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The Berlin Wall
Freedom Expedition Journal
November 9, 2017 -- the 28th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
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Read the full story here of that remarkable moment in history 28 years ago when the Communist empire crumbled.
The Berlin Wall Freedom Expedition was the project of four adventurous Americans: Art Harman, Mark, Paul and Terri. The plan to go to Berlin was conceived while watching the live TV coverage on November 9, 1989, as East Germans thronged to the wall and crossed to the West for the first time since 1961 when the Soviet Union built it. Moments later came the idea to bring back pieces of the Wall to sell for fun and to help pay for the adventure.
Within days, we had tickets and were ready. From political friends, we were able to find some interesting and helpful people to meet in both the East and West. Provisions were basic: crowbars, axes, sledge hammers, chisels, safety goggles, and heavy canvas sacks for the Wall. I forget if Mark actually took his motorcycle helmet or not but he said he would. All this got packed as checked luggage, as we assumed these items might be in short supply in Berlin or just would consume a lot of expedition time tracking them down in Berlin.
We left Washington D.C. on November 18 on PanAm, changing planes in Frankfurt, and arrived on the 19th at West Berlin's Tegel Airport. Then we rented a VW Passat wagon and found a nice small hotel, the "Ahorn", near the "Kudam" (Kurferstendam Strasse) shopping district.
Right after checking-in at the hotel, we visited a Pastor we had learned of back home. We talked over tea about the situation, and the Pastor and his family all drove to to the wall. We arrived at Potsdamer Platz on Stresemann Strasse and Neiderkirchener Strasse. Before WWII, Potsdamer Platz was one of the busiest areas of the city, but was never rebuilt after being bombed during the war because it was right at the dividing line between the free West and the Soviet ruled East. The roads still existed, with trolley tracks running right to the wall; a rather eerie sight. Not too far away on the East side was the site of Hitler's bunker. I remember walking past the bunker on a 1975 trip to Berlin--it was just a huge pile of rubble, occupying several city blocks, yet the street and sidewalks were cleared of rubble.
The Music of Freedom!
Even before we could see the Wall, we heard the most amazing sound! A continuous tapping/ringing sound of many people chipping off pieces of wall with hammers and chisels. It was like magical music. The music of freedom. As we approached, we could see crowds of people in a celebratory mood. Every and all ages were there. People were chipping wall, talking and generally enjoying the moment. Truly festive, and East and West was united!
Photographers were taking pictures, some other Americans were there too, and we met a man who hiring workers to chop up wall. This turned out to be the person who would put the Wall in department stores that Christmas: a tiny piece in a cloth bag in a cardboard box and a certificate of authenticity.
Some East German teens, raised on a diet of Communism, knew instinctively what to do: Chop at the Wall and sell the pieces to westerners for real money! In those first exciting days, the news reported that East Germans bought forbidden western music cassettes (an East German border guard showed us, through a hole in the wall, his prized possession he gotten in the past few days: a Beatles cassette tape!), bananas (fresh fruit was scarce in the East), and western jeans. Western cigarettes were very high on the list too. Later the East Germans would abandon their tiny Trabant cars for used VWs which were light years more advanced, and were not tainted as symbols of their oppression.
People were happy and talkative and we met a lot of people there, including one East German man who couldn't have been older than about 20. He had just been released from prison after serving six months for having tried to escape to the West! He spoke good English and his experience helped underscore the tremendous changes happening: if the Wall had not opened, he would have still been in prison.
We walked to the Brandenburg Gate about a mile of so away. On the way, we saw one of the new passages opened in the Wall. Long lines of people were streaming through this crossing day and night, and the once fearsome guards were being friendly and even posed for photos (see the photo gallery). In truth, they were probably just as happy as any other East German about the incredible turn of events; and relieved they could at long last find a new job where they don't have to kill their fellow countrymen for seeking freedom. At the opening, there were big signs for In and Out.
The Brandenburg Gate had some crowds around it but had fences to keep people from getting within 20 feet of so of the Wall. This is where you saw people standing and cheering on top of the Wall in the now-famous photos. Just to the East of the Gate is the place where a big section of Wall was chopped open on that first day, but it had been patched up since. The path around the Wall was well worn (a dirt path in many places) and full of trash. There was a huge elevated stand for the media by the Gate. A little further is the Reichstadt (Parliament) building and just beyond that, overlooking the River Spree, is the memorial to the many people who were killed while trying to escape to freedom. Near this spot, through a hole in the wall, we talked to an excited young guard on the East side. He had been across to the West and showed us his prized possession: a Beatles tape he had just bought!
The Leipzig March
On Monday, we wanted to go to a planned freedom march in Leipzig, a city south of Berlin in East Germany. Terri had learned that for a few weeks, once a week, there had been tremendous freedom marches in Leipzig, so this was a must for four freedom-minded adventurers! This was the famed "Monday demonstrations" or Montagsdemonstrationen.
We drove to the southern border crossing where we got turned back. The officer on the West side said you used to be able to get a visa from the Communists there, but not now. So we drove to East Berlin, crossing at the famous "Checkpoint Charlie" entry point. The West side is just a shack with ominous signs warning that you are "Leaving the American Sector" (abandon hope, all ye who enter!). One of those signs got an appropriate "Victory over Communism" bumper sticker on it, courtesy of Young Americans for Freedom, who gave us a bunch to take with us for exactly such occasions (see our photos in the photo gallery). So too, the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate and at Potsdamer Platz got "Victory Over Communism" stickers. The East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie were still doing their best to hold on to the old traditions of making visitor's lives hard, including a long pointless wait.
Once in the East, traffic thinned out and things looked more sterile and lifeless. The central part of the city had some modern buildings and a futuristic looking TV tower you can see from the West, but also plenty of those hulking, sterile Soviet-style apartment buildings. We went to the visa office and it took hours to actually get a visa to cross from West Berlin into East Germany. Crossing to East Berlin was much easier, even though those guards were not pleasant about it. No visas needed for Americans to just cross to East Berlin. Here's where they got you: To get a visa, we had to pre-pay for a hotel in Leipzig. We had no intentions of staying the night, but this was how the Communist dictators profited from westerners who crossed to the East. You also had to exchange some real money for Commie Marks and buy the hotel room whether needed or not. We paid. Near the visa office was a study in contrasts: a tiny Trabant car parked next to a Chevy Suburban! Parking was very easy.
Finally all hoops were jumped and we had the visas and went back through Checkpoint Charlie, drove south to the Southern checkpoint. The Allied checkpoint ushered us through and we drove up to the East German checkpoint. The guards took our passports, and seemed to relish their job as one said "You are Americans! You wait!" And so we did for I forget how long. Maybe 45 minutes or maybe it just seemed that long. We were worried about missing the march in Leipzig--we'd used up most of the day already getting the visas. Finally, they gave us back our passports and waved us through.
The drive to Leipzig was fast and easy on a modern interstate-type highway, called a "transit" road, but probably one of the original Autobahns from the 1930's. Very foggy--this was coal-soot fog from burning soft coal ("London fog"); and if you blew your nose it was black, and if you ran your finger on the car it was black. Sometimes you could smell the sweet smell of burning coal. We turned off the highway and had a 15 or so mile drive on local roads to the center of the city. We had no maps but the signs were good or we were just lucky not to get totally lost. There were a few arrow signs marked "Zentrum" (center or downtown).
During this part of the drive, our humble VW wagon transformed into an exotic super-car from another world. That's the reaction we got from local residents and kids, who seemed awed by it! They would stop and stare and you could almost see their jaws dropping. (Ever seen pictures of the "Trabant" cars they would save for decades to buy? That's why people were impressed by a VW). A few months later I read in one of the big auto magazines about how they drove a Corvette all through Eastern Europe, to even greater admiration!
Leipzig seemed mostly pre-war buildings with character, except for some mammoth cement post-war buildings downtown.
We got to the march site just in time! It was dusk as we arrived. In a country with few cars, we were able to park right where the march was going by, but we had missed the very beginning.
We joined right in and marched for freedom! I was surprised at the huge numbers of people. Maybe a few hundred thousand, it was hard to tell. If you've participated in a huge march for a constructive purpose, you'll know the wonderful feeling. Now magnify that feeling by maybe 100 times; for this was not a march on the Mall in Washington DC where it is our Constitutional right to express our views. No, what these people were doing would have been met with machine guns, attack dogs and a lifetime in prison just months before! It was probably a lot like Liberation Day in Western Europe after WW-II. Freedom is so precious to those denied it all their lives; we in the West too often take it for granted.
People carried home made signs and banners, East German flags with the Communist symbol in the middle cut out, which left a round hole, leaving just the colors of the West German flag. There were some printed signs and sashes, many saying "Nues Forum" or "New Forum", which was a group formed to promote democracy. Many people lit candles at various locations along the way and at the end.
If I remember right, the march either started or passed a church connected with Martin Luther, perhaps where he defended his famous Theses.
Along the way I saw a few East German water-canon trucks parked on side streets. These were apparently at the ready in case the order came to stop the march. But it never happened, a truly bloodless end to a bloody regime!
The march ended at the dreaded Stasi (secret police) headquarters with a gathering and many candles lit. There were some speeches and then people headed to the nearby rathaus (city hall) where they eventually drifted away. The march was one of the most moving events in my life. A huge crowd totally committed to ending slavery and building a free future.
Later I learned that the very next week the same Monday demonstration not only marched to the Stasi building, but broke in and took secret files and generally trashed the building and lit some fires. Oh how I wish I had been there for that! (The next spring I was back in Berlin with some friends and broke into the abandoned Soviet side at Checkpoint Charlie, where we had been treated like enemies just months before. Ha!)
We then returned to our car and drove to the apartment building where 2 democracy leaders were supposed to live from some contacts we had in Washington. But we couldn't find the right apartment, and we left as it was pretty late.
We left Leipzig for Berlin and shortly the coal fog got even worse than it was earlier. We could smell it (coal has a rather pleasant sweet smell) and it cut visibility dramatically. It got so bad we couldn't see 20 feet in front of the car, and staying on the road, driving at maybe 20 mph was a big challenge. I was driving and strained to see the next dotted line in the road. We followed in the wake of trucks sometimes as they seemed to know where the road was. The taxis were nuts and sped by as if it were clear, yet we never saw one in the ditch so maybe it was they who were right! The fog got a bit better after some long time, and we finally got to our hotel about 4:30 am.
By the way there is an excellent book which tells the story of this exciting period, including detailing these marches: Berlin Journal 1989-1990 by Robert Darnton. W.W. Norton publisher. I bet you can find copies at used bookstores and on the web--try abebooks, amazon and ebay.
Tuesday: Wall Day
7:00 am found us getting up for a full day of smashing down the Berlin Wall!
We went back to the Potsdamer Platz area and parked the car along the Wall. We spent most of the day here, smashing down Wall and generally having a great time. Lots of other people were there talking, chipping small pieces of wall and enjoying freedom.
We broke out the axes, sledgehammers, crowbars, chisels and safety goggles and got to work.
Although we heard someone warn us that the police were stopping people from smashing at the wall in an other location, there were police where we were and they never bothered us--and we were doing a wholesale job on the wall, unlike most who wanted an individual souvenir or the East German kids who were hammering away to sell small pieces to tourists.
The original plan I devised back home was to break up the distinctive round cement tubes which were at the top of the wall to prevent climbers from using grappling hooks. They looked easy to remove and break up. But once there, we were warned that those tubes were made of asbestos and cement, so we dropped that idea. Most of the length of the wall was made of prefabricated 12' tall sections of reinforced concrete. Very tough to put a dent in. Successful wall-smashers would chisel in at the joints between sections, dig down to a reinforcing bar and pry the bar out, causing the outer layer of cement to chip off. We got some of this, but getting a large quantity this way would take forever without power tools. So we found the soft under-belly of the Berlin Wall. At the base of the wall was softer concrete that broke up more easily. Some of this had grafitti on it just like the reinforced sections. So we found a stretch with the grafitti "Love is thicker than concrete", and set to work.
By early afternoon, we had filled the VW wagon till it bottomed out. But there was one more piece of Wall we managed to remove intact: a large section with a peace symbol painted on it! We drove back to the Hotel to unload and then back for more after a quick stop at McDonalds (yes, McDonalds serves beer in Germany!)
The afternoon load filled up the car again.
By night we relaxed a bit and enjoyed a brief taste of Berlin with a good guide; Folker, whom I had called from a referral back in the States. He took us to a good restaurant (venison!) and to a couple bars.
Then it was back to work!
Bringing the Wall to America
Our flight home left in the morning, and we had about a half ton of wall to pack! As we packaged it up we tried weighing it on a bathroom scale brought for the purpose, but it finally broke though by then we had a good idea of the total weight. Paul got stopped by the police at 4:00am as he was breaking up large pieces to fit in our canvas sacks in the parking lot. To keep dust down, we put each sack into Hefty's best trash bags! They held! I later sent the company a photo, and they replied with astonishment and posted the photo in the company's cafeteria!
No sleep as we left for the airport at 4:30 am in light snow. We couldn't fit everyone AND the Wall in the car, so me and one of the others drove in the car that handled like a drunk cow. And it was snowing!
We arrived at the airport and unloaded the Wall, storing it in a baggage holding area (try that today!), and returned to pick up everyone and our bags and some more wall. The car was packed! The baggage storage man was not pleased.
The airport check-in clerks at the Pan Am desk were shocked and amused by our baggage. They made jokes and said "Well, we've had the wall for 28 years, so you are welcome to take it!"
I called the U.S. media when we changed planes in Frankfurt, hoping some press would meet us at Washington Dulles Airport, but they didn't show. Later I did get on 5 radio talk shows to tell the story.
All the bags arrived at Dulles, and the baggage handler came out and found us, wondering just what we had in the bags that was so heavy! When we told him, he shook his head and said "I figured it had to be something like that!" Customs kind of smiled and waved us through. I had called Customs before the trip and was reassured that "we have listings for diamonds and valuables, but there's nothing in my book for old Soviet cement." I was worried that the big slab of Wall with the peace sign on it would get broken, but thankfully it made it intact.
Communists Built It, Capitalists Removed and Sold It!
In the period from when we arrived home to Christmas, about a
month, people were eager to buy the Wall, mounted as shown on this site.
Orders started coming in from everywhere, with order forms that had been faxed
to friends and copied. Five radio talk show appearances brought the story
to cities across the country; and it was a hit at a few political meetings
too. I had an opportunity to personally present a piece to Vice President
Quayle, U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and a number of other officials and
prominent political figures. Later it would even appear in a catalog, and
requests for remaining pieces continue to this day.
(When I wrote this web journal, I used my daily journal from the trip--every night I wrote up the events of the day in a little notebook; though at the time I had no idea that I would later have the opportunity to share our adventure with the world!)
The Berlin Wall: History Preserved For You
Now you and people from around the world can relive this exciting time, and you have the unique opportunity to own a genuine piece of the Berlin Wall, one of the remaining pieces brought back by this band of adventurers at the time Communism fell. Thank you for visiting.
Visit the Photo Gallery too!
Buy your own piece of the Berlin Wall!
The potent symbol of Communist tyranny became the site of celebration on November 9, 1989, as the wall opened for the first time since 1961. Freedom wins! Now you can own a piece of true history - the Berlin Wall.
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All contents and photographs Copyright © 2017 - 1989 Art Harman All rights reserved.
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