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Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Ilka Hartmann to accompany a collage

When the news came that the Wall had been opened, a weight began to fall off me as I was walking through the California night. Finally the War had ended. The history that Germans carried around like a mark on their face, the division of the country by a deadly border, the punishment for World War II and the Holocaust, slowly fell behind me. Was the world beginning to forgive us three generations later?

I had always been aware of the privilege of freedom, born only 15 miles away from the border to East Germany: The privilege of travel, hitchhiking to Southern Europe when I was young, emigrating to California later. The privilege of fulfilling my dreams, creating a life in a small town on the California coast and discovering photography.

Who would I have become in the East?
Would I have let myself be forced to join the Communist Party?
Or would I have dared to stand up for human rights and risked prison?
I look at their faces in the East -- some are almost contorted -- and am afraid of the answer.

Hours after the Wall opened I was in Berlin in the midst of a joy so deep it brought tears.

In East Berlin I meet Juergen, a writer, who lives in a Soviet-style high rise apartment building. A few months later we are walking on the beach in California. He is my chosen brother, my new relative.

For forty years we were separated artificially, painfully, the east and the west of Europe. There are human beings on the other side, in the grey zone, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, the German Democratic Republic -- not one-dimensional Communists. We have been given back to each other.

We, from West Germany, can now visit the towns where Germany's greatest poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, worked and lived, and we can climb the Wartburg where Martin Luther translated the Bible.The Easterners can stand by the North Sea, walk leisurely through Paris, or fly to California.

On the night of the official re-unification of East and West Germany --October 3, 1990 -- we met four "Ossies" (East Germans), on the streets in San Francisco.

They were traveling with their American aunt. Every German has an American aunt or uncle. She had invited them to come to America and was showing them California. She spoke no German, they very little English, having studied Russian in school. We all went to North Beach, and at midnight celebrated the unification of the two Germanys on another continent. We were ourselves an expression of history: The old lady, a successor of the great emigration waves early this century, the GDR citizens and I, affected by the decision of the allies forty-four years ago and the Cold War, I, part of the emigration wave in the fifties and sixties.

Now as I am writing this -- on the eve of the second anniversary of the opening of the Wall -- I realize how names like ‘Potsdam’, ‘Dresden’ , ‘Leipzig’, names of towns from a distant past that we in the West knew, but never visited, are slowly beginning to rise out of the past into the present. They no longer exist in literary histories only. We can walk in them now, sleep in them. They have something indescribably exciting.

As I was walking my dogs in Sausalito recently, a sizable group of German tourists passed me. When I greeted them in German, only one person stopped, an East German woman. She and her husband, the only East Germans in the group, were on their first trip to the United States. "We don't need sleep. We want to see everything." They feel they need to make up for all they missed. "We were being lived. We were always told the next step. We didn't live ourselves."
There is an immediate openness between people of the East and the West when we meet abroad like this.

That's how it was two years ago in the Germanys, too. Now it's changing.

But here it is still fresh, like in a time capsule. Here, we can talk about the new problems over there, how the "Wessies" are getting arrogant and the "Ossies" feel intimidated and like second class citizens in the united Germany.

Here, we are still sisters looking at each other:
How would
I have been on the other side?
And always the feeling of humility in me. What we achieved seems so easy compared to their life.

Imagine the constant fear, the whispering, the longing for the world. Only as an old woman or old man could you be let out of the country. And the government hoped you would not come back, so it could save your pension. You cannot make up for forty-four years of oppression.
Are they angry?
I don't dare to ask if they allow themselves the feeling of envy.
There is a glimmer in our eyes, a joy that makes us talk to strangers from 6000 miles away, because we are exuberant.
This is our re-unification.
Eastern and Western Europe, the world is healing.

The artificial separation, the "curtain', "iron" as it was, has been broken.
As we heal these wounds, we cannot forget the other wall between the rich and the poor, between the north and the south of the world.
and within our own countries. If we can break down the iron curtain, we can break down the economic wall between us.

"Seid umschlungen Millionen. Alle Menschen werden Brueder."
"Be embraced ye millions. All humans will be brothers,"

Friedrich von Schiller wrote in his poem for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

As this string winds around all of Germany, we must embrace all of Europe, all of the world, and cannot forget anyone, because we, too, could have been born on the other side.

Ilka Hartmann
November 9, 1991

Text to accompany a collage for the Marin County "String-Along-Exhibit" in 1991, California. 100 artists in Marin County were sent a short string and given four weeks to use it in a piece of work from their imagination to be exhibited.

I made a collage based on the new German map surrounded by the string covered with glitter of joy. In the middle of the map, the first time I ever cut out its shape since re-unificatifon, towards the west, is a photo of me taken by my son, expressing the idea: who would I have been on the other side?