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