On Family Reunions and the Berlin Wall

It’s November 11, 1989 – two days after the “Fall of the Wall” in Berlin. Thousands of people stream back and forth along the west side of the Berlin Wall between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

The night is dark, cold and loud and a bright moon peers down at the scene.

People cheer and sing and chip away pieces of the wall with sharp objects.  Along the top of the wall, East German guards stand motionless, facing the west. Like the moon, they peer down and watch the celebration.

Night photo of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. East German soldiers stand along the wall looking at the crowd along the west side. A bright moon shines down on the scene.

Brandenburg Gate. November 11, 1989.

The Berlin Wall has “fallen” and East Germans are free to travel across the border and back. Free to go. Free to return.

27-year-old me is there, walking along the wall, picking my way through the crowd.

A reporter for Radio Deutsche Welle, I’m here to tell a story; and to get the story, I talk with people in the crowd.

I approach two men who look to be about my age and ask if I can interview them.  Do they speak English? One does. He is from West Berlin. The other does not. He is from East Germany – not far away, but from the other side of the wall – which until two days ago might as well have been up on that moon.

These men are cousins… in their late twenties… and they never met before today.

Amazingly, I run into them again later. The cousin from East Germany – grinning, giddy and euphoric – holds up a large chunk of the wall. He thrusts the chunk back into his motorcycle helmet and disappears into the crowd.

I never saw them again after that, but I was thinking about those two cousins this weekend as the world commemorated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There were fireworks and symphonies and illuminated balloons and official ceremonies.

There were documentaries and “remember when” specials and Twitter hashtags and news analysis of the geo-political significance of the Berlin Wall and its fall.

The “Fall of the Wall” was one of those watershed moments in history – marking a time “before” and “after.” No doubt about it.

But for those two men – and many other Germans who had been separated by this hulking artificial barrier – it was significant for more personal reasons.

They were family, yet had never had the opportunity to be together. Not because they chose not to be together, or did not have money to travel to be together, or were too busy, or any of a million other reasons.

They couldn’t be together because somebody built a wall.

As I monitored the anniversary coverage this weekend, I did so surrounded by my own family. We had come together from two states and six cities to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday. We visited, played games, took pictures, ate great food, and hiked through the woods.

Family at Stonewall November 2014

My family.

We also looked at old family photos and home movies. The images, reaching back to the early 20th century, told the story of multi-generational family connection – complete with shared meals, laughter, games, hugs, smiling hellos and tearful goodbyes. Family members had used planes, trains, automobiles, and bicycles to span distances and be with each other.

Homecoming reunion circa 1927

A family reunion circa 1927. Circled in the middle are my Grandma Catherine and her parents. Circled to the left is my great, great grandmother.

There were photographs of my grandparents at family reunions with their siblings; of my parents, aunts and uncles getting together; of my cousins playing side by side on swing sets.

As I looked at these images, I glanced around the room at the faces of my parents and my sisters and their families. I can’t imagine not being able to be together. I can’t imagine missing out on birthdays and weddings and holidays and “just because” gatherings.

There may be obstacles at times (we are all so very busy after all…) but a giant wall somebody put up overnight is not one of them.

I’m thinking of those two German cousins growing up only miles from each other but worlds apart.

I’m thinking of how they met for the first time under the bright moon in the shadow of the shattered Berlin Wall.

I wonder where they are now and how they marked the 25th anniversary.

I’ll never know.

But I hope it was together with the rest of their family, visiting, playing games, taking pictures, and eating great food. I hope the one cousin held up his chunk of the Wall and told the children about that night and about what life was like before the Wall fell.

The Berlin Wall was more than some geo-political, militarized border. It did more than divide two halves of a country, two parts of a continent and two spheres of influence.

It divided families.

It divided them out of the blue…overnight… and for 28 years.

It divided those two twenty-something cousins.

And now it’s gone.

That’s reason enough to celebrate and throw a party.

And now everyone can come. Photo of the Berlin Wall taken in November 1989. Spray painted on the wall, it says "It should be easier to go your neighbor than to go to the moon."

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