As it happened, I was in the neighbourhood the day the Cold War’s most enduring symbol disappeared in a frenzy of exuberant East Berliners and belching Trabants streaming past the downed concrete. Alas, however, I was not with the cheering masses, but stuck on a train from hell headed to Warsaw, idling in the East Berlin Bahnhof for a passport check, or some such thing. Gazing at the stolid, uniformed East German soldiers and railway attendants, I remember thinking: “The only country and system you have ever known is about to collapse. What can possibly be going through your minds?” Yet the cliché of stern, unsmiling, uniformed East German guards remained frozen in time. My “papers” were scrutinized with the same thoroughness that had been inflicted for years on Westerners travelling through their communist bastion.
Of course, I should have hopped off the train and witnessed history in the making. But, just as I chose to miss Dylan and the Band at Massey Hall in 1965, I let this opportunity slip by, too. Sigh.
Still, being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered also had its fascination. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was no longer prepared to intervene in its so-called satellite states, Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy, Recent elections had been won overwhelmingly by Solidarność. Many of their marvellous campaign posters featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon remained on walls and storefronts.
Poland was in transition, its rigid state economy crumbling. As I worked on a freelance radio documentary for Sunday Morning with the theme: ‘Can Poles make it through the winter?’, I visited crowded soup kitchens and poorly-stocked grocery stores. I vividly remember an old woman in tears over her small purchase of potatoes. “It’s all I can afford,” she wept, her meagre pension eroded by inflation. Shaken, my translator, a Solidarity activist imbued with the bright future of a non-communist Poland, quietly slipped her some money.
It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. I visited its offices in a former kindergarten in a leafy, residential area of Warsaw. The paper’s star columnist was ensconced in a cubby hole that was once a washroom. Almost everyone else worked on desks scattered about the ex-school’s large open area. It felt like a student newspaper. Today, the Gazeta Wyborcza is the second largest newspaper in Poland.
But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”
There was still something about being on the ground floor of a revolution, even without the immediacy of East Berlin.
Poles, meanwhile, were transfixed by the joyous scenes in that long-divided city. At the press centre, the lone television was tuned to CNN. Employees watched non-stop. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Hardline East Germany, with the Stasi, the shoot-to-kill border guards and everything else, succumbing to the people? It didn’t seem possible. But in this case, the over-used, simplistic phrase was right. The tearing down of the hated Berlin Wall really did mark the end of the Cold War.Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution cranked up to take Havel to the Castle. Over Christmas, the odious Ceausescu’s were shot in Romania. Hungary consolidated its democratic advances. In no time, the once-mighty Warsaw Pact was history.
To think, when I headed to Europe in the fall of 1989 for a year’s stay in Paris, the big story was going to be the growing consolidation and unity of the EU. (That’s going well…..) When my train passed through East Berlin on the way back from Warsaw, the guards were gone. A single station attendant checked my ticket and passport with all the attentiveness of a skytrain guy.
A while later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow from Oslo. He had boarded the train at East Berlin, and couldn’t stop talking about what it was like being among the hundreds of thousands of giddy Wall revelers. He told me that the moment he saw pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, he booked off work, gathered up his two teenaged sons, and headed for East Berlin. “It is important for them to see history,” he said. “They will remember this for the rest of their life.”
A quarter of a century later, I would wager his prediction still holds.