With the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall yesterday, it got my mind thinking back twenty years ago. I was actually in Berlin in August of 1989. We went through Checkpoint Charlie and took some great pictures in East Germany. My main impressions: nobody smiled. Nobody talked outdoors. The cars were tiny. The buildings were ugly. And there was nothing to buy.
Someone was shot trying to flee into West Germany that month. They would be the last to die before the wall came down.
I had an interesting thing happen to me after our trip, though, and I thought I’d share it with you. I wrote it a few years ago, but it seems relevant today. Hope you enjoy it!
We packed ourselves into the car like sardines. In fact, Rohanne went in first, and we crammed our suitcases around her legs so that she couldn’t move. We did all this in the dark, for it was 4 a.m., and it was time to leave Berlin for our mini-conference in Hamburg. It was the end of our summer missions.
Nine of us were travelling together that day, from eight differnet countries. I was one of the lucky ones. When we picked up our rental cars, we found out that they only had one small one left, so we were presented with an Audi at no extra charge. The others in the small Citroen were not as fortunate.
We loaded up, me, a Canadian, in the car with the American, the Jordanian, the South African, and most of the luggage, and in the other car another American, an Israeli, an Egyptian, a Sudanese, and an English woman. We were a pretty bedraggled lot, having spent our summer housed in a church with no shower and few laundry faciltiies. We made do with sponge baths and laundromats, but we looked ragged. And the lack of sleep didn’t help either.
Nevertheless, we left Berlin in high spirits, looking forward to the conference.
I was elected to sit in the front seat with Pietr, the South African, to talk to him to keep him awake while we drove. A little nervous about directions, he had asked over and over again how to get out of Berlin, and was told it was no problem; there was only one road going west, and you couldn’t miss it. You just drive through the checkpoints, and there you are.
So, reassured, we set out. The checkpoint was easier than we thought, although the guards looked suspiciously at our nationalities. Nevertheless, we drove through, drove over a circular roadway, and were on our way. While Rohanne and James napped in the back seat, Pietr and I discussed our summer.
We had been witnessing to Turkish Muslims in Berlin, many of whom lived in neighbourhoods that had yet to be repaired after the World War II bombings. They were the despised of West Germany, yet they were surprising friendly. Nevertheless, they were very dogmatic in their beliefs, and it had been a difficult spiritual journey.
After about an hour, I noticed Pietr looking a little worried. Finally he turned to me, and asked,
“Sheila, in Canada, where does the sun rise?”
“In the east.” I said. And then I looked ahead, straight at the sunrise.
“Funny.” He said. “That’s where it rises in South Africa, too.”
He quickly awoke the other two and had them get out the map. We started to look for signs, but could find none on the map. Then we realized the map didn’t extend for more than 10 km around Berlin.
“Maybe we should turn back,” said Pietr.
“But they said there was only one road.” James argued. We were all growing nervous. We had heard terrible things about East German authorities.
But then a new sign popped into view. “Look!” I cried, “It says Frankfurt. We have to be going in the right direction if there’s a sign for Frankfurt.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, we continued for another ten minutes, until Pietr noticed something else.
“Look at the cars,” he whispered, as if raising his voice would alert the authorities. And we did. We were surrounded by little tiny Eastern European cars, the kind that look like they’re made of aluminum and would break at any minute. Squeezed into these vehicles were tall men, obviously uncomfortable, staring confusedly at our large Audi.
In the back of the car, Rohanne suddenly hissed, “Look at the stickers!”.
“That’s it.” Pietr said. “We have to turn back.”
And we signalled the car behind us to follow, turned in the other direction, and continued on our way. We even made it to Hamburg in time for the opening worship.
That would be the end of the story except for two other points.
When we reached Hamburg, we checked a map to find out why there was a sign for Frankfurt on the East German highway. That was when we learned that there were two Frankfurts: the second one being a mere 10 km from the Polish border.
The other point was that all of this happened early in the morning on August 24, 1989. To many people that date means nothing, but to those in Poland it means freedom. For it was on that day that the first Communist European government fell; Solidarity had been voted in. And because of that, the Soviets had amassed 12,000 troops to the Polish-East German border.
So I do not like to think of how we would have appeared to those troops had we made it past Frankfurt. The nine of us, a motley crew from some of the most turbulent countries in the world, with our only plea being “we were told there was only one road.”
It was a wonderful summer, and I would encourage all to do summer missions. You meet people from all different countries, experience differnet cultures, get a chance to witness, feel God’s hand protecting you in your everyday life. But not only that. Sometimes you land in the middle of a historical moment. And so you come away with great stories to tell, too.