, not just in Berlin. One of her younger sisters escaped to one of the embassies that were taking people in, as those who’d made it onto embassy property were going to be allowed to travel to the west. We went to Dresden and they showed me the places where they’d gathered to protest the government. The whole trip boggled my mind; here I was in East Germany, meeting the cousins I’d always assumed I’d only know through letters.

There’s a lot of stuff out there today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. This one had some pretty interesting map graphs and two videos showing places today where the wall had been. My husband and I were talking about the 25th anniversary and remembering it all. My daughter heard us and was asking questions. It was unbelievable to her that the Wall had ever existed and everything we told her sounded like a movie plot to her and not like it really could have happened. I’ll never forget it.

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4 comments

  1. What a great post! Being a witness to history is a privilege we should all take a few minutes to step back and appreciate. How cool that you were able to reconnect with family in the post-Cold War era!

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  2. That’s really fascinating Ellen. That trip must’ve been amazing and eye-opening, not only in terms of family history, but also world history. I went to Prague in 1992 – I didn’t have any personal connections there so only briefly observed the transition as a tourist, no doubt missing out of some great stories.

    Interestingly enough, I saw a film at the Sthlm Film Festival today and part of it took place in Karl-Marx-Stadt – it was about a young Czech athlete training for the 1980 LA Olympics and it dealt with the influence and power of the socialist state at the time. Fair Play it’s called: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YE08AJ-I-lk

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    1. Wow, cool! I’ll have to keep my eye out for that. Thanks!

      On that same trip, after visiting the East German relatives, I went to Prague. It had been my intention to move there. It was beautiful and I was so charmed by the whole Velvet Revolution and installing a dissident poet as President, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for me.

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