Text and photos by Jack Olson
November 9, 2019, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I was in East Berlin in 1959. It was two years before the infamous wall was built and during a time when the Iron Curtain had imprisoned most people in Communist nations. At the time, I was a foreign exchange student with the Dutch Foreign Trade School. It was during my junior year at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
This was a very tense time. Berlin was the one little hole where the Iron Curtain had not reached completely. West Berlin was still occupied by four powers: the Soviet Union, U.S., France and Britain. If people wanting to escape could get to Berlin, they could make it to freedom, although they had to leave all their belongings behind. People were pouring across the border, primarily young professionals. The Soviets built the wall to prevent talent and youth from escaping.
When I arrived in Berlin, it was 14 years after the end of World War II. Ruins from the War were evident all over East Berlin, while West Berlin was flourishing, building a modern city. In those days, it seemed that the Dutch Foreign Student Bureau could do anything. They arranged a trip to Berlin for my friend Don Roll from Chicago, another foreign student, and myself. We took a train from Holland and arrived in West Berlin.
We were allowed to walk into East Berlin, but were questioned by authorities before we entered. I felt very uneasy, particularly because taking photos was prohibited. I had slipped my camera into my trench coat. We had exchanged money on the black market so that we could shop in East Berlin. We saw an operetta and ate at the finest restaurant in order to spend all our money. We passed many propaganda signs, each telling people that their enemy was the West.
Later we visited a refugee center in West Berlin. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures that showed people, so I took photos of some of the buildings. We sat in on one interview with a woman telling her story. The Bureau provided a simultaneous translator for us so that we could understand the conversation. The woman told us that she had heard the Secret Police were coming. She left a note for her husband in the refrigerator, took the kids and fled. Our translator told us that after refugees were processed, they would find a home for them in West Germany and fly them out.
We also visited a West Berlin memorial dedicated to the Russian soldiers who had liberated Berlin from the Nazis. Soldiers guarded the memorial. I had been studying the Russian language and began singing a Russian drinking song. The soldiers put down their guns and began singing with me. Their commanding officer quickly came over and started yelling at them. They picked up their guns, and we left.
Fast forward from 1959 to thirty years ago. I remember the day the Berlin wall fell. It was November 9, 1989. I was beside myself with emotion, kneeling in front of the television, watching for hours. I was so happy, I was crying. I had been in Berlin when it was such a terrible time. It became worse when they built the wall.
A friend of mine was in Berlin when the wall fell. She was sitting on the west side, playing her guitar. She called to tell me that an East German soldier crawled through a hole in the wall and kissed her on the cheek. She sent me a small piece of the wall that she had notarized as an authentic piece. I kept it displayed in my apartment for years.
The fall of the Berlin wall was a long time coming. It had been a way of imprisoning people. The transition was tough at first because folks on the East side had it so much worse. But now it is all good. I feel like it is the way the world has to be. People need to go where they want to go and do what they want to do.