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BERLIN - It's Monday November 9, 2009 and just meters from Berlin's famed Alexanderplatz, the scene of many noisy demonstrations for the reunification of Germany this week 20 years ago, two 60-something women are heading home after a shopping spree and coffee.
While the women, Irmgard and Dorle, are obviously good friends, it soon becomes apparent that like most Berliners their age both have an opinion and a story to tell about the wall that divided their city for more than 28 years.
"We did not see each other for nearly 30 years," recalled Irmgard, who escaped to West Berlin with her family in 1949, just one year after the Allied powers and the Soviet Union cemented the division of the present German capital into Western and Eastern blocs.
"We could only take one suitcase of belongings with us," she said, adding, "Dorle and I tried to stay in touch but it was very dangerous for two little girls to have any correspondence. All letters to East Germany were opened at that time by the [East German Secret Service] and censored."
The pair, who were born during the last years of World War II, had been neighbors in East Berlin and became good friends just months before Irmgard and her family fled to the West.
"I will never forget Dorle's fifth birthday party," said Irmgard, now 65. "She had relatives living in England and they sent her some chocolate for her birthday. I had never tasted chocolate before and she shared it with me - it was amazing."
It was this small piece of chocolate, she insisted, that cemented their friendship even across one of the world's most heavily guarded borders and carried it through 29 years of Cold War impasse and forbidden East-West relations.
It is against this setting that the two women watched the Berlin Wall crumble two decades ago on this day. The significance of the wall's demise was not only that it finally would allow East Germany's citizens access to the west's democracy and freedom, they said, but also that it finally reunited their country and allowed long lost friends to find each other again.
"We could not believe it was really happening," said Dorle, with her friend translating, referring to a confused government announcement on November 9, 1989, that East Germany was lifting its travel restrictions to the west.
Even though hundreds of people started streaming into West Berlin, marking a pivotal moment in the collapse of Communism in Europe, Dorle said, "We were still worried that they would not let us return home if we went."
As the days progressed, however, Irmgard and Dorle realized that they would soon be able to see each other.
"Of course we were both nervous," remembered Irmgard, tears beginning to form in her eyes. "We had both grown up, had married and had children. I had no idea what she would look like after all that time and did not know if I would like her husband." But, she added, the two women did like each other's families and the rest, as they say, was history.
THE BERLIN Wall was erected on August 13, 1961 and not only served as the physical division between West and East Berlin but also became the symbolic boundary between democracy and Communism during the Cold War. The 165 kilometer wall, which snaked around West Berlin, was erected in the dead of night and for 28 years kept East Germans from fleeing to the West.
According to online histories documenting the division of Berlin, living conditions in West Berlin and East Berlin became distinctly different in the years following the Second World War. Western Germany, including West Berlin, had the support of its former occupying powers - the US, Britain and France - while in the East, the Soviet Union established a communist society, closely watched by the secret service, nicknamed Stasi, and with severe restrictions on personal freedoms.
"The original wall, built of barbed wire and cinder blocks, was subsequently replaced by a series of concrete walls [up to five meters high] that were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers," notes Encyclopedia Britannica.com.
"By the 1980s this system of walls, electrified fences and fortifications extended 45 km. through Berlin, dividing the two parts of the city, and extended a further 120 km. around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany."
Britannica.com adds, "About 5,000 East Germans managed to cross the Berlin Wall [by various means] and reach West Berlin safely, while another 5,000 were captured by East German authorities in the attempt and 191 more were killed during the actual crossing of the wall."
WHILE THE unraveling of the communist regime across Eastern Europe had already been set in motion months before, when Hungary first took steps towards the West, East Berliners were shocked by a government announcement on the evening of November 9, 1989 that a new law easing travel restrictions to West Germany was about to come into force.
"For us, it was a total surprise," Dorle's husband, Kai, recalled last week during our interview. "There had been rumors of course but we were all watching TV to see what would happen next."
The next day at work, many of his colleagues informed him that they had already crossed the wall and visited western Berlin.
"At first we were all worried about joining them," he remembered. "But we soon noticed that more and more people were going and coming back."
Kai, who asked that his family name not be used, added, "All we longed for was to be able to travel and to no longer be confined to East Berlin. It was less about the material benefits of the West, because we had survived without them for so long already, but it was to live and be free."
Kai and Dorle, together with Irmgard and her husband, Uwe, said that they had come to central Berlin not only for shopping and coffee but also to join the throngs of locals and tourists in the city for the official celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism and the reunification of Germany.
With a three-km. stretch of giant dominos, all painted with a colorful depiction of peace or freedom, as the evening's central event, Berliners and tourists listened intently to the reflective words of Germany's current Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that "the events of 1989 were the fulfillment of a dream."
Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and was one of the thousands to cross into West Berlin 20 years ago, also reminded the world "before the joy of freedom came, many people suffered."
"This is not just a day of celebration for Germans," said the Chancellor. "This is a day of celebration for the whole of Europe; this is a day of celebration for all those people who have more freedom."