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Lessons from the Berlin Wall

Posted: November 6, 2009 7:34 p.m.
Updated: November 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.
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"Life without liberty is like a body without a spirit."
- Kahlil Gibran

As a golden August sun dipped below the Berlin horizon, the cool of evening descended on the square at Pariser Platz. I was surrounded by throngs of people - couples old and young; families with children; tourists and locals.

A Marlene Dietrich impersonator sat on a bench and cooed songs that evoked a bygone era. Nearby, a couple danced the tango for tips.

Conversation and laughter filled the air as people walked beneath the stone arches of the Brandenburg Gate.

A lot can happen in 20 years.

Last week, I sat with tears welling up in my eyes watching news footage from Nov. 9, 1989.

That was the night the people of Berlin - West and East - pulled at a loose thread in the Iron Curtain which had separated them for 28 years.

It happened because East German government official Gunter Schabowski mistakenly announced during a news conference that border crossing restrictions would be eased immediately. That was all it took.

On the heels of the announcement, Berliners swarmed checkpoints, wanting to travel to the other half of their divided city. Border police kept up the facade of bureaucracy for only so long, keeping people at bay before finally relenting and opening the gates.

People descended on Pariser Platz, standing near and on the wall, and eventually two men bravely climbed over and strolled across the square toward the Brandenburg Gate. The police did nothing. Had the men attempted that bold move even days prior, they likely would have been shot dead.

I remember sitting in my family's suburban New Jersey living room that November night in 1989, watching news reports of jubilant Germans celebrating, embracing each other and dancing atop the wall that had stood between them for so long - and within days gleefully taking sledgehammers to the concrete monstrosity, destroying what had been a painful reality for three decades.

Somewhere in my parents' house is a chunk of paint-splattered concrete a relative brought back from a visit to Germany after reunification.

It still moves me to see that TV footage. How can one not be stirred by the sight of newfound freedom?

We are so accustomed to the privileges of a free country that sometimes it takes seeing the joy of those who have been deprived of liberty to truly value it.

Today, it is easy to forget the Berlin Wall even existed. A row of bricks inlaid in the Berlin streets traces its path, historical sites dot the city and fading memories remain in the minds of those old enough to remember.

Twenty years later, Berlin is a different city, free from the cold pallor of communism, enlivened by revitalization.

But this isn't all simply ruminations on history. As is frequently the case, the past is a jumping-off point.

Thinking this last week on the collapse of the Berlin Wall got me thinking about life in general.

What walls have we erected in our hearts and our relationships with those around us?

Do we realize we will never have the chance to relive today? One chance - that is all we have.

It is not worth living divided.

The 1991 song "One" by U2 is now one of the Irish band's easily recognizable hits.

When they wrote and recorded it, it was the heart cry of a band that had been on the verge of breaking up.

"We're one, but we're not the same. We get to carry each other," Bono sings.

For all that separates, defines and so often divides us, we are in this life together.

There is a time and place for knowing what you believe and holding unflinchingly to it.

There is also a time for working, striving - living with those next to you, those with whom you don't quite see eye-to-eye.

Each of us knows what is our personal Berlin Wall.

Take a sledgehammer to it. Dance on the rubble. And live.

And on Monday, don't forget the importance of what happened 20 years ago. Relish the sweetness of freedom.

Josh Premako is The Signal's opinion and business editor and a Newhall resident. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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