Like most people, I can remember where I was for many of the events that shape our history. I remember well where I was on the night of November 9, 1989 – at home, watching an event I’d dreamed of since I was old enough to understand what it meant. I was a new mother, too, The Boy was I my arms as Third Dad and I watched the Wall begin to crumble.
I’m not German, but by that day in November Germany and the German people were an important part of my life. German was my choice of languages in high school, and by the time I entered college as a German language and linguistics major, I had four years under my belt. I ultimately earned two degrees, married a German citizen, and taught German language and culture for eight years.
My first trip to Germany was in the summer of 1973. I’d received a scholarship from the Goethe Institut, a sort of German equivalent of the Fulbright teacher exchange program, and spent almost two months there studying. Berlin, of course, was on the schedule.
I loved it immediately. There was a sort of in-your-face quality to the city and to the people. Perhaps that attitude came from living surrounded by the DDR. Or maybe it was because Berlin had survived the airlift that sustained them during the Wall’s early years. Whatever the reason, it appealed to me.
As an American who took her freedom for granted, visiting Berlin matured my political perspective tremendously. It is, I think, impossible to come face to face with oppression and not be changed. On the banks of the River Spree, which separated the two Berlins, I read memorial after memorial to those who had tried in vain to swim to freedom. The East Berliners grabbed for it, over and over and over again – jumping from windows, running through barbed wire fences, tunneling under the Wall, and swimming the Spree. Freedom was so close, yet for most, always beyond their reach.
I visited East Berlin on that trip, too. My fellow travelers and I took a train into the East, were checked in by border security, and roamed relatively freely. Like most tourists to East Berlin, we ended up at Alexander Platz, the modern plaza that symbolized East German modernity and prosperity. It was rather austere, but more than its architecture I remember that on a sunny weekday afternoon it was empty. The whole city felt empty, although we had visited an area touted by the DDR as its showpiece.
My strongest memories, though, are of coming back from East Berlin to West. The return itself was uneventful, but that’s not the point. The point is that I could return. I remember the incredible sense of unease I felt at boarding the train that took us back to freedom, knowing the East Berliners at the station couldn’t board that train.
I did come back, though, and lived the kind of prosperous, free life that even those in relatively-prosperous East Germany couldn’t have. So as I watched the Wall come down in November 1989, and saw East and West Berliners climb to its top and topple its concrete panels, I couldn’t help but smile and dance, and remember those Germans who had made that day possible by keeping the dream of freedom alive.
Where people are oppressed, or their countries divided, the dream for freedom is alive - nowhere more so than in Korea. Liberty in North Korea, LiNK, is fighting the same good fight so many fought to bring down the Wall and defeat communism in the west. Founded by Korean American college students and led by Adrian Hong, this group is doing more to raise the world’s awareness of the horrors of life in North Korea than any other I know. LiNK members have put their lives and safety on the line to help North Koreans escape to freedom. And once free, LiNK helps escapees adjust to life here in the US.
On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can think of no better way to honor those who fought for freedom in East Germany than to honor those who are fighting for freedom in North Korea today. I thank them, and hope one day I see the people of Korea celebrate the end of their separation, just as I watched the people of Germany celebrate the end of theirs all those years ago.