Bowie, Berlin & 'Heroes'

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In his song "Heroes," David Bowie uses the image of two lovers on either side of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for separation, loss and dreams of freedom. The song is embraced today by Germans as nostalgia, a cautionary tale and, ultimately, a celebratory anthem. 

The lovers' dream of reunification when the song was recorded in 1977 would have come true when the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989.

I was in Berlin last week to take part in 30th anniversary celebrations, and found myself in the presence of real, rather than metaphorical, heroes.

I had begun my third day in Berlin with Hermann "Bobby" Grampp, a guide for Video Sightseeing, a tour company started by former history majors. Its distinguishing feature, put to good use, is the incorporation of historical video on buses or, for small walking tours, Bluetooth-connected iPads.

We visited the longest remaining stretch of wall -- about 4/5ths of a mile -- that was preserved so 120 artists could paint murals and create what's now called East Side Gallery. Its most famous panel reminded me of the Bowie song, but with ominous overtones: Painted from an actual photo, it shows former Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev locked in what appears to be a lover’s kiss with former East German chancellor Erich Honecker. 

"God help me to overcome this deadly love." Former Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and former East German chancellor Erich Honecker, painted on what remains of the Berlin Wall.
"God help me to overcome this deadly love." Former Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and former East German chancellor Erich Honecker, painted on what remains of the Berlin Wall. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Grampp translated the caption below: God help me to overcome this deadly love.

Memorials to those killed while trying to escape were also on the agenda, as were large public sites connected to the city’s Nazi past. Taken in combination, these sobering scenes commemorate the horrific consequences that result from excessive nationalism and didactic ideologies.

The tour ended at "Berlin Underworlds," a subterranean tour that chronicles attempts to tunnel under the Wall.

That evening, there was a gala in the Bode-Museum organized by VisitBerlin in conjunction with area airport authorities and the official organizer of anniversary-related events. 

Present were a number of individuals who were central to the story of the Wall's collapse, among them Peter Brinkmann, the journalist who asked the question that, when answered, led the East German minister of information to mistakenly say the Wall was open right away (after first mistakenly saying the Wall would be opening). Once uttered, it couldn't be unsaid, and East German citizens massed at crossing points.

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Brinkmann told me that the East German information minister would never call on him, so he went into the room early and put his jacket over a chair in the first row, "the way you put your towel on a chair at the beach to reserve your space." That's what allowed him to shout his fateful question.

The first person to push open the gate and boldly walk to freedom, followed by a joyful throng, was also at the dinner that night, as was the Der Spiegel videographer who captured the moment.

All these people played important roles in history, but it wouldn't be until the next day -- the day of the actual anniversary -- that I met someone who truly fit anyone's definition of "hero."

For two hours, in the cafeteria of the James-Simon-Galerie, I listened, mesmerized, as Peter Bieber told me his story. He was not a Berliner but grew up on a small Baltic Sea island in East Germany. Among his childhood memories were playing happily with inflatable rafts on a beach.

Peter Bieber (center) with his wife Sabine and Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.
Peter Bieber (center) with his wife Sabine and Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann. Photo Credit: Jordana Goldmann

One tends to think of Berlin when recalling Germany's Cold War misery, but the day the Wall went up, his life, too, changed. Floaties were no longer allowed, perhaps for fear that a resident planned to ride the currents to Denmark. Watchtowers went up on the beach, and it was ordered closed at sundown.

Even as a 14-year-old, Bieber became paranoid about sharing his feelings of repression with schoolmates. By the time he was in college, he decided he had to get out.

His break came when a furniture maker who sold products to West Germany agreed to hide him in a wardrobe being shipped across the border. After a tense trip, he emerged in freedom.

He was 25 by then and entered law school in West Berlin. In a situation recalling the Bowie song, a fellow student who had heard about his escape asked if Bieber could help smuggle his girlfriend out of East Berlin.

Bieber contacted the driver of the furniture truck, who by then was hauling asphalt. The driver constructed a false compartment in the truck, and the smuggling operation was a success. Ten other rescues followed. Neither Bieber nor the driver ever asked for anything in return.

On the next attempt: "Catastrophe!" Bieber said. A woman had asked him to smuggle out her husband and 18-year-old stepson. Only the father showed up at the scheduled time and place, and after waiting a bit, the father said to go ahead without the son.

The son, it turned out, was already under arrest. He had casually said to a friend, "Expect a postcard from West Berlin." His friend went to the police, and it was over. Bieber and the driver -- who was West German -- were sentenced to 10 years in an East German prison. After five years, the West German government purchased their freedom.

Later that day, I attended the official 30th anniversary celebration at Brandenburg Gate. The crowd that had gathered stretched farther than I could see. It ended with German singer Jennifer Kothe singing -- what else? -- "Heroes."

Why does the fall of the Berlin Wall continue to inspire after 30 years, even when German unity is showing fissures and suggesting that critical historical lessons have a short shelf life? During the Bodes-Museum gala, one of the guests was Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laurate Muhammad Yunus, who helps poor women break out of poverty through nonprofit micro-financing.

Berliners packed the area around the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Berliners packed the area around the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The fall of the Wall, he said, impacted him greatly. "One wall falling made me believe impossibles could become possible," he said.

History has shown us that humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes. But perhaps the fall of the Wall has outsize impact because it reminds us that however discouraging the situation is (again), there is justification for hope. And even the possibility of euphoric joy.

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