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We Didn’t Understand—Memories of November 9th

Christine Becker, an author, editor and the widow and collaborator of renowned (East) German author and screenwriter Jurek Becker, studied German Languages and Literatures. She was married to Becker from 1986 until his death in 1997. She has edited and published her husband’s letters, essays, lectures, readings and interviews. Christine Becker has just completed an audiobook of readings by Jurek Becker and is currently working on a compilation of his essays to be published in English. Christine Becker is also a board member of the Wolfgang Koeppen Foundation.

Christine Becker


There was nothing to smuggle that day. Other than the usual groceries, cheese, fruit and a TV magazine, we had nothing in our luggage. And we weren’t invited to a party, which meant I could get back by midnight. It was only a regular visit with family in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, and this was why I got my way and we crossed the border at the Heinrich Heine Strasse checkpoint, which was near our apartment in Kreuzberg.

Jurek hated this checkpoint because the guards there were particularly meticulous. If he had something for the boys that shouldn’t be found in the car, he traveled with his East German passport and used Checkpoint Charlie to enter East Berlin. As a citizen of West Berlin, I had to use the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint. Then one of us had to stand around, looking stupid, waiting for the other; I didn’t like this separation at all. If we wanted to go to a party, we would choose the Sonnenallee checkpoint, so I could stay until 2:00 a.m. with my West Berlin ID card.

No party, no smuggled goods—that meant Heinrich Heine Strasse. And, as the saying goes, everything was the same as usual when we entered the GDR late in the afternoon. It was the 9th of November.

Once we arrived in Mahlsdorf, we unloaded the car. The TV magazine came out from under the spare tire, or the floor mat—sometimes Jurek changed the hiding place again just a few meters before the checkpoint. Once, he even pulled the magazine out of its hiding place and put it back into the glove compartment—and, on that particular day, we were not checked. In the sunroom, Rieke—Jurek’s first wife—served us jet-black coffee, as usual, and cake—although it was only an hour until dinner. Nikolaus, Jurek’s oldest son, and his girlfriend were already there. Leon arrived too late—also as usual.

But the conversations were different. Nikolaus had taken some risks and gotten pictures of the October 7 demonstrations. It was an eventful time for the whole family. The heated conversations were suspended only for the news.

Even today, what happened that evening by the television in Mahlsdorf—or rather what didn’t happen—is incomprehensible to me. Five bona fide East German citizens watched and listened to the press conference together. My presence in that circle was negligible, as interpreting the official statements of the East German authorities was not my thing. But what did the others understand that evening? Schabowski said a law would go into effect making it possible for every citizen to leave via a checkpoint. But starting when? What I understood was that it was right away—"forthwith," was the word used.

For obvious reasons, I wonder why the other five people in attendance that evening agreed that he meant it was only a possibility. Only an eventuality that GDR citizens might possibly, and only after submitting an application, one day be approved to cross through one of the checkpoints. So, why shouldn’t we have dinner in peace?

And that’s what happened. The television was turned off and the conversations continued. Jurek started to get anxious around 11 p.m., which was completely normal. He knew that departures in the family dragged on forever—one wished each other this and that, one was handed this or that, simply because one wanted to be nice. But he exuded unease, because it was important to him to get me back over the border before midnight. We started with the goodbyes at 11:15p.m., saying we’d be back in three or four weeks.

It turned out that Jurek’s discomfort was justified. As we got to the border crossing around 11:45, it was apparent that the line of people exiting the country was much longer than usual. The whole of Heinrich Heine Strasse was full of parked cars—of Trabants.

And again I wonder: What did they understand—the East German man and the West German woman—in their car at the end of the line?

Nothing. We hadn’t grasped the events that were in motion here. The fall of the Wall, perhaps? Nothing of the sort was in our minds, as Jurek moved into the opposite lane at five to twelve, pulled ahead of all the Trabants and we crossed the border. On the West Berlin side of the Wall, Moritzplatz was full of people. A police officer stopped our car and asked, “How is the atmosphere over there?” “Why? How should it be?” He wanted to know if things were peaceful. We hadn’t noticed anything un-peaceful in the long line of Trabants, so the police officer let us go—two ignorant people on their way home.

Unfathomable why we didn’t suspect what was about to happen. It’s almost superfluous to say that we went to bed—without turning on the television. We slept through a momentous event.

For our little family, the next day was to become one in which rapturous messages were acknowledged with disproportionate bleakness.

The doorbell woke us. Jurek thinks this was at 6 a.m. The boys disagree, say they would have let us sleep till 10.

When Jurek opened the door and saw his family on the landing, he didn’t make much of an effort to show his excitement. They still talk about it. (Ten minutes later, at the breakfast table, Jurek decided the time was right to tell his sons they’d be having a little brother. Following in their father’s footsteps, they were both able to conceal their joy.)

Soon, however, everyone was explaining what they’d experienced the night before. Nikolaus had listened to the radio and, at 2:30 a.m., he, his mother and the girlfriend, who had gone to bed with henna in her hair, loaded into the car and drove to West Berlin. Leon, who lived in Berlin-Mitte, had crossed the border on foot. And in the early morning hours, unbelievably, they ran into each other on the Kurfürstendamm! So they had bought breakfast rolls and set out to surprise us.

Surprise a success. Luckily, everything would never be the way it had always been.

Jurek had difficulties with the new times. German unification had not been on his wish list, and not only because he was certain it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. The existence of two German states was the guarantor of peace, he thought—which might have had something to do with his background. That he hoped the GDR would become a democratic state after the fall of the Wall—that had to do with his sense of justice. The collapse of real existing socialism was nothing to lament. The West, however, no longer promised people solidarity, but merely more consumerism. Sales rise “until our word lies in rubble,” wrote Jurek in December 1989. At least here he had shown a little foresight.  But otherwise, it was our disgrace that we hadn’t understood.

Christine Becker, August 2009
August 2009 Issue


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