Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall is falling down, falling down…

I need to stop and commemorate this anniversary. 20 years ago tonight the Berlin Wall started to crumble. Those of you, amongst my three or four (on a good night) readers who were young or not yet born may not realize what that means to those of us "of a certain age."

And I have to go back a ways. (It's what we old farts do when we tell a story, we go back a ways.) When I was in grade school thru high school, back in the fifties and early sixties, people all over the globe lived with the idea that there could conceivably be a nuclear war. As a grade schooler, I remember being marched down to the basement floor of the school with my class and told to lean against the wall with my arms over the back of my head. All I remember about it was that it was for "emergencies." What did I know of nuclear war? Of course this pathetic activity would not have saved any of us from incineration. But it gave adults something to do.

People built bomb shelters, stored up supplies. Most of us went on our way, saying to ourselves, "nah, it won't happen" and keeping our fingers crossed. 1961 was a particularly anxious year, with President Kennedy's ill-advised attempt to start an anti-Castro revolution in Cuba in April—I was with my high school choir in Niagra Falls singing for some kind of Welsh convention ( really, it's true) when we got the news, and we thought that things were going to be getting pretty hot pretty soon. Happily they didn't.

Then in August the East Germans built their miserable wall, because too many of their citizens were realizing the limitations of Communism and fleeing to the west. Many of us thought that that might be the start of something, but geopolitical realities prevented a war from starting, though that was no consolation to the East Germans.

Thereafter, several times a year, we would hear in the news of someone being shot trying to get over the wall, or captured trying to sneak through the gates. Occasionally there was a happy story of a successful escape, but there were many deaths. It seemed like the ugly thing would be there forever, and it was a symbol of the Iron Curtain itself, the wall of arms and might separating the West from the East.

Then Mr. Gorbachev became premier of the Soviets, and he knew the times were a'changing. He's a personal hero of mine. He started the process which led to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet empire. By 1989, there was so much pressure from its people for more freedom, the East German government was unraveling. Even they couldn't stomach shooting that many people. And Russia was no help—Gorbachev had already told the East Germans it was time to swim with the tide.

So one day in November of 1989, the ninth, it was announced that the government would allow East Germans to go wherever they pleased. The details were unclear, and the government certainly didn't mean to have happen what did happen, but suddenly thousands of East Berliners were at the gates demanding to be let thru for a stroll in the Western part of the city.

At the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, there were so many people making demands, and so little direction from the government, that someone in charge just said to himself, "Shit, we can't keep this up," and opened the gates. When guards at other crossing points got the news, they also opened their gates. Within days, pieces of the Berlin Wall became a coveted souvenir of a closed period of history.

And nobody got nuked.

I remember driving to work through Pittsfield early the next day, hearing the news with mouth agape, and tears streaming down my face. I knew this was the end for Communism in Eastern Europe. I knew that shortly Czechoslovakia, birthplace of my parents and home of my forebears, would follow suit. By the end of November, President Husák had resigned, and by the end of December Alexander Dubček, another personal hero, was speaker of the parliament and Vaclav Havel was President of Czechoslovakia.

Why this means so much to me:
My father left Slovakia (there was no Czechoslovakia at the time) to avoid serving in the Austro-Hungarian army and to seek his fortune in the United States. Later he went back and married my mother and brought her over too. So I have family back there. Back in the sixties, my mother's sister wanted to see her again so she came to see us. She came alone—her husband had to stay behind so they wouldn't defect together. And it's not like he was some big deal with a lot of state secrets. He was a train engineer for pete's sake. What, were they afraid he'd reveal the schedule of the Bratislava—Sered express to Western spies? But that's the way the paranoid mind works. He came the next year, without his wife. One of my cousins is a nuclear physicist, and her husband one too. They could not travel abroad together. One always had to stay behind under the thumb of the state so that the other would return.

By New Year's Day, 1990, that was all over.

I have never known that kind of oppression personally, but the experience runs in my family. We know from oppression. Somewhere back at the old homestead, there is a picture of my mother's father, in New York City. When I asked what he was doing there, my mother replied, "He had to leave the country for a while, the police were after him for agitating for Slovak independence from Hungary." When I hear people nattering on about Obama being a dictator, trying to start a "socialist" or "communist" state, I know they are idiots. They don't know anything about it. They never had the oppression, they have no clue.
Bad cess to them.

Me, I feel better knowing that being a pain in the ass runs in the family.
Good night all.
Be grateful for where you are and when you live.
Here are a couple of videos showing the fall of the Wall. Be prepared to shed tears.

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