I followed the events leading up to November 9, 1989, with great interest – for example, the “picnic” on the Hungarian-Austrian border and the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig. That summer, like many before, we visited a friend of ours living in Güstrow in the East. Little did we know that would be our last visit to the GDR. But even then, the border crossing felt somehow different compared to the many times we had done it before.
In the late 1970s, my older brother, his friends, and I had met two music students from Berlin while on holiday on Poland’s Baltic coast. We got on well and ended up forming a large circle of friends. Several of us started making regular trips to East Berlin – and later on to the region of Mecklenburg, where we would spend wonderful summers or New Year’s holidays together. We happily helped out with the renovation of the old half-timbered house that our friend had moved into.
On all of our visits, we always felt a communal atmosphere of solidarity and willingness to help, which we valued very much. Of course, we also experienced the negatives: the strict border checks, the penetrating gaze of the Volkspolizei officer sitting in front of a Honecker portrait at the registration office in Prenzlauer Berg, the harassment and never-ending wait at the border, distrust of people who may have worked for the Stasi (you never knew), etc. We were also aware that, as long-haired students in parkas and worn jeans who arrived in a large group twice a year in a VW bus, we were regarded as highly “suspicious,” and our friends were under particularly strict observation for having such Western contacts. Nevertheless, we kept up these “one-sided” visits for many years. We also witnessed some of our friends’ acquaintances leave the country over the following years.
“Move it along!”
So, why did the border crossing in the summer of 1989 feel different? On our way back to the West, we were transporting several boxes of books to Hamm for acquaintances who had left the country. They had received their exit permit to West Germany at the beginning of 1989, but could only take a few of their belongings with them. The books were important to them, and they had already carefully prepared them for transport before they left, meticulously listing all the titles, etc. When we reached the border, we expected to encounter strict checks as usual. But this time, nothing happened! They took a quick glance at the book list, asked “Where are the boxes?” and then shouted “Move it along!” It was astonishingly easy. Looking back, it’s possible that the border guards no longer cared which important cultural values were leaving the GDR.
I admired the courage of the East German citizens who participated in the Monday demonstrations and took to the streets time and again. I also remember my underlying fear that the whole thing would escalate and the protests would be crushed, much like the events in late 1988 on Tiananmen Square in China. But, to be honest, I was far too wrapped up in my own stuff at that time. I was in the final stages of my doctorate in Heidelberg: the last experiments had to be finished, the results documented, publications and dissertation written. So, when the events came to a head, I almost missed the fall of the Wall entirely because I was so busy!
On the evening of November 9, after a long and exhausting day at work, I was preparing dinner in the kitchenette of my small apartment. The TV was on in the background – and that was when I heard the incredible news! I abandoned my cooking and stared, transfixed, at the small black-and-white screen. There were images of people sitting atop the Berlin Wall while others clambered up. It was unbelievable! As we had no mobile phones or email at the time, there was no easy way that evening for me to talk about the events and share my emotions with like-minded friends. My boyfriend at the time was living in a different city and didn’t have a telephone. I don’t remember if I looked out the window onto the street, but if people out there had been dancing for joy, I would surely remember. All was quiet in the Heidelberg suburb; apparently this important event went almost unnoticed in the westernmost part of West Germany. I remained glued to the television all evening.
But what did this mean for me? At first, we were overjoyed that our friends from the East could finally visit us for a change, and that they could experience Paris in person rather than via the slideshows of their Western friends. It was also good that these awful border checks would now come to an end.
When I started to make plans for life after my doctorate about half a year later, completely new professional perspectives opened up for me! I had applied for a postdoctoral position at Schering in West Berlin, and in August 1990 I was offered a job. I am sure I would never have accepted the position if West Berlin had still been surrounded by a wall; I would have kept writing applications. But as it was, I set off into a promising new world. In fact, the early nineties in Berlin was the most exciting time of my life. Even today, I am still very moved when I see pictures from November 9.
I would also certainly never have ended up at the MDC if the Wall had not fallen that day! As a Schering employee in the early '90s, I occasionally visited the former institutes of the GDR Academy of Sciences in Buch for scientific lectures. I must confess that I only noticed the establishment of the MDC in 1992 in passing. But, when I was ready for something new after three years at Schering, the newly founded Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine was a very exciting place with an atmosphere of buoyant optimism. It was also a sort of “homecoming” for me, as I already knew some of the new group leaders and staff members – including the founding director – from my Heidelberg years.