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Actually, I Wanted to Go to Bed Early ...

Designer
Detlef Helmbold worked for PROGRESS Film-Verleih, the only East German film distribution company, from 1986-1990; in 1990, he co-founded the zenon design agency. Familiar with East German cinema, he has continued working for the DEFA Film Library and other organizations. He has created the designs for our WENDE FLICKS series and many DVDs, including Kuhle Wampe, Counter Images, and That Was the GDR.

Detlef Helmbold

I was living in Prenzlauer Berg at the time. I was home by myself for the first time in days.

Ines, my girlfriend, was with her sister at a restaurant, talking about recent events over a glass of wine—the possible and impossible things that might happen. In the last couple of months, it had been rare for anybody to hang out alone; we spent all our time in small or large groups, at pubs or hanging out at friends’ places. We talked for hours, put together pamphlets and flyers, gave lectures. We felt that the time had come to change the world and that only one’s own perspective was the right and true one. It became almost impossible to keep track of, let alone think about dealing with, all the events and changes raining down on us daily.

We were all still impacted by the huge demonstration that had taken place in Berlin on November 4 as well. Almost one million people had gathered on Alexanderplatz and listened to speeches, including by actors Ulrich Mühe and Steffi Spira and authors Stefan Heym, Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller. Later, my friends and I came to the conclusion that it had struck the lowest common denominator and a real cross-section of East German society had been present. Christians, leftwing liberals, middle-class intellectuals, hard-line communists, social and Christian democrats, not-yet-visible new right-wingers and hypocritical democrats . . . . Everyone pulled together, and it all happened under the sharp eye of the “good old Stasi.”

All these people were unified by one collective wish for change: for democracy, in the sense of bringing prosperity; by the desire to travel; and by a hatred of the old structures of the East German society. Many demonstrators were still filled with the hope that it was possible to combine socialism and democracy. We had all woken from our lethargy, from our private sleep in our private niches—because of the thousands of people who left our little country, because of the impertinent denial of realities by the government and officials in top positions. We had started taking a stand and openly expressing our own thoughts. We had awoken from our self-satisfied mental sleep.

On November 9, 1989, I sat by myself watching the TV news, which was seemingly being shown round the clock. My thoughts were spinning, refusing to come clear. I thought about my sister, who had fled from East Germany and whom I hadn’t been allowed to see since. And I thought about the speeches I’d heard, while keeping one eye on what was on TV. Ines intended to come home around 8:00 p.m.; we were planning to go to bed early. Our bodies needed rest, as they hadn’t been getting much in the last couple of months. And there was no sign of anything big in the news.

Then the East German television station, which I hadn’t watched until three weeks ago, broadcast a press conference with Günter Schabowski of the SED Politburo. Riccardo Ehrman, the Italian ANSA press agency’s representative in the GDR, asked: “Don’t you think it was a big mistake to introduce the new travel regulations?” Schabowski answered with an evasive and long-winded statement:

And so today a decision was made, as far as I know.... Today we decided to institute a new regulation allowing every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave the GDR at any of the border crossings.”

My jaw dropped.

When Ehrman asked when this would go into effect and whether it also applied to [crossing into] West Berlin, Schabowski stuttered that he’d been told the regulation would be implemented immediately and without delay ... and that it also applied to West Berlin. When the press conference was over, I switched to the West German stations I usually watched, such as ARD and ZDF. The first station reported that people were starting to gather at the checkpoints in [East] Berlin to test the new regulation. But that the border was still closed.

When Ines came home around 8:30, I was ready to go to bed. I would read a little or watch some more TV and then get some shut-eye. But first, I had to tell her about the press conference. Of course, Ines—spontaneous as always and the opposite of me—immediately wanted to go try a trip to West Berlin via the Bornholmer Strasse crossing. Reluctant, I said that it didn’t make any sense yet, as the border was still closed. The TV reports were showing that nobody could cross the border yet. But all to no avail. She wanted to go, and if I wouldn’t come with her, she told me in no uncertain terms that she’d try her luck alone.

This was not what I had meant! I imagined the woman I loved, wandering alone in the “evil, capitalist” west part of Berlin. Maybe some member of the bourgeoisie would try to rip her off! And that was a best case scenario! I was even more worried by the thought that she might end up in the arms of a rich capitalist and spend some time with him. So, cranky at the prospect of a failed adventure, I got dressed and we walked in the direction of the Wall, which was about a mile from our house.

When we hit the street, I noticed there were a lot of other people out too; but it was very quiet and the night was as if enshrouded in silence. I could only hear the sound of footsteps. Very quietly, as if nobody wanted to be heard, people were walking.Or they were sitting and looking out of the streetcar windows. Everybody knew the next guy’s plan—but nobody wanted to admit it to themselves, let alone say it aloud. Everyone got out of the streetcar at the corner of Bornholmer and Schönhauser Allee. It was very dark; only a few streetlights illuminated the streams of people. A mass of East German citizens, like shadows, walked along the street in the direction of a huge spotlight: the checkpoint.

I was afraid of what might happen if the border guards hadn’t yet been informed that Mr. Schabowski, on account of his stupidity, had opened the border at 6:53 p.m. And even if they did know about it, the situation might escalate because the mass of people looked threatening. Like insects attracted by the light, people swarmed toward the border crossing. Thousands of East Berliners were already there, trying to convince the border guards with peaceful discussions and loud chants, like “Open the gate!” and “No violence!” It seemed absurd to stop the avalanche caused by the press conference. Left to their own devices by all their higher-ups, the border guards on duty only succeeded in slowing down the mass of people pressing toward West Berlin; but they were not able to stop them.

When we got closer to the border crossing, something entirely unexpected happened: the guards gave up their seemingly helpless resistance. The barrier opened and thousands of Berliners poured over the border. When the “illegal border crossers” took stock of the situation, they started to cry and scream, to laugh, to wildly dance around and shake their heads, to run and walk around. People who had never met hugged and kissed each other, and the word “crazy” was on everyone’s lips. Ines and I were swept up in the swirl of the masses and were moreorless carried by others into the West.

On the other side of this hitherto insurmountable border, the citizens of West Berlin and their friends stood in cordons to welcome us. Everybody tried to catch an “Ossi” and show him or her the west part of the town. They patted our backs and welcomed us with champagne. Ines and I were fished out of the crowd by a West Berlin architect and his girlfriend from Bremen. After an affectionate welcome and a brief exchange of names and professions, we found ourselves sitting in their car, driving to the Kurfürstendamm, the best-known street in West Berlin. It looked like the people there had not yet realized what was going on. In that short moment, we could feel how this part of the city, this island ticked. Our hosts walked with us along the quiet streets, showing us famous corners and plazas, such as the place where Cabaret was shot with Liza Minnelli in 1972.

Gradually, the news of the Wall’s opening spread also throughout West Berlin, and the first Trabi and Wartburg cars arrived from the East, honking their horns and flying flags. Manfred and Birgit, our dear “tour guides,” took very good care of us. They treated us to food and drinks at restaurants. Before our “flight,”Ines, thinking ahead as usual, had quickly grabbed a 10 west mark bill—just in case; but we soon noticed that this amount wouldn’t help much at all. We walked through the night, and the glittering world of a European metropolis looked like I had always imagined it would. There was the abundance: the glamor; the to us seemingly unreachable wealth; the big, chic cars; the women offering their services on side street; and there were also the homeless people and beggars lying on subway airshafts, trying to escape the night’s cold. We were seeing everything for the first time—the ruins of the Gedächtniskirche, the Europa Center with the fascinating “water ball,” a fountain designed by Joachim Schmetau or the Zoo Palast—and yet we felt at home in our city.

It was around 2:00 a.m., when Manfred and Birgit took us to a Greek restaurant. There were a lot of people there, but it wasn’t crowded. The restaurant owner came and welcomed us when we sat down. Manfred told him we had come over from East Berlin and he immediately said that dinner and drinks were on the house . . . and gave us his autographed picture. Later, we learned that his name was Kostas Papanastasiou, a famous actor who had played the role of a Greek restaurateur in a well-known TV soap opera.

An hour later, the restaurant was completely full, but the waiters kept setting up more tables and chairs. The place kept getting louder and customers walked from one table to the next, talking about only one topic: the Wall opening. A young boy was selling the latest issue of the Bild Zeitung, with the wonderful headline “We Made It—The Wall Is Down.” Everyone tried to get a copy of this special black-red-and-gold issue, but it was sold out in seconds.

As the atmosphere became increasingly exuberant, the first round of customers started dancing between the tables. At that very moment, the door opened and a group of people entered the restaurant. Another table was set up next to ours, and the famous East German writer Stefan Heym sat down. We couldn’t believe it! Ines and I approached him and thanked him for his unwavering political engagement in the last years. He was one of the East German authors who had always drawn attention to political issues and circumstances, despite being persecuted himself. The works of the communist Stefan Heym had now become a part of history, because they had helped to bring down the GDR system. Time passed so quickly. At one point, Ines said she wouldn’t even be surprised if Manfred Krug—the famous actor and singer who left East Germany in the late 1970s—walked through the door. We knew that he lived close by. And, in fact, it wasn’t long before he DID come into the restaurant!

Everybody was simply ecstatic—dancing, drinking, talking, wanting to savor this moment forever. It seems like such moments of happiness—the happiness of a whole nation—don’t happen very often. The 9th of November—the day of the Wende—made history for the German nation, and it became a day laden with positive meaning. Our hosts, Stephan Heym, Manfred Krug and all the other customers celebrated until the wee hours of the morning. And then we thought it might be time to go home or, as a German saying goes, “quit while we were ahead.” Manfred and Birgit took us back to the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint, where people were crossing in both directions. People who had partied all night heading back East; and people who had slept through this night to end all nights were heading West.After the boundless happiness of the last few hours, I had a moment of doubt and fear: “What if the border guards don’t let us back into East Berlin?” But it proved unfounded.

Ines and I went home, overwhelmed by the night’s events. We took a shower, ate breakfast and, as if nothing had happened, we went to work. But we were almost alone at the office, because a whole city wanted to see the other part of town and a whole country was crossing to the other side of the Wall. In one night, Germany had begun to overcome its division. It would be a long and difficult journey, but at least it had begun. Walls and borders can be taken down quicker than the walls in the minds of people. The next time we went back to the West was six weeks later. By that time, it already felt normal to live in a nearly unified Germany.

Detlef Helmbold, February 2009
February 2009 Issue


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