On a cold morning in November 1989, I was in the midst of ordering breakfast in London when I opened the newspaper and was left dumbfounded. “Do you feel alright?” asked my implacable British waiter. “You look pale”, he added. Berlin travel photography Wall
“The Berlin Wall has fallen.“ I could barely get the words out of my mouth before I fell silent again, unable to believe what I was reading. My passport bore the visa stamp from the British consulate in Berlin: November 2, 1989. I had been in Berlin on the eve of an event that would change modern history.
One photo from that trip to Berlin has remained with me, and I keep it as a precious memento: the image of an anonymous and solitary jogger, running along the wall in its final, agonizing days. Alas, destiny took me to London in November 1989 instead of allowing me stay in Berlin and witness history. But I remember perfectly the day I walked for hours in West Berlin along the seemingly never-ending wall. And the day when, armed with a one-day visa, I crossed over to East Berlin. At Alexanderplatz, solitary souls talked to themselves in cafes, and the restaurants were empty though all the tables had “reserved “ signs on them. I learned later that the restaurants belonged to the state, and that to discourage diners, disinterested wait staff simply “reserved” all the tables to keep from working. Berlin travel photography Wall
At the end of the afternoon in East Berlin I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’ play “Salome “ at the Opera Theater making sure to leave in time to catch the final subway back to West Berlin, then an island of freedom in the territory of the DDR. From that trip of mine in 1989 only the image of the jogger at the wall remains, all the others are now only memories to be reconstructed by my imagination and nostalgia. For this and many other reasons I am returning after 30 years.
I am now 15 minutes away from Alexanderplatz. I set out on foot and see an endless number of cyclists riding fast along the avenues. I arrive again at the famous square to find it surrounded now by gigantic shops and malls, and the bars are no longer populated by those solitary souls of long ago but by young people now voluntarily isolated in their smart phone bubbles. Around the fountain people from many cultures and races talk as if I were in Plaza del Sol in Madrid. The day goes by fast, but this time it is not necessary to run and catch the last subway to freedom. Instead I can call an Uber to get back to the hotel. On the way I explain to my young Lebanese driver that the streets with the beautiful modern shops and Parisian-style bars did not exist back when the city was divided. He reacts indifferently. The same disinterest often manifests itself with tourists who visit the city. Few lived through the time that led to its modern-day unification and freedom. Berlin for them is and always has been just one city.
On August 12th I visited the legendary “Checkpoint Charlie“ and felt like I had entered a time warp back to 1989 when I saw lying on the street — with the “white line “ of the border boundary crossing his body — Carl Wolfgang Holzapel (photo below), marking the anniversary of his heroic gesture on August 13th 1989.
Carl Wolfgang Holzapel was the greatest activist against the Berlin Wall from its creation in 1961 until its fall, staging hunger strikes and suffering in prison for his views. He is now 75 years old with white hair, but he still feels the deep calling 30 years later to commemorate and recreate his gesture for freedom.
I let out a little sigh of relief, for my trip now makes perfect sense to me. The presence before me of this giant of freedom and unity has more than justified my return, and in some way compensates for my youthful mistake of leaving Berlin in 1989 on the eve of the fall. I put my hands on the street where Carl is now reenacting the story, and I can almost feel the blows of the hammers tearing down the wall.
Patience and determination paid off for Willy Brandt, Carl W. Holzapel and the many others who fought and triumphed for freedom. As Willy Brandt had hoped, the Berlin Wall became useless and transparent, an obsolete relic. But remembering the city in two parts, East and West, is a good thing, for it pays deep respect to the people who made it as it is today.
Berlin is for me an emblem, a symbol of division, not of a country or family, but a symbol of the sharp and definitive separation between past and future, and a monument to a world where human beings have the courage and calling to demand equality and freedom. Thursday, November 9, 1989 was quite possibly the “Storming of the Bastille “ of our times, the most significant event in the small span of modern history we have lived through, and I was close to it. Berlin travel photography Wall
Germany achieved reunification, and Europe expanded its borders with the dream of equality and freedom for millions of people. The world watched, and as JFK said: “ Ich bin ein Berliner” , I am a Berliner.
“At 17 I told myself: You’re going to fight against this wall — because it is unjust — until you see it come down or until it outlives you,” Carl Wolfgang Holzapel
Pablo Munini © Berlin, August 2019
Berlin travel photography Wall