My friend Katja was born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. The anthem and the flag were put in the basement and German maps from 2014 look significantly different then the ones from 1989. But her home still exists. It was not wiped off a map – it just got a different zip code.
Katja was born and raised in the outskirts of East Berlin. In November 1989 she was 15. Living in Berlin had certain advantages. One was that you had access to West German TV. It also had one big disadvantage. You were – on a daily basis – confronted with the wall.
For Katja and her sister the 9th of November 1989 was not very spectacular. It was a Thursday. As usual they watched the forbidden West German TV news with their parents. Nothing extraordinary. The announcement that the border’s had been opened was shocking. Surprising. Who would have thought that this would ever happen. They just could´t believe it. So they did nothing and finished dinner.
On 11th of November it became really evident to her that something was different. In the DDR the kids also had to go to school on Saturdays. Apart from Katja, only two or three kids showed up that Saturday. All others had been to West Berlin with their families. Just to have a look.
Her parents – like many others – were not sure what would happen and were also worried. What if the borders would be closed again? So they decided to wait around 2 weeks before they went to West Germany for the first time.
The first thing Katja and her sister noticed was the smell. The DDR smelled “neutral” – apart from the Trabi exhaust fumes. To her, West Berlin smelled like Maoam – a West German chewing gum. Katja always wanted to try a Milchschnitte. A chocolate/milk bar she had seen on West TV. And that was the first thing she got.
Since 1961 the DDR border separated many German families and made it impossible to meet. Sometimes for decades. As children – no matter if in East or West – we probably all grew up with the sentence “Well, we cannot change it. That´s just the way it is.”
Katja’s aunt could not live with the situation and had left the DDR a few years earlier to start a new life in West Berlin. Only 20 km away from her sister. Being separated by this wall made it impossible to meet for years. What an emotional moment – specially for Bärbel, Katja’s mum – when they finally could meet. So the first visit to West Berlin lead Katja and her family to her uncle´s sausage stand in West Berlin where she had her first Curry sausage and french fries ever.
They spent New Year’s Eve 1989/90 together in their aunt’s apartment in a skyscraper in West Berlin. Katja and her sister had never seen fireworks before. Something so fancy just didn’t exist in her world.
Katja and I both agree that we are the lucky generation. Having experienced coming from a separated country helps taking things not for granted. It was so normal that a distance of 20 km was insuperable. It was just not possible to see people from the other side of the wall. That was a given thing we all knew.
Katja had a happy childhood and she says that she did not suffer in any way from the DDR system – she was too young to experience the feeling of being un-free. But she also knows that it would have started to become a problem.
She probably would not have had the chance to study what she wanted. She would have never had the chance to travel or work abroad. We therefore would have never met in this wonderful bar in Auckland, New Zealand. She would have never met her West German husband Björn and therefore their daughter Greta would not be part of their life.
For her parent’s generation it was different though. They had to change careers, jobs were lost, and a whole believe system of many was suddenly declared wrong. Her dad had to fight many years for his DDR working year´s being included in his pension. It was and still is not easy for the older generation.
Katja went to Cologne to study and later on back to Berlin, where she met her husband. Together they moved to a very remote area in Eastern Germany and it was probably more difficult for her to adjust than for him.
When she moved to Cologne she was the exotic Eastern German girl who had grown up without telephone or car. When she moved to Eastern Germany she was the one who had left and who in people’s eyes had become the “Besser-Wessi” – one of those Westerners who know everything.
Today she lives with her family in Berlin. West Berlin. In the last few weeks the preparations for the festivities around the 25th anniversary celebration have occupied Berlin and with the light installation you feel the existence of the wall again. She says she thinks about it more these days. And Greta asks more – but it is just so difficult to explain what it all meant.
Nowadays she travels from West to East and from East to West on her way to work. Every day. And that’s just the way it is now.
The light installation shows you how the Berlin wall separated these 2 countries. Today, just after 7 pm the balloons will go up in the air and Berlin will be one city again – in one reunited country.
Do you remember what you did on 9th of November 1989? Share your story with us.
Like to read more East/West stories? Have a look at Doreen’s story. She fled with her family the day before the wall came down.
And meet Caroline, Martina and Christian – who share similar experiences from growing up in the East.