Ten years on, the Berlin Wall families find it has been replaced by invisible wealth barrier

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS in the nature of great historical events that even the people who somehow missed them remember exactly where they were at the auspicious moment. Such was the night of 9 November 1989, when an East German Communist leader named Gunter Schabowksi announced towards the end of an otherwise unremarkable press conference that the country's borders were to be thrown open forthwith.

Heidrun Kobernick, now a PhD student aged 30, was then working at a church- run home for handicapped children. "We were a bit distracted, because we had just founded a union that night," she remembers. "We were all sitting around and someone rushed in and said: `The Wall is open.' We all laughed and offered her a drink. Then she announced she was off to West Berlin. She did not return the following morning."

Ms Kobernick waited three days, then on a frosty morning started queuing at the Bornholmer bridge in north Berlin. "It was very strange," she says. "The scenery didn't change much: no bright lights or anything like that... As we passed, we saw all these West Berliners clapping and crying. I couldn't understand why they were crying. I think the West Berliners were probably more excited than we were. We didn't understand the consequences.

"We passed some shops. And there were all these exotic fruits on display. I knew lemons, of course. But things like mangoes were new." She took a good look around West Berlin - which had been closed to her since the Wall went up in 1961 - and came back.

For her husband, Olaf Kobernick, the tumult of that long weekend was awfully inconvenient. Then 24, Mr Kobernick was studying electrical engineering in Dresden, and wanted to visit his Potsdam home. His journey led through Berlin, which had suddenly become an extremely popular destination.

He had to let three packed Berlin-bound trains go before he could squeeze into the fourth. "Everyone wanted to go to Berlin, except me," says Mr Kobernick. But he could not resist the lure for long. At 7am on 11 November he got the magic police stamp - which was no longer required.

There were no direct links between Potsdam, virtually a West Berlin suburb, and West Berlin itself. So he had to take the long way around, on the orbital railway called "Sputnik" which skirted the Wall. In East Berlin he caught an underground train that he did not know had existed to the West, and sped past empty stations. At 11 minutes past 11, on 11 November, Mr Kobernick stood on West Berlin's main shopping street, the Ku'damm.

"The first impressions were rather disappointing. It was a very crowded city, and they had obviously not been able to clear up the rubbish from the previous days, so it was very dirty," says Mr Kobernick.

Silke Bandermann, a colleague of Mrs Kobernick's at a top Berlin research laboratory, had seen the newsflash on television on 9 November, but assumed it was a ploy to get rid of trouble-makers. Still, she walked across Bornholmer bridge out of curiosity.

"I was terrified," she recalls. "I had read in the papers about all these drug addicts and murderers in the West." She dragged herself to a disco on the Ku'damm, and found it mind-boggling. But the rest of West Berlin did not seem very exciting. "On the way back, I saw all these people hacking away at the top of the Wall, and lots of soldiers on patrol. I thought: `Oh my God, they're going to close it again'. So I hurried home."

Ms Bandermann, aged 34, was a laboratory technician then and is one still. But in between, she has seen the world, including five years spent in Canada. "The good thing for me was to be able to travel and have some control over my life, my career," she says.

For her father, an East German diplomat, the changes were tougher. He now has a job selling telephone switchboards for a multinational company.

Ms Bandermann lives with her husband and four-year-old child in an apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg, an up-and-coming East Berlin district. Everybody else in her block is on welfare, but she is convinced that there are jobs out there, if only her neighbours, who drink and watch television all day, could get off their backsides and find them.

What she does find unfair, though, is that she earns 20 per cent less than a West German in her laboratory, for doing the same job four hours a week longer. Those are the rules in German public service, a decade after unification.

Ms Bandermann believes that the fall of the Wall was "the best thing that could ever have happened". Her only regret about the events of 1989- 90 is that they were too frantic. She wishes the two German states could have co-existed a little longer, so that a little more of the old German Democratic Republic might have survived.

Mr Kobernick has done well for himself. He is project leader of the region's biggest power generator, which is owned by a consortium of West German companies. He is a passionate traveller, and has visited every continent except South America. Yet, despite his success, he is the most bitter of the three. He regrets the passing of the GDR, feels his parents' generation were "cheated", and continues to vote for the heirs of the Communist regime, the Party of Democratic Socialism. He is an unenthusiastic beneficiary. "I make full use of the system," he admits. "I don't say I like it."