The Day the Wall Came Down
Travel Stories: The wall fell 20 years ago today. Stefanie Michaels visited Berlin recently to hear a personal recollection.
11.09.09 | 10:39 AM ET
On a grey morning not long ago in Berlin, I met Tom Sello, curator of the Peaceful Revolution Exhibition. I wanted to ask him about the day the wall came down.
On Nov. 9, 1989, like so many people around the world, I watched the historic images on television: a boy waving a flag atop the wall as a section of it fell, jubilant and shocked Berliners filling the screen. At that moment I knew I wanted to become a journalist, to be there.
I couldn’t be there then. But now, 20 years later, I was in a Berlin coffee shop, sitting before this man who was not only there, but had fought for that day as a citizen of East Berlin. Sello had worked as a member of an “environmental” group that published an underground newspaper, agitating for political change. The group made international headlines after being raided by the Stasi.
Now 51, this tall man with piercing blue eyes began to recount the events of Nov. 9.
Tom had been watching a press conference on TV that day when he heard an Italian reporter ask an East German official when East Berliners could travel to the West. Not knowing what to say, the official looked down, shuffled through notes and replied, “Immediately.”
Tom couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Since an election in May there had been protests and tension, but he wasn’t expecting an announcement like this. He ran to a local pub to tell people what he’d heard. No one believed him.
Thirty minutes after the press conference, Tom went home to his wife and children and gathered them to head to the border.
“What did you say to them?” I asked.
“We are going to West Berlin to see where grandma lives,” he recalled, looking up at me with tears in his eyes.
They soon arrived to find an open border and a surprisingly calm scene. Tom recalled seeing people walking across the border dazed, into an alien world.
“At the time, no one knew what was happening, how long they would allow this,” he recalled. “I went in front of a car and asked the driver to take us across and let us out on the West. Strangers from the West approached us, they recognized we were from the East. They gave us cakes, and the children candy. My children smooshed their noses into glass windows at stores….”
“How did you feel?” I asked
“I still have to cry.”
Many days after the fall of the wall, Tom feared the border would close again. He worried about the Stasi, and what would become of the government he had rallied so hard against. He felt at a loss: “If it’s not there anymore, how can we change it,” he said, realizing his life’s work might be over.
“Was it all you imagined it would be, Tom?” I asked.
“What?” he asked.
“Freedom,” I said.
“It turned out totally different than how I had imagined it.”
How Tom and others experienced it is on display at the Peaceful Revolution Exhibition in Alexanderplatz. It’s the culmination of his dream of sharing his story with his fellow Germans and foreign visitors. They saunter by and read about his time behind the wall, and they study images, including photos of the basement where he and his fellow agitators met. The exhibit also documents the arrests of the activists during a raid by the Stasi. Tom credits international press coverage of the raid with helping to ensure he and the others didn’t disappear.
He’s fighting to make the exhibition permanent.
“Democracy exists,” Tom said. “And it is very quickly taken for granted.”