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When the wall came down - Memories of the Berlin Wall, 30 years on

PUBLISHED: 16:21 03 November 2019 | UPDATED: 20:09 08 November 2019

This November 10, 1989 file photo shows Berliners singing and dancing on top of the Berlin wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders. Picture: AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, File

This November 10, 1989 file photo shows Berliners singing and dancing on top of the Berlin wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders. Picture: AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, File

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On November 9, it will be 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. People from East Anglia have been sharing their memories.

Checkpoint Charlie has been transformed. Picture: PAUL GEATERCheckpoint Charlie has been transformed. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Richard Payne, who lives in Ipswich, was in Berlin during the momentous days between November 9 and 12, 1989, and remembers it as an "extraordinary experience".

As an export bookseller, he travelled across Germany in the course of his work.

He writes: "Early in the evening of the ninth, I drove south from Hamburg, crossing East Germany into West Berlin. At that point, the East German border police were as unfriendly as ever, the delays as long. It was around 11pm that the hotel night-porter announced the break-through, now live on television. Surreal! Surely this couldn't happen.

"Next morning it certainly had happened. From my hotel on the Ku'Damm, I watched groups of mostly young people covering the sidewalks, overflowing onto the street. How did I know they were East German? They seemed to be wearing jeans and jackets out of fashion in the West; but I could have been wrong; I was expecting differences.

Charles Macdowell (right) with guests at Checkpoint Charlie Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELLCharles Macdowell (right) with guests at Checkpoint Charlie Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELL

"How did it feel? What was it like? First, the mood on the street was pure excitement; we were present at a huge event in history and we knew it. Then, the consequences; all of a sudden there was goodwill; smart West Berliners would cross the street to give directions to East German youths without being asked. The shops were full to bursting.

"On the radio, shopkeepers were urged to bank their takings immediately as East Germans were entitled to a cash hand-out of two hundred marks a day upon presentation of their ID at a bank. The banks were running short! Everywhere there was sublime chaos.

"That afternoon Willy Brandt, Mayor of Berlin when the wall was built, spoke on TV. In shops people crowded round screens to hear the great man, his voice hoarse, struggling to control his emotion. Yes, this really was it. It had happened.

"I worked that day as usual, 
but that evening it all kicked off for me and for thousands upon thousands of others. People swarmed to the Reichstag, to the banks of the Spree, to the border crossing points. At the Brandenburg Gate, the top of 
the wall had no standing room left, and the chipping of the concrete had already begun. 
The cheering, the noise, the euphoria was heady stuff and 
it went on and on, in the streets and in the bars; nobody wanted to leave, no-one wanted to 
sleep."

Charles Macdowell at the British barracks in Spandau, Berlin Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELLCharles Macdowell at the British barracks in Spandau, Berlin Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELL

He added: "It was at the border leaving Berlin that I had the experience which touched me most in those extraordinary 
days. As the cars inched forward, a man with a big Mercedes kept going to the boot of his car to 
take out small parcels. He would go to each of the Trabants and Skodas and present a parcel to the driver. Bewildered by my UK number plate, he came to me too and said: 'I would like to give you this loaf of bread.'

"It was beautiful German 'Graubrod.' His licence plate showed he was from far off in the Ruhr region. It seemed that he had wanted to be there to make this most symbolic of gifts to his new neighbours."

A memorable visit, just a month before the wall fell

The mayor of Ipswich, Jan Parry, and her husband Nick were in Berlin just a month before the wall came down.

Berlin about to be divided. Residents of West Berlin, right, watch East German construction workers erect a wall in August 1961. Picture: AP Photo/FileBerlin about to be divided. Residents of West Berlin, right, watch East German construction workers erect a wall in August 1961. Picture: AP Photo/File

Jan said: "We visited East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie and saw the deserted underground stations and the incredible, highly visible legacy of the war all around the wall area on both sides. It was a very memorable visit.

"We stayed with Nick's great-aunt Else, who had survived through the war in Berlin despite being part 
Jewish."

Nick's mother was a German-Jewish refugee to the UK in 1938, and became more interested in talking about her past during the 1980s. Jan and Nick married in 1988, and Jan said their visit to the city the following year was really a late honeymoon.

"We were there less than a month before the wall came down, but it didn't seem as if it was about to fall."

Apart from the Berlin Wall, the other great symbol of the divided city was the Brandenburg Gate Picture: PAUL GEATERApart from the Berlin Wall, the other great symbol of the divided city was the Brandenburg Gate Picture: PAUL GEATER

Nick is descended from the famous Mendelssohn family, which included philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and composers Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Since the wall came down, it has been possible for the Mendelssohn family to arrange reunions, and Jan said this 
had given them more opportunity to learn about their history and the experiences of family members who had lived in the east.

As a result, their older son, Felix, became very interested in Germany, learned to speak German fluently and now lives and works in Berlin.

Nick, Felix and their other son, Jacob, have also just received their German citizenship. "We see this as something happy, and think his mum would have been pleased," Jan said.

Potsdamer Platz on the Berlin Wall Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELLPotsdamer Platz on the Berlin Wall Picture: CHARLES MACDOWELL

Watch towers, Rudolf Hess and a tragic shooting

Members of the forces have vivid memories of their role in the divided city.

Oliver Dix, of North Cove, near Beccles, writes: "During the late 1960s, I was stationed at RAF Gatow. The wall, complete with watch towers, ran along one side of the airfield. The East German guards had their binoculars trained on our activities, as they say these days, 24/7.

"As for Berlin, I found it a vibrant city, so much to do and see, especially the nightlife. The wall, of course, ran directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate with more watch towers, with the east part of Berlin looking pretty derelict and buildings still suffering from bomb damage.

Part of the Berlin Wall has been turned into a memorial park, remembering those who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Picture: PAUL GEATERPart of the Berlin Wall has been turned into a memorial park, remembering those who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Picture: PAUL GEATER

"To the left of the Gate were memorial plaques to those people who were shot and killed while attempting to escape from the east. While I was there, one unfortunate person was shot in no man's land and left there. Nobody was able to save him.

"Checkpoint Charlie was another harrowing place. A museum had been set up nearby showing the various ways that people had escaped or tried to escape - i.e. driving under the barrier, tunnelling or jumping out of windows.

"With the occupying forces there - the British, Americans, French and Russians - I certainly experienced an interesting time. The Americans in particular excelled with their Octoberfest."

Charles Macdowell, from Middleton near Leiston, served as a British army officer with the Royal Hampshire regiment in West Berlin in the 1980s for two years. During that time, he often crossed into East Berlin, guarded Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison, and met his US, French and Soviet opposite numbers.

Part of the Berlin Wall has been turned into a memorial park, remembering those who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Picture: PAUL GEATERPart of the Berlin Wall has been turned into a memorial park, remembering those who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Picture: PAUL GEATER

He was there from 1985-86, so it was not long before the wall came down, but he said: "You wouldn't have known it at the time. It had been there for a long time, since the 1960s, and it was still very much the Cold War era."

He said there were probably around 20,000 British, French and US forces stationed in the city at that time, but around a quarter of a million Soviet and East German forces, so they were very much outnumbered.

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Charles guarded the then very elderly Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, at Spandau. He said: "The prison was right next door to one of our barracks, and was guarded by all four powers in turn."

Christina Sadler with a hat from her visit to Berlin Picture: CHRISTINA SADLERChristina Sadler with a hat from her visit to Berlin Picture: CHRISTINA SADLER

As guard commander, he was in charge of around 30 soldiers, and said: "We were guarding outside, to make sure no one tried to get in. I only saw him in the distance." He recalled the prison was not very well maintained.

Hess was then in his 90s, and died not long later, hanging himself while in custody in 1987 at the age of 93. The prison was demolished after his death.

Charles remembers the general greyness of the architecture in East Berlin and the bleakness of the Wall's no-man's land areas.

However, he also recalled: "If I was in uniform, I could cross at Checkpoint Charlie without showing a pass, and this included mess kit. So you could go across in mess kit and have a slap-up dinner in East Berlin - caviare and East German wine were not bad."

Members of the forces travelled between West Berlin and West Germany on a special train, and this was when Charles met members of the KGB.

A famous visitor during Charles's service in Berlin was Princess Diana, who was made the new honorary colonel-in-chief of the Royal Hampshire Regiment, and travelled to the city in 1985. "She was at the height of her fame then," he recalled.

When the wall fell, following Charles's return to the UK, he said: "I was absolutely glued to the TV." As a fan of Pink Floyd, he decided to visit Berlin with his then girlfriend, now his wife, for Roger Waters' famous performance of The Wall - Live in Berlin, staged between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, on part of the former "no-man's land".

He said: "It was fantastic to see that in this space, which had been a kind of death zone, they were putting on this amazing concert."

However, he also said there is now some nostalgia for the east in Germany - pointing out: "Nobody was rich, but nobody was destitute."

Students were asked for biros and blue jeans

Kate Platt, who lives in Norwich, writes: "I went to Berlin in 1974 for a week as part of a college visit. I was studying youth and community work, and we went to see youth work in action there. I think the week cost £40. We travelled by train from Birmingham, where my college was.

"Armed guards got on as we entered East Germany. We'd never seen armed guards before. Also underground stations in Berlin were closed, so there were only armed guards on their platforms, eerie as we passed through.

"As our train travelled through east Germany, people gathered here and there at the lineside 
to wave at us and see us. We were a novelty. College staff had told us we would be approached by the local people and that they would want biros and blue jeans. They had access to so little. We went equipped with biros!

"One day a group of us were waiting at a bus stop near where we were staying. Suddenly, we were swooped on by police wanting to know who we were and where we were going. No wonder they enjoyed the wall coming down, to give them some freedom.

"I remember being impressed by the building named "the lipstick and powder puff". We visited Checkpoint Charlie. I don't think I fully understood the significance of us being able to be there at the time."

Kate added that there was news from Britain of an attempt to kidnap Princess Anne while the students were visiting, and this "caused consternation to the local people."

Coming home with a piece of the wall

Many Brits have worked in Germany over the years. Christina Sadler, from Chedgrave near Loddon, worked there in the 1980s and said: "I can't believe it is 30 years ago since the wall fell!

"I went to school in Norwich where I loved German, then trained as a chartered accountant in the cathedral close and once I qualified went off to live and work in Munich for a few years with a German audit firm.

"I visited Berlin shortly after the wall fell and remember walking through Checkpoint Charlie when the barriers were still in the road - I have been back a couple of times since and it looks different now.

"I came home with the obligatory piece of the wall, though I am really not 100% sure it is genuine, as there was a thriving business selling wall at that time, and a Russian or East German hat which strangely I found at the back of a drawer just last week!"

Abigail Nicholson has discovered the city more recently, and commented: "Berlin is one of my favourite places in the world. Although I was not alive when the wall fell, I really enjoyed learning all about it when I visited in 2016. I thought it was great how open the city is about not just the wall, but also the war."

Hopes for reunification seemed like a dream

"The fall of the Berlin Wall made a huge impression on people in the UK - many of whom have German links, as I do," writes Judy Rimmer.

"My grandmother was German and had family from Berlin. As a result, I was always interested in the language, studied German at school in Framlingham, and in the late 1970s I worked in the country as an au pair.

"My job was in a West German village in the rural Westerwald area, near Cologne and Bonn. During my time there, I was quite startled at how often the German people I met talked about their hopes for "Wiedervereinigung", or reunification.

"Up to that time, as a child of the post-war era, I had probably just assumed that West and East Germany would continue as separate countries forever. But it became clear that many of those I met were dreaming of the change which then seemed impossible - yet eventually came just a decade later.

"After returning home, I became penfriends with a girl from West Berlin, Pia, who stayed with my family and told us about the difficulties of living in a divided city, where she could travel into the east, but the people she met could not return her visits.

"When the wall finally came down, I had just given birth to my first child and was obviously preoccupied - but it still grabbed my imagination, as it did for people across Europe and around the world.

"Despite having heard so much about it, I only visited Berlin for the first time in 2017. I was struck by the vibrant, friendly and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, but also by the stark contrasts which still exist between the grey, brutalist architecture of the east (the area of the city where my relatives once lived) and the more modern west.

"We visited the remnants of the wall, and saw the poignant memorial park which tells the stories of those who died trying to cross. During our short visit, we spent a memorable evening sitting on the banks of the Spree to watch a short film in the open air, which told the story of Berlin through the centuries, including the Nazi era, the years of East and West and the rebuilding since the wall finally came down."

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