Penn State student sneaks through crack in the Wall

In December 1989, I went to Berlin and had the privilege of seeing the Wall be re-opened. I made some friends, one of them a student journalist at Penn State:

Penn State student sneaks through crack in the Wall
The Daily Collegian (Penn State)
By Dave Howland

Gray East German countryside spread into the distance thousands of feet below my cramped seat in the noisy 737. My bag, stuffed with notebooks, sweaters and a camera, sat wedged uncomfortably between my feet.

The flight attendant’s British accent muddled his German as he asked us to prepare for landing in West Berlin.

When the plane banked sharply left and downward, the wing exposed a stretch of no man’s land between the two cities. “That is the wall,” the man sitting next to me said.

After months of studying East European politics and watching reports on CNN last semester, I had six days during Christmas break to witness Berlin’s magnificent historical changes for myself.

Following easy to read color-coordinated maps from the airport, I took a bus and then the subway, called the “Uban,” to a youth hotel with high, airy ceilings in the Schone section of the city.

That gray afternoon, ears still clogged from the flight, I walked about two miles down busy Potsdammer Strasse toward the Brandenberg Gate. A wrong turn dropped me in front of the Postdam Gate and into the black-and-white New York Times photo that hung on my room wall back in State College.

The chipped and spray-painted Berlin Wall stretched toward the Brandenburg Gate, hidden behind a row of trees along a dirt road patrolled regularly by green and white military police vans.

East German soldiers stood tall, pacing like cats atop the wall in front of the gate. I tried to imagine the expression on their face if someone grabbed their ankles and dragged them over into West Berlin.

Early that evening while walking around the Reichstag Museum I overheard three college-age kids talking in both English and German about a rally in East Berlin that night. “Come join us,” a young woman, said to me. “We’ll have to hurry to make it by six.”

At that moment, I remembered reading an article one cold October morning on a North Philadelphia railroad platform — “Police Beat Protesters in East Germany.”

“Sure, I’ll go. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Our new group of four — East German student and self-declared communist Soli Schulze, East German-born Briton Nico Kearns, American Allan Leonard from Boston University and myself — set off for Check Point Charlie, stumbling over rocks and through cold mud puddles along the wall.

The incessant clanking of hammers on chisels grew and waned as we passed families who debated how to best use their tools to break off the largest piece.

Allan took me through customs and told me not to let on that we were headed for Alexander Platz, where the rally was to start. The border guard gave us a visa that expired at midnight. That deadline made me feel uneasy, like Cinderella with no clothes on.

We walked to the edge of an immense open space, and milled with throngs from the left-wing United Front, gathered to protest their country’s rapid pace of change.

After awhile the boisterous crowd moved forward. Thousands, holding banners and East German flags, had already spilled into the streets a mile ahead of us.

We started on the sidewalk but then Soli and Nico pulled us through the squeeze of the crowd to the middle of the road, where the crush of bodies and yelling was harshest. “Kohl is a Nazi! No more Germany!” the marchers chanted over and over.

The street bottlenecked into an older section of the city and we were completely surrounded. At one moment the marchers ahead of us let out a tremendous roar.

Something was wrong, and we couldn’t even lift our arms, to hold a periscope above the rush. We clutched each other to stay together.

Suddenly we heard what sounded like gunshots not far ahead. Were soldiers firing into the demonstration? The crowd wrenched backward, people looked stunned and confused.

“It’s only fireworks!” someone yelled. People passed on the message quickly and breathed a giant sigh of relief.

Finally the masses washed into the small courtyard at Platz der Akadamie to hear a lineup of speakers under bright floodlamps aimed at the steps of a miniature Parthenon-like building.

We shoved our way into the glare of camera lights and photo flashes, looking out on the sea of yellow and black and red Communist flags.

Our good spot won Soli an interview with an NBC camera man. We stood smiling in the background, hoping someone would see us back home.

The new TV star translated some of the speakers’ remarks for us and helped me to converse with families and others attending the rally. One of the most charming of all was graying People’s Police Captain Horst Preuffer.

“I am a communist,” he told me proudly. “Now everybody has a job, everybody has a home. We don’t want to give that up.

“And for this interview,” he added, pulling my hood over my eyes. “That’ll be $100.”

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