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For mother and son, lives divided by a wall in time

Katrin Geissler was born just before the Berlin Wall was built, her son, Valentin, just before it came down. Though they grew up in the same place, their experiences were entirely different.

November 08, 2009|Henry Chu

BERLIN — The world turned upside down when Katrin Geissler was born, and it turned upside down again when she gave birth to her son, Valentin.

They made their appearances in 1961 and 1989 -- bookends of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-eight years apart, mother and son both grew up in Berlin, but they might as well have lived on different planets.

Barely a month after Katrin was born on July 2, 1961, the communist-run eastern half of Berlin began erecting a barrier, block by concrete block, until, like a scar, it zigzagged through the city, separating west from east, capitalism from communism, freedom from totalitarianism, family from family.

The Berlin Wall would last forever, or so it seemed to a young girl growing up in its shadow.

At the dawn of 1989, she was heavily pregnant with her first and only child, Valentin, who entered the world on Jan. 13. Before the year was out, that world would be entirely different.

The fearsome Soviet Union was collapsing under its own weight. On Nov. 9, 1989, travel restrictions were abruptly lifted, and thousands of East Berliners poured through to the West for the first time.

The Berlin Wall had fallen.

For Valentin, life has been lived in a city unified in name, if not 100% in attitude and mentality. These days, crossing from his apartment in eastern Berlin to his job in the west is a simple matter of buying a tram ticket.

To meet Katrin and Valentin is to see a remarkable physical resemblance between mother and son -- the gentle cheekbones, the smiling eyes. But to hear them talk about their experiences of growing up in Berlin is to hear two entirely different stories.

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She felt secure, but watched

Katrin Geissler remembers being 4 years old and on her way to ballet school when she first tried to peek through the wall.

"You would just try to get a glimpse. . . . It was very strange, because as a child you had the wildest imaginings about what was on the other side. . . .

"For me, the wall was just a reality. I knew about it even before I went to school. When I was little, my grandmother would take me to town and she would explain to me that this was the wall that divided the two cities."

Katrin's parents had experienced a very different Berlin in the aftermath of World War II.

"They would talk about how it was very common to live in East Berlin and work in the West, and in the West you had things you didn't have in the East, like oranges and bananas. You could take those back and trade them for things.

"There was still a lot of communication going on between the American and the Russian sectors. The trains would go back and forth. The city was alive as a whole."

But shortly after Katrin's birth in 1961 in the northeastern suburb of Bernau, the Berlin Wall went up. Her father's job helping to build machines in the West ended overnight. Later, when she was a schoolchild, communist indoctrination became part of the curriculum.

"Apparently there was a blacklist in Bernau, and my father was on it because he worked in the West. People who worked in the West were called 'border walkers,' and they were politically suspect.

"It was the other side of the fence. At school . . . we were taught that we were the better people, that capitalism was evil, that we were the future, that the sun rises in the East."

At 18, she joined East Berlin's Komische Oper as a dancer, -- and got her first taste of the workings of the Stasi, the East German state police, which spied on practically everyone.

"The first time I experienced something like that personally was when we were supposed to go on tour for the opera, and the Stasi actually went around the house and asked the neighbors about me. The neighbors sometimes knew before I did that there was going to be a tour."

Yet, perhaps because it was all she knew, life was not intolerable for Katrin, who steered clear of politics. Neither she nor her family thought of fleeing, though thousands of others succeeded in doing so, through tunnels, ingenious hiding places in cars, even by hot-air balloon.

"I didn't feel oppressed. In a way, I was privileged. My training was free. I could study for free. I got everything I wanted. If there was something I didn't get because of them, because of the Stasi, I didn't know about it. . . .

"There was no one in my circle of friends who tried to flee. But at the opera company, there would be people who would stay in the West when they were on tour; suddenly there would be one fewer person in the orchestra."

The status quo seemed unlikely to change. But as Katrin nursed Valentin at home in late 1989, anti-communist demonstrations in East Germany began building in force. And as incredible as it seemed, word came that East Berliners, after a generation of being separated from the West, were being allowed to cross to the other side.

"At that time we had a visitor from Bulgaria. . . . He came back from a trip to West Berlin and said, 'The wall has fallen, and you can all go over there.'

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