All we kept thinking was that we were being followed by the secret police and could be thrown into an underground prison, or placed on a train to Siberia.
I was kicking back on the couch in my Las Vegas studio apartment and the TV news was merely background noise, until a bulletin startled me. It was November 9, 1989 and all hell was breaking loose in East Germany, particularly in East Berlin.
I was working as an upstart photojournalist for one of the Vegas newspapers. Even though this was just at the dawn of my career, I immediately recognized the historic significance of the events unfolding in the Soviet Bloc countries. Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany were revolting against Soviet dominance, and Communism itself.
What was happening pulled at me to the point of obsession. Nightly newscasts and updates only made it worse. I felt a hunger to be there. After six weeks of inner turmoil, my boss made it easy for me to quit my job.
I didn’t have any money, but my pockets were filled with desire. I only hoped it wasn’t too late. I moved all my belongings into storage, and with nothing more than a credit card, my cameras and a small suitcase, I flew to Vienna, where my older sister was living at the time. The plan was to use her flat as a staging point to travel overland to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungry and Romania to document the world-changing events, and be a firsthand witness to unfolding history.
Even though I had schooled in Europe and had traveled extensively through Germany and the rest of Europe, I didn’t know much about Berlin, except for what I had read about the “Wall.”
The plane touched down in Vienna around 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve. My sister and I rented a car, drove to her apartment, showered, packed, and an hour later, began the 10-hour drive to Berlin. We had no idea what was in store for us. My sister’s Austrian friends thought we were crazy to drive through East Germany.
Six hours later, as we approached the East German border, we saw barbed wire fencing and a couple of watchtowers with guards holding machine guns. We entered the country through a small border town called Hirschberg. I felt like I was driving into a maximum security prison.
Were They Following Us?
The guards stamped our passports without saying a word, and waved us through. It was around 7 p.m., and Hirschberg looked like a ghost town, except for a gas station and restaurant. The roads were filled with potholes, and the air pollution was awful. There was an ominous feeling of uncertainty and paranoia. All we kept thinking was that we were being followed by the secret police and could be thrown into an underground prison to be tortured and never seen again, or placed on a train to Siberia. We were young.
The trip from Hirschberg to Berlin took three hours. To find our way, all we had was a road map — this was pre-cell phones, GPS and Internet. We decided to keep going into the unknown. The countryside was flat and empty, without houses, but the stinking air quality was the same.
When we arrived in Berlin, it was near midnight of Christmas Eve. The Brandenburg Gate had opened two days earlier, for the first time in 28 years. Thousands of partiers filled the streets, drinking and singing. We saw a young man of around 18 run to the Wall from the East side, jump up and throw his fists in the air. Hundreds, including us, disobeyed bullhorned orders from the East German police, telling us to stay away from the Wall, as the structure was not safe.
But no shots were fired. It was an amazing experience to see guards smiling and waving from the watchtowers in the “death strip,” or no man’s land, separating the two Berlins. Two months earlier, they would have killed people trying to escape to the West.
Tears and Souvenirs
All around us, older people were crying, while the younger ones were busy chiseling pieces of the hated Wall for souvenirs, or to sell.
The most memorable moment for me was when a man in his 60s, with disgust on his face, yanked a sledgehammer out of a young man’s hands, without saying a word, smashed the wall a few times with a vengeance, then threw the sledgehammer to the ground and walked away.
Long ago. The day before yesterday.
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