Germans flocked to their reunified capital Sunday to toast the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall and swap memories of a night of “pure joy.”
Huddled in wintry weather for a giant street party at the Brandenburg Gate, visitors prepared for the evening’s highlight of nearly 7,000 illuminated white balloons along the Wall’s former route ascending into the night sky.
Sigrid Weiss from the eastern town of Fuerstenwalde, and Joachim Behrendt, who grew up in East Berlin, now live in west Germany and said they were pleased to see East Germans’ courage during 28 dark years of division honoured.
“We were always people who loved freedom,” said Weiss, 62. “It’s not that our lives were so terrible, but it was a golden cage.”
Behrendt, 64, worked in the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) organising circus tours abroad.
“I was able to send world-class trapeze artists to France and Japan but I couldn’t even leave East Germany,” he said.
He called it “the bad luck of history” that he lived just 100 metres (330 feet) from where the Wall was built and ended up on the wrong side, while most of his family lived in the west.
The couple, who met as teenagers in 1970, applied for permission to defect in 1986.
Weiss spent six months in official custody while the regime tried to convince her to withdraw her request.
“But I was never one to buckle,” she said with a smile.
Weiss and Behrendt were eventually able to leave in 1987, just two years before the Wall would fall.
“I had such mixed feelings that night,” Behrendt said.
“We had sacrificed so much and suddenly everyone could go to the West.”
But Weiss said that ambivalence soon gave way to “pure joy” and the couple travelled to Berlin where they “joined in taking pickaxes to the Wall.”
– Spontanenous applause for ‘Gorbi’ –
Astrid and Reinhard Gregor, west Germans from outside the Volkswagen headquarters city of Wolfsburg, travelled the more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) to Berlin to join in the anniversary celebrations.
Standing outside the Adlon Hotel opposite the Brandenburg Gate, they led a spontaneous round of applause and choruses of “Gorbi, Gorbi” among onlookers as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who is in town for the festivities, entered the building.
The hotel set up a slab of the Wall with his visage at the entrance, in honour of the man revered in Germany for helping pave the way to the Iron Curtain’s peaceful fall.
Astrid, 58, a retired teacher, said her son Lars, who was eight years old when the Wall fell, used to dream of how people from the East could escape imprisonment in their own country.
“He used to ask me whether they could just use a balloon to fly over the Wall,” she said.
She said she remembered vividly when the first East Germans weeks later were able to drive to Wolfsburg in their spluttering Trabant cars.
“I thought my newborn would suffocate!” she said with a laugh, remembering the clouds of engine fumes.
Her husband Reinhard, 61, a retired fireman, said he and his colleagues spent the day in bitterly cold weather greeting East Germans with hot tea.
“My only regret is that we weren’t here in Berlin on the night of November 9,” he said.
Frank Marschner, a 56-year-old forester from the east German town of Neustadt, said November 9 marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life.
“The freedom to travel is the freedom we’ve enjoyed the most,” he said, flanked by his wife Pia, 54.
“It started with a jaunt to West Berlin and it’s since taken us to Canada, Greece, Cape Verde — all over the world. Places we could never even dream of in the GDR.”