November 10th, 1989. Day one after the fall of the Berlin Wall. My American History teacher in Iowa, where I was living an exchange student, rushes towards me as I enter the classroom.
“Congratulations,” he cries, shaking my hand heartily. “Communism has been defeated. Your country is going to be reunified. The Cold War is finally over.”
I smile at him vaguely. Germany has been a divided country for me as long as I can remember. The word “reunification” enters my mind without releasing any emotions. I sit and listen to my teacher explain that when he was in high school students used to practice hiding under their desks to be prepared for any Russian attack.
My thoughts wander to my friend in East German Leipzig. As I realize Matthias can now visit me, I become all smiles. I have to bite my tongue not to burst into laughter of joy.
My high school speech director suggests that I write a speech about the end of Germany's division. I put together a piece and call it “And the Wall Came Tumbling Down” – like a song I once heard.
'A truly incredible tale'
In my piece I describe how inhumane the border used to be until on November 9th everything changed and people climbed the wall to dance atop of it.
“It was like Easter, Christmas and New Year's rolled in one.” When I give the five minute long speech for the first time, I cannot finish because my speech director starts crying right in the middle of it.
She had never thought that she would live to see the Wall come down, she later says. Neither did I. I stand in front of her, unable to remember the next line of my speech. I enter speech contests and win every one of them.
Clubs in West Liberty, my host family's home town, invite me to speak at their meetings. I have grown used to people in my audiences wiping away tears in their eyes when they listen to this truly incredible tale that has become so true.
Domenika standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo: DPA
Newspaper editors call my home to ask me for interviews. They are keen on talking to a “real German”.
“What happened in Germany when the wall came down?” they ask. “When do you think Germany will be reunified?”
Of course, I answer as best as I can, knowing that although I am German, I am not the best possible interview partner in this case, having been away from my home country for the past few months and not really having had access to much more information than all the people around me in Iowa.
After having seen the printed version of one of my interviews, I do realize, however, that in some respect I will always be the experts, no matter what: The interviewer had asked me about my German family experiencing the aftermath of the falling of the Wall.
'We hugged each other as if we were friends'
In the published version I see that every time I had told him about something that had taken place “at home” or “near the border” he added “in West Berlin”.
Well, my family lives about 200 kilometers away from Berlin. My German home town is located near the border between the two parts of Germany.
After the wall in Berlin had been opened, the Communists in East Germany had to open the gates of the border as well. It is too late to to explain that to the newspaper reporter.
But I remember adding some information when asked about my home country about West Berlin having been an island under American, French and British influence surrounded by Soviet occupied territory – and Germany itself having been divided in two.
I am alone in Iowa. The most important year in my country's recent history will always be a blur in my mind. I suck in all the information friends write from Germany. It takes an airmail letter a week to get from Germany to the US and vice versa.
“On November 9th,” I read in one letter, “I was in a bar in West Berlin when suddenly people from the East came in. We hugged each other as if we were friends who had not seen each other for years.”
Visiting the Brandenburg Gate
November 1990, Germany is one country again. A month ago, on October 3rd, the former German Democratic Republic was swallowed up by West Germany, forming the new Federal Republic of Germany: sixteen states, eighty million people, one government. I am in Berlin for the first time in my life.
I had wanted to visit before I went to Iowa but had not had the time. I never saw the Wall. And now there is not much left of it.
In their enthusiasm, people chipped off pieces on November 9th, 1989. After that, souvenir hunters carried away large chunks. Construction workers removed the rest. No traces of the division were to be left in Berlin.
I have arranged with Matthias to meet me under the Brandenburg Gate. The area around this gigantic edifice in the centre of the city used to be forbidden territory during the time of the division. It is not anymore.
Domenika and her siblings opening a gate in the border fence in August 1990. Photo courtesy of the author.
He hugs me tightly, saying, “It has been a while since we last saw each other, hasn't it?” Yes, that was in another reality. We take each other by the hand and walk through the Brandenburg Gate.
I realize that I do not know whether we are going from East to West or the other way round.