The Fall of the Wall

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Berlin Wall. For 28 years it was a wound in the city's heart, a potent symbol for the East German people of the tyranny under which they were condemned to live—apparently forever. They had to risk their lives to cross it, and 80 of them lost the gamble. To most of the world, it represented the abject failure of the Communist state that built it. Yet it endured, and a generation of young men and women born behind it knew the wall only as a bleak condition of their daily lives. Then on Nov. 9, as change raced across the map of Europe, the East German government capitulated to its people's long-denied yearning. Almost off-handedly an official told an East Berlin gathering that people were now free to come and go as they pleased. The wall at last was breached.

The Sunday after the wall was opened, West Berliner Manuela von Chielanski-Lallinger, 32, and her family gathered in the open stretch that runs from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate on the Western side. All around them their jubilant compatriots, armed with hammers and chisels, were chipping souvenirs from the concrete monster; East German border guards looked on nonchalantly from the top of the wall while, ironically, their West German counterparts tried to discourage the destruction.

But Manuela and her two young children, Myriam and Lothar, had no interest in souvenirs. While Manuela's husband, Lothar, recorded the scene with a videocamera, they rained blow after furious blow on the object of their hatred, pitting and scarring it with the rocks in their hands as if they alone could destroy this evil thing. An approaching listener could overhear the mother's words behind each swing: "This one's for Honecker"—the East German autocrat, now deposed. "This one's for my mother. This one's for Aunt Frieda." Pausing to collect her strength, she said simply: "The wall destroyed my family."

The anger of Manuela and her family was a sobering counterpoint to the citywide celebration that burst out as West Berlin became an island of wonder, where a million people suddenly discovered the simple miracle of a Sunday stroll through the city. As it was happening, few stopped to ask why the East German government had allowed its citizens to cross the border. Few paused to wonder what the future would bring. In East Berlin, the new leadership under Communist Party chief Egon Krenz continued to purge hard-liners while gambling that East Germans, once free to travel, would ultimately choose to come home. But the politics of the day were far from the minds of the East Berliners who joked with guards while crossing the border to the cheers of enthralled West Berliners waiting to greet them. This was one of the century's greatest moments—a time to be savored, not analyzed.

For Manuela the breaching of the wall brought joy but also a flood of painful memories. "I was born in 1957. Only my parents were living here in West Berlin," she said. "All the rest of my family—uncles, aunts, cousins—lived in the East in the village of Werder, near Potsdam." For a moment her voice threatened to break. Then she continued.

"When I was a little girl, my Aunt Frieda used to come to West Berlin to take care of me. My mother had a home-furnishings shop and was very busy. Often, Frieda would take me home with her to Werder to stay with her three children, my cousins. It was illegal for a West German to go to the East, but my aunt would tell the Vopos [the East German border police] that I was her little girl and that she had forgotten my papers. They got to know us after a while and they let us go through. I feel as if I grew up in her house. I loved it so much.

"One day, as Frieda was going home after a visit, I took my little coat and said, 'Aunt Frieda, take me with you,' But she said, 'I think there is something going on.' She had seen some policemen carrying wire and stones to the frontier. I think she knew what was happening but didn't want to believe it. She had to get home to her own three children.

"That night, my mother was in tears. She said, 'They have parted us.' That is how I learned about the wall. My mother grew ill from that day on. She was depressed for the rest of her life. I believe the wall is the reason she died young, at the age of 55, a few years ago."

Her voice began to break again, but she stifled a sob and went on. "It was horrible to be parted from my relatives, to find out in just the space of one day that I could never see them again.

"Later, in the 1970s, we were allowed to visit. But the spirit of the people in the East had changed. We have a saying in German, a kind of joke, that people in the East think that when West Berliners come to visit them, it is like getting a visit from their rich uncle in America. Things became strange between my mother and her family. She always thought that they wanted her to bring presents, and maybe that is a little bit true. But she never knew whether they were happy to see her or were just being polite. It was strange for people who had been so close, then separated for such a long time, to come together again. By then, we had our way and they had theirs."

Manuela knows that when her aunts and uncles finally take advantage of their new right to travel freely, their joy will be mixed with the knowledge that they can never again be the family they were before the wall. Her story ended, Manuela returned to the wall, rock in hand, pounding at the unrelenting concrete, her anger stirred anew by bitter reminiscence. In the end she gave a small cry and pulled back. Her little finger had split open, blood flowing from it in pulses. A visitor proffered some tissues, which were immediately soaked through. Concerned, her husband led her to a first-aid wagon. "I don't mind," she called back bravely. "Not at all. It was worth it."

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