Mia awoke in a cold sweat. A bad dream, she thought to herself, struggling to remember its contents. She felt a cold breeze on her skin, coming in through her open bedroom window. It was still dark outside. Wondering what the time was, she rolled over to her left side and tried to go back to sleep, but sleep did not come. She thought of her mother, who she had not seen for four years. Mia wondered if her mother still looked the same as she remembered her.
Unable to return to sleep, Mia put on her clothes and walked silently to the kitchen. The clock on the kitchen wall told her it was almost eight in the morning. She started heating up some water to make coffee as she heard her father start to get out of bed in the other room. It had been long since their apartment on the Auguststraße had felt as home. These days it felt desolate and empty, the furniture aged quickly by the lack of cleaning and maintenance.
Looking at the kitchen table, Mia remembered how her mother would pick flowers, putting them into glasses around the house to liven it up. Her mother had been taken by the police for attempting to flee from East Berlin to the West where she had family. Though her father worked in the government, he had been powerless to help her. Mia still worried about her every day, but knew there was little she could do.
“Good morning,” came her father’s voice from the dark hallway. The light flickered on and illuminated her father’s silhouette, who walked into the bathroom. Mia had lived in the apartment her entire life, something of a privilege, as many of her friends and their families had been forced to move throughout the years. Her father’s position at the foreign office had secured her parents this apartment many years ago, before Mia was born.
Fifteen minutes later, they were eating in silence at the kitchen table. Father didn’t talk about his work much, but Mia could easily tell when he was concerned about something, often as that was. “It’s all changing”, he said, trying to stifle a tone of elation in his voice. “First Poland, at the start of this year, Hungary after that, then the Baltics”, he paused. “And the demonstrations in Leipzig of course… perhaps finally,” he stopped abruptly, clearing his throat. It was her father’s job to be well informed about what was happening in the countries of the Soviet bloc, though he was strictly forbidden from talking about this outside of work. Mia had watched the protests in Leipzig a month earlier on the television and vividly remembered how police had responded violently, arresting thousands. “Please be careful today Mia,” he said as he got up and put his plate on the kitchen counter. Mia knew that her father shared her mother’s dream of living a free life in the west, though he didn’t like talking about it. Ever since mother had been taken, her father seemed to be paralyzed by fear, fear of losing his job, being accused of treason and put in prison. When her father had left for work, Mia got ready to leave too. It wasn’t uncommon that her father had to work on a Saturday, it had been a very busy year.
Mia would meet her friend Stephan at the Schendelpark at nine and then walk to the crossing of Mollstraße and Prenzlauer Allee, where demonstrators would meet. She tried to convince herself it was a good thing that she was up early, but she felt tired from the restless night.
The walk to Schendelpark was not far, but it was a cold morning. Mia was happy to see Stephan waiting there for her, she would have been nervous to wait on him there by herself. They walked together past Rosa-Luxemberg Platz towards the meeting point, where groups of people were already gathering. There was a quiet tension in the air. People were chatting softly amongst themselves in nervous excitement. By ten o’clock, four of Stephan and Mia’s friends had joined them. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger, there were now hundreds, maybe thousands of people, filling the crossing. Many carried signs or banners, with one word showing up often: “Freiheit.” Stephan had made a sign too, saying ‘40 Jahre sind genug’ in bold letters; 40 years are enough. It was at the 40th anniversary of the GDR where so many protestors had been arrested a month earlier in Leipzig.
Slowly, the mass of people started moving towards Alexanderplatz. The outside air no longer felt cold, and Mia’s nerves had turned into excitement. She had expected to see more police, though she knew the government had granted permission for the demonstration. “I bet they didn’t expect this many to show up”, Stephan said, clearly in awe at the amount of people around them. The crowd at Alexanderplatz was so big that Mia could barely see the podium at the front. As they tried to shuffle through the crowd towards the podium, Mia noticed the Fernsehturm looming over the massive square, observing stoically.
At eleven, the first speech started. Mia recognised the first speaker as Marion van de Kamp, an actress she had seen on television. Her friends had explained to her how much of the demonstration had been planned by actors and other artists, many of whom were political activists. Mia recognised several of the other speakers; there were politicians, writers, professors, and artists. The contents and attitudes of each speech differed but the underlying demand was clear: democracy for East Germany.
Suddenly, there was booing from the front of the crowd. The boom of the booing grew larger, thundering through the square. A man wearing a long black overcoat had stepped up to the microphones on the podium, carrying a stern look on his face. Trying to maintain his serious demeaner through the boos, the man started his speech. Mia recognized him as Günter Schabowski, the man who hosted the daily television conferences broadcast by the GDR government. The crowd was not impressed.
At two in the afternoon, the speeches were over. The energy of the speeches had been fantastic, and Mia felt inspired. “It’s over,” Stephan started, “what a day!” Mia felt the same way, deeply moved by the fearless speakers she had listened to today. Seeing so many people come together in one place with a shared purpose was awe-inspiring. There was cheering all around her. She couldn’t imagine a more important place to be in that moment.
In a way, what the demonstrators were demanding was simple, democracy and freedom. But these two concepts meant so much more. They represented emancipation from 40 years of fear, oppression, injustice and suffering. Mia thought of her father, a shell of the cheerful and caring man he used to be. She thought of her mother, who she would finally be able to see again, after four heart-breaking years. Overcome by emotion, Mia wiped the tears of joy from her face. “It’s not over yet,” Stephan said coldly, “it’s not over until the wall comes down.” Her friends looked at him in earnest, knowing what he had said was true.
The city seemed to be holding its breath for the following days as protests continued in other cities across East Germany. Mia was confident that the demonstration at Alexanderplatz had been impactful enough for something to change, but she also knew that the GDR regime would not go down easily. Every evening at 6 pm, Mia watched the press conference held by the GDR. Every evening it was Günter Schabowski, reporting on various topics and events in East Germany. Mia watched eagerly, hoping, but nothing came.
On the evening of the 9th of November, five days after the demonstration at Alexanderplatz, something different happened. Most of the press conference had been uneventful, but as it was coming to an end, a reporter in the back of the room asked about rumoured changes to travel regulations for the citizens of East Germany. Slightly fazed, Schabowski searched in his bag for a document, returning a piece of paper which he scanned through quickly. He then said nervously, “This comes into effect … to my knowledge … at once.” The press room erupted in chatter. A reporter in the front then asked, “Also to West Berlin?” Schabowski’s answer: “Yes, people can leave the GDR also directly to West Berlin.” Mia was shocked, not sure if she had heard correctly. She ran to the phone to call Stephan, who answered excitedly. “Did you hear Schabowski?” Mia asked, “What does it mean?” she continued. “I don’t know,” came Stephan’s voice. “Let’s meet tonight.” He said. It was just past 7 pm.
Mia met Stephan a few hours later at the western end of the Torstraße, where they followed the Hannoverschestraße to the Invalidenstraße. Looking to her left, Mia could already see a crowd of people gathering. Beyond the crowd was the tall watchtower of the border crossing. Mia knew that behind this border lay the Sandkrug bridge, and on the other side of that, West Berlin. Mia and Stephan walked towards the crowd. There were people carrying signs and chanting, just like at Alexanderplatz five days ago. Mia could hear chanting from the other side of the border as well, coming from West Berlin. “There’s people on the other side too!” Stephan said, endeared. The border guards did not seem to know what was going on. One guard was talking frantically on the phone in a small office next to the barrier, looking desperate.
Mia and Stephan waited with the growing crowd for several hours. The guards initially resisted the crowd of people, standing their ground, but now it was nearing midnight and they looked exhausted and nervous. Members of the crowd were starting to test the guards, inching closer and closer to the barrier. Mia was afraid the guards would shoot at people that got too close, as had happened so many times in the past decade. Worn down by the intimidating chants of the crowd, the guards gathered to discuss. After some deliberation, several guards walked towards the big wooden barrier that separated East from West. They slowly moved the barrier out of the road.
An eruption of excitement came from the crowd as it started moving toward the border, eagerly crossing the Sandkrug bridge where they were greeted by West Berliners. Mia was overcome by emotion, grinning joyously. East and West Berliners were greeting each other all around her, shaking hands, hugging, and sharing drinks. “We’re in West Berlin!” Stephan yelled with excitement. The energy of the crowd was immense. It was a surreal moment as Mia felt a sudden rush of hope and excitement for the future. She would be able to see her mom again, and her family would be reunited. She would be able to live a better life, free to pursue what she wanted, free to express herself, free of fear.