Cry Freedom!

12 Jun

Twenty-five years ago today I hopped onto the U-Bahn in West Berlin with my mom and together we made our way over to the Brandenburg Gate…the Brandenburger Tor.

We were heading to a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though at the time we had no idea how historic it really would be.

We got off the U-Bahn and walked past the Reichstag and found ourselves at the end of an enormous line of people, all clutching small pieces of paper as well as passports in their hands, all subject to searches, checks and scrutiny.

And, by the way, we all had guns trained on us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Quadriga on the top of the Brandenburg Gate. The East German guards stood right beside her with their guns.

Just a typical day in West Berlin? Not quite.

No, it was a special day – the day when a sitting United States president was to give a speech in this divided city, much as JFK did years previously – though, to be sure, no jelly doughnut references were expected.

And so we started though the twisting line – reminiscent of the winding airport security lines we face today. Someone handed us a small paper West German flag as well as a couple small American ones.

There were three check points, three times when our passports and invitations were inspected by orange and brown-clad German guards. At the first checkpoint I handed over my papers. The guard glanced at my invitation and burst out laughing. I looked at my mom, non-plussed. He looked at my passport and renewed his guffaws. He then poked another guard in the ribs and showed him whatever it was that was so funny. He, too, laughed.

“Gretchen!” They chuckled. “Ha!”

(Read with a German accent – it makes it funnier, “Greatchen”!)

He then passed back my papers and waved me on.

The Brandenburger Tor / Brandenburg Gate. I took this a year and a half ago.

We shuffled past, a little bewildered, clutching our identity and our tiny paper flags.

We approached the second checkpoint nervously. True to form, the guard burst out laughing after about half a second and, once again, showed his pal my papers.

“Greatchen! Das ist eine kinder namen.” (Okay, I admit, that may not be exactly what they said or exactly correct Deutsch. It’s the best I can remember right now!)

The truth began to dawn.

“Chen” is a diminutive in German – so, a newborn child would be named “Greta” and, while young, may indeed be called “Gretchen”…but, by the time they’d reached 17 as I was at the time, they’d be “Greta” – and never, on an official passport, would their name be a child’s name.

It would be like naming an American child “Suzikins” rather than “Suzanne”. Yes, she might be called “Suzikins” for a few years, but not by the time she was 17.

My husband took this shot last February.

We approached the third checkpoint with more confidence.

Yes, you guessed it, he laughed.

“It’s my name, right?” I said.

“Ya, ya,” he said, smiling, as he waved us on. “Greatchen! Ha ha!”

We took our place – standing on the Strasse des 17. Juni – towards the back of the enormous crowd. We eyed the East German guards standing on top of the Brandenburg Gate with their guns. We waved our paper flags, we smiled at small children riding on top of their father’s shoulders.

And then President Ronald Reagan came on to the makeshift stage.

Everyone clapped and cheered and waved those tiny flags and he began to speak.

I don’t remember much of what he said. I do remember the weather was warm and I was tired from standing. I remember antsy children. And those nerve-wracking guns. But then, suddenly, our ears perked up as he said these words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The cheers were deafening.

Our smiles were huge.

But, in my heart, I thought, “Yeah, like that will happen.”

Boy, was I wrong.

“Cry Freedom” – a statue on Strasse des 17. Juni which still stands. My husband took this shot in February.

Two years later, as a freshman in college, I returned home for Christmas, just over a month after the wall had opened on November 9th, 1989. I went with my parents and my cousin who was visiting for the holiday and together we hammered out our pieces of history, even chatted with an East German guard who peered at us through a hole in The Wall.

History had been made.

Now, 23 years after the wall fell (metaphorically, anyway, it took a few years longer for it to be physically torn down), you call follow the course of the wall all through Berlin – there is a bicycle path all along the route.

It is a poignant reminder that nothing lasts forever.

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23 Responses to “Cry Freedom!”

  1. cravesadventure June 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Beautiful post – thanks for sharing:)

  2. Globe Runner June 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Wonderful article, visited Berlin 3 yrs ago…. Loved the museum by Check-point Charlie

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 12, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

      Thank you so much! And yes, that museum is marvelous – it’s such a conglomeration of stuff – almost overwhelming. Definitely a must-see for anyone in Berlin! I hope you enjoyed the city!

  3. whatimeant2say June 12, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    Fabulous story – and thank goodness that things like that wall don’t last forever!

  4. hotlyspiced June 12, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    I didn’t think East German guards would find anything funny. You managed to make three out of three laugh! What a great and memorable experience. I have a friend who happened to be holidaying in Germany when the wall came down. She said the experience was unbelievable and she was glad to be part of it. xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      They were actually West German guards, so that helped!!! That’s cool that your friend was there – what an experience! – serendipity for sure, her being there!

  5. treadlemusic June 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Such an amazing story and one that only those who first hand lived through it would grasp the full enormity of it! Thank you so much for sharing….definitely brought tears! BUT, Gretchen, “uff da”…..really!?! You would find it quite comfortable in this corner of the world with an exclamation like that!!!!! LOL!!!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:35 am #

      Yes, I have adopted “Uff da” since moving to MN! I also enjoy “oy, vey” a lot, though I have not a drop of Jewish blood!

  6. rutheh June 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    What a wonderful journey. Very cool post and documentation of history.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks, Ruth. It was quite the experience, for sure. And yes, I suddenly thoguht, “Good grief, you have to blog about this NOW!”

  7. gardenfreshtomatoes June 13, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    How amazing, to have been there for such an event! Thanks eversomuch for sharing it…

    Oh, and never be certain there isn’t a girl out there who’s birth certificate says Suzikins…My two uncles are, legally, Timmy and Tommy….

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      Absolutely – so glad you enjoyed it. I considered using the name “Bobby” or “Timmy” and said, “Nope, could be a real name!” I’d pity the girl legally named “Suzikins”, though!!

  8. Minnesota Prairie Roots June 13, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Stories like yours are part of Berlin Wall history. Anytime history can be personalized, it makes more of an impact. Great, detailed post written in your typical outstanding storytelling style, Greta.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      LOL! You crack me up. Yes, it is all a part of the mosaic that makes up history – though I’m just a tiny piece. That’s fine with me – I’ll claim my tiny spot!

  9. andBerlin June 13, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    What a wonderful memory to be able to look back on, though as you say you couldn’t know just how important that day would be at the time.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes, it was a great moment in time to share. Berlin is such a great city – I love it there.

  10. Anne Haskell Popa June 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    I still have the blue piece of wall that you gave me! It’s good to have a little part of that history.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

      Yay! I was going to photograph mine, but didn’t take the time…I should have, probably. It is a fun thing to have, yes!

  11. ljhlaura June 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    Wonderful post … I loved reading your first-hand account of such a memorable time!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 14, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      Thank you so much! It seemed the perfect time to write about it, being 25 years ago. Fun to remember…

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