The Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago today, one of the most potent symbols of repression gone in a day, literally torn down by a joyous mob. A few years before, as a young journalist, I went to East Berlin:
my assignment was in West Berlin, but the local photographer I worked with had family “behind the Wall,” and he invited me along for a visit. It was nearly Christmas, but there were few lights on the streets and the department-store windows had little on display: “Junk from other communist countries,” he said. He’d written his relatives (phone service between Berlin’s two halves was often disrupted, intentionally, by the eastern government, and eavesdropped by Stasi, the spy service). What they wanted for Christmas, above all, they wrote back, was “fresh fruit—any fruit, as long as it’s fresh.”
We lugged in as much as we could carry, lightened by some we bribed the border guards with to look the other way. After the visit, we went to the Cafe Ganymede, once the hangout of Bertholdt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, and several of the spies in Len Deighton’s Cold War thrillers. You could see that it had once been grand, but had become quite shabby. The menu was typewritten and short, the wine Russian (from Georgia) and expensive. We had some sort of pork stew and beer.
Then we were joined by an elderly couple; my photographer explained that sharing tables was common in this worker’s paradise. The couple ordered borscht and nothing else, and shyly ate all the mediocre bread in the basket after we’d said we didn’t want any. Clearly, this was all they could afford. They said there was little to do, western TV was jammed, and local programming was all propaganda, so an occasional night out to someplace grand—they said it without irony—was a treat. Dignified and charming, they smiled throughout, even while being condescended to by the waiter. In the end, I pretended it was my birthday and bought a simple cake for us all, and glasses of some awful brandy. I could never forget them, and always hoped they lasted till the Wall came down, so they could have the sweet taste of freedom they’d earned, and that I had, until then, taken for granted.