“We celebrated an event that we had thought would not occur in our lifetimes”

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are gathering stories from both Germans and Americans who lived through that time. This week’s feature is a story by John Parisi, who was deeply moved by the events that transpired in 1989.

When the news of the opening of the Berlin Wall was first reported on the evening of November 9, 1989, I was attending a German language class in downtown Washington, DC.  Upon arriving home, my wife told me the news. We celebrated an event that we had thought would not occur in our lifetimes, and we thought about people we had encountered in the East and recalled how the wall had influenced our lives, going back to its beginning.

On August 13, 1961, my family awoke to the news that barbed wire had been strung in Berlin, cordoning off the East from the West.  Shortly thereafter, my father was recalled to active duty as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Fifth Army. I vividly recall seeing on television U.S. and Soviet Union tanks facing each other at the sector border and fearing that a war would occur.  Thankfully, it didn’t.

On the last weekend of September, 1969, I arrived in Germany for my Auslandsstudium during my Junior Year at Kalamazoo College.  I lived with a family in Münster (with whom I am still in contact, now in the fourth generation). On that first Sunday, I accompanied them to the polling place in their neighborhood where they cast their votes in the Bundestagwahl.  The voting official gave me a copy of the Stimmzettel which I still have. That evening, we watched the election returns and I learned that they were SPD voters in the very “Schwarz” Münsterland, and they welcomed the replacement of Kurt Georg Kiesinger by Willy Brandt.

The next month, my classmates and I went to Berlin.  We were taken to a platform near the Wall on which we could see into the Eastern sector.  I remember seeing children playing in the street and thinking that, in their memory, the wall had always been there.  Along Bernauer Strasse, the facades of the houses served as the “wall” at that time. During our visit, we met with an official at the Berlin Senat who told us very frankly that West Berlin was a dying city; the wall not only kept the easterners out, it also squeezed the lifeblood of the West.  

Courtesy of John Parisi

Twelve years passed – I finished college, taught school, went to law school, married Anne Broker (who also went to Münster to study in 1972), and got a job in the U.S. Congress in Washington – before I was able to return to Germany.  During part of our three week visit in October 1982 (soon after Helmut Kohl became Chancellor), my wife and I travelled along the B 27, from the Rhön to Goslar. Along the way, we drove very close to the inner-German border and marveled at the expense that the Eastern regime undertook to construct and maintain the barrier.

In early 1988, the Robert Bosch Foundation offered me a Fellowship to work in Germany for nine months.  My wife and I accepted and came to live in Bonn where I worked first at the Federal Economics Ministry and then for the Federation of German Industry (then located in Köln-Bayenthal).  On January 9, 1989, my wife gave birth to our first child, Elizabeth, at Johanniter Krankenhaus in Bonn.  The next month, Erich Honecker declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for another 50 years.  When we visited Berlin on Easter weekend of 1989 and stood on the platform looking into East Berlin, we felt certain that the wall would not come down in our lifetimes; but, we hoped that it might fall in Elizabeth’s.  Eight months later it did.  But, that was not the end of our “wall” story.

Courtesy of John Parisi

In April 2001, my wife and I and our two daughters accompanied the Congressional Study Group on Germany to its annual meeting with its Bundestag counterparts.  The meetings were held on Usedom and in Berlin; I served as rapporteur. While in Berlin, we took our daughters to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum; they still have vivid memories of that visit.

Then in June 2001, our family traveled to Ireland.  In Belfast, we took a tour of the Shankhill and Falls Road neighborhoods, seeing firsthand the effects of the “Troubles.”  At the so-called “Peace Wall,” that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, our daughter Elizabeth asked, “Why do you take us to such depressing places?”  I replied that we should visit places like Berlin and Belfast and learn the lessons that those places have to teach us.

On June 17, 2018 – the 65th anniversary of the workers uprising in East Berlin – Anne and I visited Mödlareuth, a tiny village divided by a creek that has been the border between Thuringia and Bavaria since 1810.  At the end of World War II, that was the border between the American and Soviet Sectors. After the wall was erected in Berlin, Mödlareuth became known as ‘little Berlin.’ The village has a “Grenzmuseum” that is worth diversion from the A9 or A72 north of Hof.  It serves as another reminder of how many places, large and small, were immensely impacted by the wall.

In his June 1963 speech in Berlin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, quoted then-Mayor Willy Brandt’s description of the Berlin Wall as “an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity.”  Sadly, the wall stood for another 26 years.  This year’s 30th anniversary of the opening of the wall is a time both to look back and to look forward:  back to reflect on the pain the wall caused as well as the courage of those who strove peacefully to bring it down, and forward to consider the lessons the wall has to teach us today and for the future.     

By John Parisi

Did you know these everyday objects were invented in Germany?

Inventors from around the world are converging on Nürnberg from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 to present their inventions at Germany‘s annual trade fair for ideas and inventions (the Ideen-Erfindungen-Neuheiten-Austellung, also known as iENA). The fair is the largest of its kind; since it was first held in 1948, more than 300,000 inventions were presented to the public – including inline skates, wheeled suitcases and folding bicycles. Inventors from all over the world are expected to display over 800 inventions.

In light of this fair, let’s take a look at some inventions that you may not have known are German!

©dpa / picture alliance

Aspirin

Many of us depend on aspirin to cure us of our pains. But few may know that aspirin was invented by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman. The Swabian-born chemist initially developed the drug for his aligning father, but got a patent for it in 1899.

©dpa / picture alliance

Contact Lenses

German ophthalmologist Dr. Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick invented the first contact lens in 1887, which he created from heavy brown glass. And no – the first contact lenses were not comfortable to wear, and they could only be worn for a few short hours at a time!

©dpa / picture alliance

Coffee filter

The coffee filter was invented by a housewife from Dresden named Melitta Bentz. Using blotting paper from her children’s school books, she removed coffee grounds from her brew, making it less bitter and smoother. She was granted a patent in 1908 and sold 1,200 coffee filters at the 1909 Leipzig Fair.

©dpa / picture alliance

Jeans

German-American businessman Levi Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis patented the first pair of blue jeans in 1873. Back then, they were considered workwear and worn primarily cowboys and miners. Today, they are quite the fashion statement!

Other popular German inventions are mayonnaise, x-ray machines, the printing press, the accordion, hole punchers, ring binders and the petri dish. Let’s see what new inventions Germans have at this weekend’s iENA fair in Nürnberg!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Why did the GDR build the Berlin Wall?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an important date in German history. But while this year’s focus is on the events leading to Germany’s reunification, let’s not forget how everything began.

During this month in 1961, the GDR established the border that kept Germany divided for years to come. Between 1949 and 1961, 2.7 million people had fled the GDR and moved to the west, ignoring emigration restrictions. The dividing line between East and West Berlin was a border-crossing hotspot. In the year 1960 alone, 200,000 East Germans defected, leaving behind their old lives for new ones in the west.

GDR authorities panicked over the mass emigration and sought to put an end to it. On the eve of August 12, 1961, the East German communist government closed the German border, and on August 13, construction of the Berlin Wall began. Families and friends were separated as GDR authorities tore up roads and sealed the border with barbed wire fencing and concrete blocks. It wasn’t long before a 12-foot concrete wall stood as a barrier between the east and the west.

Continue reading “Why did the GDR build the Berlin Wall?”

10 famous German immigrants who changed the world

©dpa / picture alliance

Not a lot of people in his native country are familiar with Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730 – 1794), but in the US the German-born military officer is a household name: he is considered one of the heroes of the American Revolutionary War of 1775 – 1783. Von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, was recruited into the Continental Army by Benjamin Franklin. He used his extensive military experience to drill and discipline the badly organized and ill-equipped troops, transforming them into an effective army. Under the leadership of George Washington, the Continental Army eventually defeated the British. Today, Baron von Steuben is honored every year on Von Steuben Day, when parades are held in several US cities. A statue of von Steuben stands in Lafayette Square just north of the White House.

©dpa / picture alliance

Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902) was one of the most famous caricaturists and cartoonists in the United States in the 19th century. He was born in the southern German town of Landau and immigrated to the US with his family during his childhood. Working for the illustrated political magazine Harper’s Weekly, Nast established the elephant and the donkey as symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, which are still in use today. Nast has also been credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus – a round friendly grandfather figure wearing a red suit.

Continue reading “10 famous German immigrants who changed the world”

Women of the Bauhaus: Anni Albers (1899-1994)

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are launching a series introducing influential women of the Bauhaus movement – a movement that is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Elevating Craft to Art

“Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.” – Anni Albers

Anni Albers, ca. 1929–33 © 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On its 100th anniversary, you may hear much of the Bauhaus, the iconic German art school which had its beginning in Dessau, Germany in 1919 under the leadership of Walter Gropius and which bridged the gap between fine and applied art. You might have read of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept (complete work of art) which the school embraced. You may be familiar with the international artists who taught alongside German artists: Wassily Kandinsky (Russian), Paul Klee (Swiss), Lyonel Feininger (American) and others. You might know that after its dissolution in 1933, some of the Bauhaus staff emigrated elsewhere: Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer continued their work in Chicago; Walter Gropius taught at Harvard; and Bauhaus-trained Jewish students designed apartments for the “White City” in Tel Aviv.

What you may not have heard of are the women of the Bauhaus.

Although the Bauhaus “welcomed any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex,” women were excluded from some disciplines. Disappointed that she could not enroll in the school’s stained glass class after fulfilling her core coursework, Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann enrolled in the weaving class which was open to female students. She quickly mastered the technical aspects of weaving, pushed the traditional boundaries, and began experimenting with traditional and non-traditional methods and materials. Her innate curiosity of traditional and newly-developed materials allowed her to break free from accepted norms and pushed her creativity into new directions. Drawings and designs from those years often show randomly-placed color shapes inspired by the artist’s visits to the opera.

“There were so few chances to execute a stained glass window…So the only thing that was open to me was the weaving workshop. And I thought that was rather sissy…once I got started I got rather intrigued with the possibilities there.”    – Anni Albers in a 1968 interview with Sevim Fesci, Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.

Anni Albers, Design for a 1926 unexecuted wallhanging, n.d.
Gouache with pencil on reprographic paper. 15 1/8 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1x 25 cm)
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

The young student married Josef Albers, who had risen to Junior Master at the school, in 1925 and took over the weaving department in 1931 after the departure of its head, Gunta Stölzl. In her new position, she taught weaving and design and continued to experiment with geometric designs and non-traditional materials such as horsehair, jute, paper, metallic thread, artificial silk, and cellophane.

In 1929, Anni Albers accepted a unique challenge when she was asked to correct the inadequate acoustics of the Bauhaus auditorium. She studied the properties of materials traditionally used for sound suppression such as velvet and experimented with new kinds of synthetic fibers. By attaching light-reflective cellophane to sound-absorbing cotton and chenille on the back, she won acclaim for her innovative and effective solution which could be mass-produced and which furthered innovation in theater design.

Continue reading “Women of the Bauhaus: Anni Albers (1899-1994)”

The Leo House: a refuge for German immigrants

© Leo House

When German immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th century, many of them entered through New York, seeking a new life in a world that promised endless opportunities. But the transition to a new life was not always easy. A New York based guesthouse called The Leo House took many of these immigrants in, guiding them on their journey in an unfamiliar land.

The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse on West 23rd Street in New York. Today it serves as a nonprofit budget hotel for travelers, but it played a significant role in lives of German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. Between 1865 and 1900, 35 percent of all immigrants who arrived in the US came from Germany. But after a difficult 4,000 mile journey, many of them found new hardships in the US.

German immigrants arrive in New York in 1850. © dpa

“They didn’t speak English. The gangs of New York were ruthless – they saw Germans who just got off the boat as ‘easy prey,’” says David J. Smith, executive director of Leo House. “And many Germans lost their faith.”
German businessman Peter Cahensly became concerned about the plight of German immigrants and founded the St. Raphael Verein in 1883, an organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of German travelers. In 1887, immigrants connected to the society started a fundraiser to further help incoming immigrants. Pope Leo XIII had recently received money in honor of the 50th anniversary of ordination, and the pope took that money and in turn donated $50,000 to the St. Raphael Verein. This money was then used to purchase a building in New York that became known as the Leo House, named in the honor of Pope Leo.

Continue reading “The Leo House: a refuge for German immigrants”

Celebrating St. Martin’s Day on November 11

On the eve of November 11, you might come across groups of smiling German children carrying home-made lanterns through towns and cities in Germany. These lantern processions are a tradition of a widely celebrated religious observance known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag).

The holiday celebrates the life of Saint Martin of Tours (316-297 CE), a Roman soldier who was known for being modest and altruistic. After being baptized as an adult, St. Martin became a monk and was eventually appointed as the Bishop of Tours. Many people know of St. Martin for saving a homeless man by giving him half of his cloak during a snowstorm.

In remembrance of this humble saint, German children create paper lanterns, gather on the streets and sing songs about St. Martin as they march with their illuminated lanterns. Often times, the procession is led by a man on horseback who is dressed as St. Martin. After the walk, children and their parents gather around a bonfire.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Although St. Martin’s Day is a Catholic holiday – many children participate in the lantern processions, regardless of their religious backgrounds. The lantern walks have become a large part of German culture. St. Martin’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays in the world, and is also celebrated in many other European countries.

If you live in the United States, there may even be a lantern procession in your city; some German churches, schools and communities come together to organize their own St. Martin’s Day celebration!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

The unlikely history of the GDR’s “Ferrari of the East”

When you think of East German cars, you probably visualize the colorful but cheaply-made Trabants (“Trabis”), which is what most people drove in the German Democratic Republic. But the GDR also had its very own race car: the Wartburg Melkus, also known as the “Ferrari of the East”.

While the West German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz generally dominated the Formula One World Championship, East Germany participated in many of the races with its Melkus cars and had a surprisingly high level of success: Heinz Melkus, race car driver and founder of the company, was the 1958 German champion in Formula 3 and the 1960 East German champion in Formula Junior. Overall, he won 80 of the 200 races he competed in throughout Europe.

But producing the race cars was not easy, since the Dresden-based manufacturer was only permitted to use materials from East Germany. About 90 percent of the Melkus’ parts came from Wartburg cars and some of its parts came from the Trabants. Still, Melkus was determined to see his vehicle on the streets of East Germany. Alongside his race cars, he also produced sports cars for everyday use, known as the Melkus RS1000. These sleek and stylish cars could reach speeds of about 112 miles per hour. But they never gained the popularity of the Trabants or the Wartburgs, and the company stopped producing its Melkus cars in 1986.

As we remember the 29th anniversary of the fall of the wall this week, we like to look back at the things that differentiated East and West Germany, as well as the things that united them. The Trabi is a symbol of the East, but the Melkus was one of the GDR’s prized creations: a race car that was made in a region with very few resources.

10 creative ways people crossed the inner German border

Some went over, others went under and some went right through it!

In a hot air balloon

In 1979, eight people soared over the Berlin Wall in a home-made hot air balloon created with small pieces of nylon cloth. To avoid looking suspicious, the families of Hans Strelczyk and Gunter Wetzel secretly collected small amounts of cloth over a long period of time. After their escape, the East German government began to strictly control the purchases of light-weight cloth.

Continue reading “10 creative ways people crossed the inner German border”

Need a place to celebrate Halloween? Head over to Frankenstein Castle in Germany!

With Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a look at one of Germany’s creepiest places: Frankenstein Castle.

Frankenstein Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt. It was constructed sometime before the year 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, who founded the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein. Over the coming centuries, the castle was home to various different families and witnessed several territorial conflicts. In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel – who later became an alchemist – was born in the castle. The structure fell into ruins in the 18th century and was restored in the mid-19th century.

The most famous story is, of course, that of the alchemist who worked in the castle in the 17th century. He was known to experiment with strange potions. He supposedly created an animal oil (which he named “Dippel’s Oil”) that was a so-called “elixir of life”. There are also rumors that the man studied anatomy and conducted experiements on cadavers, some of which he dug up himself from graves. There is no evidence that proves that any of this happened, but local people believe the legends are true.

Continue reading “Need a place to celebrate Halloween? Head over to Frankenstein Castle in Germany!”