Sunday, November 9, 2014

In Which I Go Get My Chunk Of The Wall

During the first week of November 1989, East Germany's totalitarian government is in full retreat.

A border point with Czechoslovakia is open - nobody there tries to prevent East Germans from crossing to reach the West anymore. About 300 East Germans per hour leave that way during the first few days of the month. The Czech government, overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, demands that East Germany open its borders with West Germany directly. So many people are fleeing East Germany that it causes blue collar and skilled labor shortages. Stasi agents are ordered to work as, e.g., bus drivers and locksmiths to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, West German refugee camps and makeshift shelters in public buildings are severely overcrowded.

East Germany's stark economic and environmental crises come into sharp focus. The government is broke and has no assets. Stories come to light illustrating desperate acts of a dying power structure. For example, during the declining years of the East German dictatorship, solvency issues became so critical that Honecker ordered historic cobblestones dug up from East Germany's once grand cities to be sold secretly to cities like Paris and Florence for repair of their own historic districts.

For four decades, East Germany burned massive amounts of brown coal without emission controls. Industrial waste and runoff was dumped wherever it was convenient. By the late 80s, all bodies of water in East Germany are so polluted they are biologically dead. The rest of East Germany's ecosystem is in a similar state of collapse. The actual state of affairs shocks even the most astute of Western observers of East German affairs.

On November 4, East Berlin sees the largest single anti-Communist protest since demonstrations started six weeks prior: Half a million people march through East Berlin to government buildings, demanding democratic reforms, representation in government and freedom to travel. Gorbachev refuses to mobilize Soviet troops in East Berlin and orders them to stay in their barracks.

According to the Stasi, 50 demonstrations take place in East Germany on Wednesday, November 8 - protests in all states and all districts, all of them vocally hostile to the ruling SED party and its enforcement arm, the Ministry of Homeland Security.

Also, on November 8, Germany's largest daily (Bild) reports that the East German government has resigned and its Politburo would soon follow. The paper adds that 35,000 East Germans are now in West Germany, with another 45,000 hoping to enter.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, Honecker successor Egon Krenz announces drastic reforms to East German travel laws. How these reforms would be implemented in practice remains unclear. Meanwhile, Berliners take matters into their own hands.

Within a few hours of Krenz's semi-announcement, demonstrators in Berlin test the most formidable and deadliest barrier between East and West Germany. On several points along the Berlin Wall, East and West Berliners alike convince border guards to lay down their weapons and let people pass from and to both sides. Many border guards are weary, stoic, and I'm sure, totally confused, given that most of them are in their late teens to early 20s and never knew anything but totalitarianism. None of them use force, and many of them join the jubilant crowds - East Germans walking into a forbidden part of their city for the first time in 40 years - with West Berliners cheering them on. But not all of them.

West Germans greet East German border guards at an official border crossing point in West Berlin on November 9, 1989. Look at how young the guards are!

West Berliners help East Berliners scale the Wall on November 9, 1989. You can tell that the picture was taken on the East Berlin side because the Wall has no graffiti on it. East Berliners attempting to graffiti the Wall would have been arrested or shot.

For those readers who don't remember November 9, 1989, it was a day of such historic impact that "Where were you and what were you doing when The Wall came down?" is a commonly asked question.

I was in Los Angeles, a grad student at UCLA, in what was supposed to be my last year before earning my doctorate in cognitive science. It was a dark time for me in academia. Over seven years
of undergrad and graduate work at three top US universities I had constantly battled sexual harassment, running the gamut from daily microaggressions to inappropriate behavior to assault. I had already decided against a career in academia.

By late 1989, I was beyond frustrated. My two primary PhD committee members refused to accept any dissertation proposal I suggested, insisting that I take on an area of their own research instead. I suspect that my turning down and humiliating another faculty member who had cornered me in my office
a few months before hoping for some "special favors", had something to do with my being stonewalled as I struggled to clear this last hurdle before earning my PhD.

I was very angry at the situation and furious at an academic system that enabled such hostile environments. The weeks leading up to Mauerfall saw a sequence of events in Europe that both fascinated me while all of it also seemed like it happened worlds away with little impact on my life and grad school woes in Los Angeles.

You'd think someone like me with a vested historic interest in the fate of both Germanies would have gone to Berlin simply to be part of a cultural and geopolitical shift I'd predicted just a few years earlier. To be part of History. That is not how it happened.

Shortly after Mauerfall - no more than one or two weeks later - I noticed a department store in Beverly Hills advertising and selling "certified pieces of The Berlin Wall" for $25. I was absolutely livid at this crass commercialism. I went to the store, found the counters where they were selling the pieces and laid into the salespeople. I realize it wasn't their fault; they didn't set policy. But they were there and they stood there, showing increasing discomfort as I berated them. Anyone within earshot could hear me. By the time I got to "I hope you cleaned all the blood off these Wall pieces!" (it was the decade of HIV hysteria) and "What are you going to sell next? Pieces of the ovens in Auschwitz?" a couple of security guards had shown up to escort me out of the store. That was the first time I'd ever been kicked out of a place of business and I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. I figured I'd made my point.

The store was in a mall and once outside I plopped into a nearby chair, alternately wanting to scream and cry. Then, without conscious thought or consideration, it hit me. I knew what I had to do. 

That same day, I bought a ticket to Berlin for that same week, with my one and only credit card I'd saved for emergencies. I boarded the plane with little more than my passport, a change of clothes, a hammer, a chisel and a sack. On the plane I began to see for the first time how much my focus on navigating the vagaries of academia had preoccupied me to the point that historic events that changed the world seemed little more to me than a spread in the LA Times. I started to get really excited about going to Berlin - and seeing it being transformed in a way that had never existed in my lifetime. 

Once I landed in Berlin, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I grabbed the first taxi I saw and said "Take me to The Wall!" "Where at The Wall?" the driver asked.
I replied: "To a place where there's a cross, where someone died".

I don't remember which part of the Wall I arrived at except that it wasn't near the Brandenburg Gate. It was mid-day. I picked a spot on the graffiti-decorated wall segment in front of me. For the next hours, I used the hammer and chisel and pecked, chipped and banged away at the cement barrier in front of me as if my life depended on it. I know that sounds like it was fun, but I didn't experience it that way. That day in Berlin, I channeled all my frustration over having grown up in a divided Germany, all my current anger about US academia and didn't stop taking chunk after chunk out of the wall until the hammer was ruined, the chisel was a small stump. As dusk was falling my hands were bloodied and raw. I was so exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally that it was a wonder I found my way to the nearest train station with my sack holding 30 pounds of Wall rocks. 

I took a train west to my hometown and my parents' house. Like all westbound trains shortly after Mauerfall, it was overcrowded and filled with cheering, celebrating, not-too-sober Germans. I was too tired to socialize or participate. Once I found a seat I struggled to stay awake. I do remember that it was during this surreal train trip that the solution to my impasse with academic forces occurred to me: I would give it until the end of the year. If my situation still remained the same by January, I would quit. Go into the private sector, like I'd already planned. Life was too short and too full of history to stay miserable over a situation I could neither change nor control. So like thousands of East Germans starting over at that time, I promised myself I'd pick up the pieces to create a new life and career out of whatever I'd come back to in Los Angeles. After all, I'd emigrated with the goal to live in the U.S., not only American academia.There was life outside the Ivory Tower to be embraced!

Once I arrived at my parents' house, I dragged my sack inside, dropped it in my parents' living room and said: "Here. I TOLD you that my generation would tear down this cursed Wall!" I opened the sack. "Here you go - nothing left but rocks, rebar and dust!" My mom was speechless. My dad looked at me with that mixture of disbelief and pride he reserved for those times when I did something that even he didn't expect. 

I told my parents why I had come to Berlin to get my own Wall rocks - to have a piece of German history, of course, but also to counteract those so blinded by greed and ignorance that they'd sell the Berlin Wall for profit. I left a good part of the rocks with my parents. I took about 20 pounds back to L.A. Since then, I have gifted pieces of the Wall to those I meet with an interest in Cold War history and an appreciation for the world-changing events these plain-looking pieces of concrete represent. My Wall rock cache is down to a handful of rocks and dust, less than a pound. Each time I look at them I like to think that I gave away more pieces of the Wall as gifts than that reprehensible department store ever managed to sell. 

All that remains of my Wall rocks in 2014

East German border guards atop the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, looking into West Berlin on November 9, 1989. Guards weren't allowed to climb the Wall, or interact with Westerners in any way other than official capacities.

Everybody on top of the Wall! Berliners from both sides occupy a hated symbol of Cold War oppression. The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's trademark attraction, ended up on the Eastern side of the Wall in 1961. The chariot atop the Gate always faced west. Once the Iron Curtain was in place, the East German government moved the chariot and turned it around so it faced east. Until Mauerfall. By the time Berliners celebrated New Year's 1990, the chariot faced west again.

A "border of 8000 lights" now runs along the former 27-mile (40-km) path of the Wall that divided Berlin for 40 years. Official demolition of the Wall and removal of intact segments didn't start until mid-1990 and took two years to complete.

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