Rainhard Fendrich

A storm had been brewing for a while

Michaela Langer, Staff Development and Society of Friends

“The Wall is open!” it declared. We were bewildered. What did that mean?
These 'souvenirs' were a ritual after every business trip abroad – probably in every family.
Michaela Langer
Michaela Langer Staff Development and Society of Friends

The tension was palpable all across the country – at the dinner table, on the bus to work, in the workplace. It was clear that the world as we knew it was about to change irrevocably. The edifice of the German Democratic Republic, which had not always been popular but was at least familiar to us, was crumbling. The system wasn’t going to survive much longer.

We had a vague feeling that combined hope and fear – with different portions of each depending on the individual.Nobody had any idea how things would go on after the change, which seemed so imminent, though uncertain, and which was eagerly anticipated by most.Would there be increased freedom of speech and freedom of opinion? Would we be able to go on vacation to countries we hadn’t been allowed to visit before? Would scientific exchange finally become more straightforward and less bureaucratic for staff at our institute, and would we be able to take business trips to the West? On the other hand, though, would we even get to keep our jobs? Might the winds of change actually have a negative impact on our lives?

That momentous Thursday

A week before November 9, 1989, my husband had set off on a business trip to Budapest. The taxi driver who took him to the airport raised a finger at him in mock admonishment: “Make sure you come back, mind!” he joked. We all had a good laugh at that. On that momentous Thursday, November 9, I picked my husband up from Schönefeld airport. At 8 p.m. we got home and “surprised” our children with small gifts from his trip – actually no surprise at all as they had been requested in advance: Bravomagazines, a Depeche Mode poster, a horse poster. All things you couldn’t buy in East Germany. These “souvenirs” were a ritual after every business trip abroad – probably in every family. So we spent that evening away from any kind of media, just swapping stories about what we had been doing over the past few days: school, friends, work – and, of course, the trip to Hungary. We lived in Buch, and at that point everything seemed completely calm. No one called either. And so we went to bed, completely ignorant of what was going on right at that moment just a couple of miles away.

View from the post-war building in Buch IV, where the author was living in 1987.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I switched on the radio. “The Wall is open!” it declared. We were bewildered. What did that mean? But there was no time to sit around pondering, as the family had to get ready to leave the house. It didn’t occur to any of us not to go to work or to school. But only half the people actually showed up that day. Many of them had gone to see with their own eyes what the opening of the Wall actually meant. A 50-year-old colleague of mine arrived at work in the early afternoon, with tears in his eyes: “I last went for a stroll there with my wife 28 years ago. We didn’t know it would be our last walk there for all that time, and afterwards we thought we’d never see that part of Berlin again.”

It was three weeks before I myself finally “went over.” All the commotion was a bit too much for me at first and I had said – quite rightly, as it turned out – that the Wall was sure to stay open now. So I set off with my small daughter, who was eager to get her hands on the “welcome money” given to people from the East. One hundred West German marks – imagine what you could buy with all that money! Of course, she was only interested in toys. I didn’t want anything in particular; more than anything, I was embarrassed at having to go fetch the money. In fact I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t even have gone into a bank if it hadn’t been for my daughter’s imploring. My neighbors came toward us carrying huge bottles of fabric softener. That didn’t make the whole thing any easier for me, and neither did the signs at every bank we passed that said: “No more welcome money here today!”

At some stage it was done; at some stage things became normal. By then, everything had worked out well for me personally. But I’d like to stress that I’m only speaking for myself. Other people weren’t as lucky as me.


© picture alliance/Fryderyk Gabowicz