At ELC, we take pride in the wide diversity amongst our students. Coming from all over the world and a wide range of ages, our students bring with them unique experiences that they are able to share not only with other students but with us as well. Here is one such experience from Joerg Klaeden. We interviewed Joerg, an East German resident at the time, who provided in vivid clarity his own memory perspective on the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. (Interview conducted by ELC Housing Coordinator, Lauren Siegel.)
Joerg Klaeden: First, let me introduce the Joerg of that time. When the wall was coming down, I was 29 years old, married and we had two little children. I wasn’t at home in November 1989, I wasn’t even in the country. At that time I was studying information technology for a second time in Russia, in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), to be exact.
Lauren Siegel: Did residents of East Berlin/East Germany see West Germany as a completely separate country or was there always hope of reconciliation?
JK: Generations of East Germans/Berliners and people around the world had grown up with the Berlin Wall, just like me. It was a part of our lives. It was a part of world affairs. Nobody ever envisioned a day when it might not be a part of their lives. It had simply been there too long for it to suddenly just disappear! But, many people hadn’t given up hope that in the distant future, travel to West Germany and West Berlin may be possible.
LS: Did you know anyone who fled successfully past the wall ore who attempted an escape and was unsuccessful? What happened in those cases to those who were left behind? Did their families and friends face any backlash?
JK: Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who did it successfully or tried it. This wall was less like a simple wall and more like the impenetrable perimeter-fence of a maximum-security prison. It consisted of two huge walls, watch towers, trip-wires, barbed-wire fences, ditches, machine-guns, spotlights and vehicular-traps to prevent cars getting through. Between the two walls that made up this great barrier, apart from the tripwires, guns, searchlights, sirens, barbed-wire fences and the guards, there was also a kill-zone. Getting across conventionally was not going to be easy, and 137 victims died trying to do it.
The consequences for the families and friends were hard. Often they lost their job. Children were not allowed to study or had to stop their studies. The East German secret police, the Stasi, kept tabs on these families . Who they are, what they did, who they knew, where they were, where they were going and why they were going there and what they intended to do once they’ve reached there. People who attempted an escape and were unsuccessful were imprisoned or sent to labor camps.
LS: In your opinion, what kind of impact did the fall of the Berlin Wall have?
JK: The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 was definitely a watershed moment for me and most Germans. Many East Germans are proud of the fall of the wall and the role that peaceful East Germans on the street played in bringing it down. On one hand, we welcomed the freedom we were granted by the fall of the wall, the collapse of the communist East German regime and the unification of Germany on October 3, 1990. On the other hand, I have had a hard time making my own way in the new democratic, capitalist Germany. Factories in the east that were unproductive were closed down, and the workers lost their jobs and so did I. And my studies in Russia? I had to abandon them. I had to quickly identify that we speak in east and west the same language but had totally different values. Today I’ve found my place in this unified Germany and I’m happy. Without the reunification, I would have never had the opportunity to travel to the United States.
Finally I would like to say thank you! Thanks to all my teachers, especially to Janet and Dave and all staff member of ELC. It was a great time!