Nov. 9, 2019, was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was built in the 1960s to separate East and West Berliners. Celebrities came to the site to mark an occasion that was both solemn and joyous.

In February 1972, I took the opportunity to visit East Berlin. I had been touring Europe, both Eastern and Western, by bicycle. I had met wonderful folks on both sides of what was then known as the “iron curtain.”All had welcomed me warmly. One woman I met in Poland still keeps in touch. Because the youth hostels in the East were also used as schools, they were not available to international travelers in the winter. Instead, people took me into their homes, giving me the chance to see their lives close up.

This was not so in East Germany, which banned people traveling by bicycle, so I stored the bike and traveled by train to Berlin, the divided city that was then deep in the Eastern part of the country.  

When the train neared the city, stern East German border guards entered and demanded to see the passports of all passengers. It felt chilling to me, after all the warmth and affection I had experienced elsewhere.

West Berlin was a rollicking place by contrast. It was the time of Carnival, the prelude to Lent. I’d had a jolly good time in Bavaria, with its colorful celebrations. In Berlin, I walked across the border at “Checkpoint Charley,” which was the only place that Westerners could use at the time to enter the Eastern sector. I recall East Berlin as a gray world, as if the color TV had switched suddenly to black and white. I visited a university where students were friendly but somber, like their surroundings. It felt good to cross back into the West, which, with all its flaws, was still full of cheer.

Nov. 9, 1989 – The wall separating the people of Berlin fell, helped in large part by residents, who could now visit family and friends without fear. At the time, I was working with a woman who had emigrated here from what had been East Germany, and I shared her joy at what was happening.

Nov. 9, 2019 – A radio commentator noted the anniversary of the end of the wall, and also noted the futility of erecting walls to keep people separated. We might reflect on that today, and on the idea that the things that divide us cannot suppress the human spirit. To paraphrase Robert Frost, in his poem “Mending Wall,” “Good fences (do not) make good neighbors.”

Mariah Skinner