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Sunday Journal: Pieces of destructed Berlin Wall belong to those it divided

The images on my hotel television screen caught my attention. The camera panned past the Brandenburg Gate and zoomed in on the Berlin Wall, which divided the city for nearly 30 miles. A crowd of West Germans faced the wall, jumping and chanting. East German guards stared down at them.

I couldn't understand everything the West German television news anchors were saying as I sat in my hotel room in Bonn, 350 miles or so southwest. But even without translation, I could tell something momentous was happening that cold night in early November 1989. I felt drawn there, as I had lived in Germany a few years as a child and had visited Berlin as a college student.

I headed for the lobby of the Dreesen Hotel, which hugged the Rhine River and was where Adolf Hitler reportedly spent time planning his invasion of Poland. Americans gathered at the bar waved me over. We were part of a group of traveling journalists invited by the Atlantik-Bruecke Foundation to spend three weeks learning about Germany.

"The wall," one of them said. "They think it might be coming down."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"That's what the Germans told me," he said. It was four months earlier that President Ronald Reagan had famously stood beside the man-made enforcer of Communism, demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

We were scheduled to spend more time in Bonn, then the seat of the West German government. Our German hosts intended to take us to next to Munich, Nuremberg and finally West Berlin. But we all agreed we needed to persuade our hosts to take us to Berlin. Now. When we spoke to them, they were polite but firm in their reply. We have a schedule, they said. And we will stick to the schedule.

When we arrived in Munich, a number of us interviewed Germans there about the wall. But we kept our attention on Berlin, as the feeling of excitement only grew. We worried we might arrive there too late. I sensed history unfolding. I wanted to be in Berlin, the historical and emotional capital of all of Germany, when it happened.

Finally, we boarded a plane for Berlin. When the airplane wheels touched down, we rushed to the hotel. Then we dashed out, scanning the streets for a taxi. One pulled over.

"Brandenburg Gate," I said, as we all piled into the backseat of the Mercedes. "Has the wall opened up?"

"Not yet. But everybody's hoping." We threaded through traffic like an Indy race car.

As we drew near to the Brandenburg Gate, traffic began to back up. People streamed toward the gate. The city felt electrified. The gate, bathed in almost blinding white light, stood like a sentinel, waiting for the next chapter of its history to unfold. The taxi stood stuck in traffic.

"We'll walk," I said, handing the driver a wad of deutsche marks. He smiled and waved.

The three of us agreed to split up and regroup later. A dense crowd milled about and TV networks' crews filled the stands, waiting.

Suddenly, a young German man bolted. He ran toward the wall. As he reached the barricade, he flung his body against it. His arms grabbed the rounded railing. He hiked his right leg on top. No one moved. For a moment, no one even seemed to breathe.

He tried to lift himself up. An East German guard stepped toward him. He held his rifle at the ready. His stern face stared at the man, who dangled a few feet away. Since it went up overnight in 1961, many Germans, both from the West and the East, had been shot for trying to broach the wall. Everyone waited.

The East German guard gently pushed him off. The man tumbled to the ground unhurt. A young woman reached up and handed the guard a flower. He paused. Slowly, he reached down, took the flower and placed it on the sling of his rifle. The crowd cheered. The guard smiled. He went back to patrolling.

I wanted a better look at the wall and East Berlin. I climbed a nearby tree and from its upper limbs, I saw the eastern sector and its wide boulevards and Linden trees. I noticed there were few military vehicles behind the guards; it was a more relaxed atmosphere than I had anticipated.

When I came down, I strolled through the crowd. People from all over the world were walking about, talking, giddy with expectation. It felt like being at a party, waiting for someone, or something, to make an entrance.

As I walked to the hotel in the early morning, I knew the real party would be soon. A few days later, on Nov. 9, East Germans began streaming into West Berlin. People on the western side headed for the wall.

They began to chip away at it. The West Germans' joy was palpable as they dismantled the wall using hammers, chisels, knives and rocks. They all wanted a piece of history. So did I. One of my friends knelt down. He took a chunk. He looked at me.

"Don't you want a souvenir?" he asked.

I headed his way. Then I stopped. I saw Germans cradling pieces of the wall with reverence. I saw tears welling up. With each piece chiseled away, it was as if years of separation and pain began to ebb. I realized that this was their wall. It belonged to them. So when my friend held out a piece for me to have, I shook my head.

"No, thanks," I said. "It doesn't belong to me."

Aly Colón is the former head of the Reporting, Writing and Editing Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times.

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Sunday Journal: Pieces of destructed Berlin Wall belong to those it divided 11/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 3:57pm]

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