The day the border opened

From Marzahn the wall wasn’t exactly just around the corner. Suddenly it was open, if Günter Schabowski hadn’t permitted himself a little prank, and because it could perhaps be closed again at any moment, I drove in my Trabant at 80km/h down Lenin Avenue (today Landsberger) with only one thought: my God, now my aunt doesn’t have to die first so that I, if they’re merciful, to me, will be permitted to go to the West for the funeral.

At Schönhauser, corner Wilhelm Pieck (today Torstrasse) a young woman is standing, waving her arms. An emergency or simply just crazy? I stopped. “Will you give me a lift?”

Somehow it was clear to her where I was heading. We drove into Invalidenstrasse, the border crossing wasn’t much further now, but I didn’t want to make the crossing in the Trabant: “What’s the matter?” asked the woman, when I was looking for a parking space.

“Are you ashamed of the car?” She’d seen through me, but I didn’t want to admit it to her.

“Waited for it forever and now all you most want to do is hide it,” she stated, got out and disappeared.

The crossing was open, the border guards were standing there with subdued demeanour. No identity documents were being checked any more or even visas issued, there were just too many people who took Schabowski at his word. I hurried to get away from the crowd.

I didn’t feel like a big booze-up on the Kurfürstendamm. I walked until Bellevue Castle, hailed a taxi and let myself be driven to Kreuzberg. During the trip I opened the window and enjoyed the air of the West that, as it seemed to me, smelled penetratingly sweetly of soap and washing powder. “Something can come of it,” snuffled the taxi driver and lit himself a cigarette. “Can you at least close the window again? Or don’t you lot feel the cold over there?”

That’s a great start with the West, I thought and wound up the window. Then we stopped in Graefestrasse where Dirk was living. Dirk was a theatre studies student and loved the socially critical theatre of the East. He was a friend of Frank who was a friend of mine. I rang for Dirk to come downstairs so that he could pay the taxi fare. He was moderately pleased to see me. “The last of my money,” he said, “I’ve already bought two six-packs.”

Frank and Wolfram, with whom I had been sitting in the pub yesterday evening, had embraced the six-packs. They were sitting on the floor of Dirk’s 10m2 living room because of the lack of seating. I was surprised they were here, but actually then again not so surprised. Because Dirk was our only connection worth mentioning in West Berlin. The three of them were discussing the new situation, which they felt to be ambivalent, as Wolfram summarised it: “The GDR,” said Wolfram, “is now going down the drain.”

“It wouldn’t have been possible to reform it any more in any case,” maintained Dirk, after which Frank criticised him because he, as someone from the West, couldn’t have a clue about it.

“Funny,” replied Dirk, “it’s the first time that you’re holding it against me that I’m from the West.” “Since when have you got problems with being from the West,” countered Frank who, after a few beers was already pretty drunk, and Wolfram said: “Let’s think about how we can change the GDR without letting it be gobbled up by capitalism.” With that we had arrived at the question we—Frank, Wolfram and I—had been discussing every evening in the pub, which aimed at what we called the democratic, the real socialism we considered to be the best and most decent option for societal coexistence for us. Dirk thought so too, even if he was actually an existentialist, as he habitually emphasised. Now he said: “Man, you whingers, the wall is open and we’re sitting around here on our bums.” Whingers, this word, I could have sworn, he’d never used in our presence before.

We set out. Dirk stood us a round of Döner kebabs and we ended up in front of a disco; Dirk paid the entrance fee. “How am I now going to find the next rent is a mystery to me. But the wall isn’t opened every day.” In the disco a few women were dancing on their own. I went over to the one who appeared to be the least self-absorbed. “Shall we dance?” I asked. She shook her head. I didn’t want to retreat again without having made another attempt. “Interesting atmosphere here,” I said. And she shot back: “Exactly. My husband also always says that.” I took the hint. Typical Western women’s attitude, perhaps, I thought. Or even an example of the notorious feminism.

Dirk appeared to have let the rent go, because he stood us to a round of whisky with beer as a chaser. Because we wanted to continue boozing more cheaply, we went back to the Döner kebab shop and Dirk bought a six-pack and a half-jack on top of that.

The Turkish couple behind the counter smiled unceasingly. Dirk maintained, in his existentialist fashion, that they were actually only anxious about the inundation from the East. The word inundation—I’d never expected that from Dirk either—led to a reflex action shooting-from-the-hip exchange between Frank, Wolfram and me. We scolded Dirk for having kept his racism towards us cleverly hidden; we grabbed the six-pack and the half-jack and took off without him.

Later, at four or five in the morning, we were drunk and tired in some or other underground station. The only people we saw here were older, darkly dressed women with headscarves. “The army of the day-labourers,” said Wolfram. “The other side of the colourful society of prosperity.” “I understand,” groaned Frank, for whom Wolfram’s jawing on in metaphors, as he called it, had got on his nerves several times already. Then Wolfram, as if the presence of the women quite suddenly made something unmistakeably clear to him, said soberly and in an appalled manner: “They’re going to close the wall again, if they haven’t done so already. To make us out as criminals and not let us return again.” Frank had to be sick, but when the underground train came in, he jumped aboard with Wolfram to get to the East as quickly as possible.

I went on alone and all at once I was on the Ku-Damm. Nothing of a big booze-up to be seen. I had to pee urgently and peed against the Memorial Church. “You men have it good,” I heard in the most friendly Thuringian accent and in fright I peed on my trousers.

The girl from Thuringia was in her early 20s and very beautiful and she still had the euphoria I’d felt at 80km/h in the Trabant.
We strolled through the breaking morning and she was convinced that the border would always remain open and I was too.

Torsten Schulz is a German author, director and professor for dramaturgy at the Film and Television Academy, Konrad Wolf, in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. He is the Goethe-Institut’s author-in-residence at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg

Remembering Berlin 1961

German-born photographer Jürgen Schadeberg visited the divided German capital, Berlin. He describes this experience ...

“In 1961, having spent 10 years in South Africa, I returned to Europe for the first time on a visit and it was an obvious choice for me to go to my home town of Berlin. When I arrived in Berlin I found myself at the focal point of the Cold War ... I sensed a tremendous tension everywhere in the city and it was the time when the wall was being built — Near the centre of Berlin the American tanks and GIs in battle dress were casually walking down the streets amongst the Berliners who were going about their daily activities. The tense atmosphere in some of the silent streets along the Wall made one feel that at any moment a third World War could ignite.”

Details: Not merely a historical document, these exceptional photographs delve into the personal and political complexities that defined the Berlin Wall. The exhibition opens November 9 and concludes January 22 2010 at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg.



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