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.
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.
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