US student sees Berlin Wall come down

Story and photo by Dr. Linda Steil
Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe, A Company

In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built and separated families and friends between East and West Berlin.
East German officials claimed the wall was erected to protect their borders from attacks by imperialists. West Germans saw the wall as a political statement used to permanently separate East Germany from West Germany.

Throughout the years, thousands attempted to flee East Germany by various means, including just walking across the border, hiding in suitcases, hiding in the well of a car or even hiding within the padding of a car seat that was hollowed out. Some made it; many didn’t. Over 750 people lost their lives trying to flee.

People and vehicles wait to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie Nov. 9, 1989, on the Berlin Wall. The building on the left is now the Checkpoint Charlie museum.
People and vehicles wait to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie Nov. 9, 1989, on the Berlin Wall. The building on the left is now the Checkpoint Charlie museum.

On Nov. 9, 1989, I was in Leipzig, East Germany, as a doctoral student from Boston University. I had come to Germany to work on my dissertation. I split my time between the University of Heidelberg and the Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur (DHfK) in Leipzig, which happened to also be an Olympic training site for East Germany.

I had been in the east for two weeks by this time; however, I had been to Leipzig three times before leading up to the historic events. Over the preceding few weeks, I witnessed the weekly Leipzig “Montags-Demos,” the Monday evening demonstrations. These continued to grow in size each week and started the movement to open the borders between East and West Germany.

Nov. 9, however, was a Thursday. Coincidentally, my visa to East Germany was to run out the next day. I was planning on going to Berlin, through Checkpoint Charlie, for my return to the West. Late that last night, I was surprised when four of the physicians I was working with at the DHfK showed up at my apartment. They told me to pack my bags, and we were heading to Berlin. The five of us crammed into a tiny car and headed to Berlin.

It was cold, the car had no heat and we had no room. The lack of horsepower made the trip last more than four hours in what would have been a one and a half hour trip in a Western-made vehicle.

When we finally made it to Berlin, through the chaos and jubilation it all became clear — the Berlin Wall had indeed been opened. We said our goodbyes, and I was on my own.

I first tried to cross to West Berlin only to realize that the long throngs of East Germans heading west meant a wait of many hours. The lines of people waiting to cross went for blocks and blocks. By 3 a.m., the streets were filled with tens of thousands of people. At Checkpoint Charlie, the lines were just as long, if not longer.

Not knowing what to do, I eventually approached a Western car with U.S. military plates on it. A young American couple waited in their car in line to cross back into West Berlin. Only Western cars were being allowed to cross in both directions. Easterners were only permitted to go west.

I asked for a ride to avoid the pedestrian lines as most East Germans did not have vehicles, and this line was shorter. They checked my passport to verify that I was indeed an American. They agreed to let me ride with them.

We realized that taking photos wasn’t going to work from within the car as people surrounded us and blocked all the windows. The Soldier opened his sunroof and had me stand on the backseat so that I could stand above the crowd. I watched in awe as the East German guards just stood there, not talking to anyone, not stopping anyone. East and West Germans hugged each other. Champagne corks were popping everywhere, and people were laughing.

Once through to the West, I noticed something odd. People were using hammers or other heavy objects to break away pieces of the Berlin Wall. Some tried to just smash it with garbage cans or anything that would cause the cement to come down.

I left the Americans and walked over to the Brandenburg Gate section of the wall. Along the way, I could see East Germans were packed in the grocery stores buying whatever they could. It appeared the most popular items were chocolates, bananas and soda. Many store owners just gave it away to the Easterners, who had never seen a banana before. Rumors also spread quickly that the banks were handing out 100 Deutsch Marks to Easterners as “welcome money,” and lines had formed in front of every bank.

By the time I made it to the Brandenburg Gate, daylight was breaking, and the sun was coming up. Locals had brought ladders to the wall, and crowds of people were climbing up. If you wanted to climb up, someone helped you. There was no pushing or shoving. There was only teamwork. I made my way up a ladder and joined the hundreds of people already up on the wall. We all stood there and wondered what would be next.

Today at Checkpoint Charlie there is a museum dedicated to the Berlin Wall and the people who died trying to cross into freedom. A wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling photo shows people standing on the Berlin Wall the morning it opened. I was proud to show my children when we visited that I too was in the famous photo of the Berlin Wall on the first sunrise over a new Germany.

Now, 25 years later, so much has changed. I am back in Germany working as a contractor, helping wounded, ill and injured Soldiers recover in the U.S. Army. They continue to defend the freedom of the United States and its NATO allies, including countries that were former adversaries across Cold War-divided Europe.

For this anniversary, though, I will cross the former border and retrace the route of the most physical symbol of the Iron Curtain. Only this time, it is an imaginary wall.