I was 20 years old and studying in Paris at the time. It was a Thursday night and my friends and I were out drinking. We heard on TV that the border between East and West Berlin had just opened.We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see history happen, so the next morning we burst in on our class and asked for volunteers to come and see the Berlin Wall fall. A group of us borrowed a car from a friend and took off. We didn’t have much money or passports, just ID cards.
We arrived at the German border at midnight and it was total chaos. There were three or four different types of guards, and German Shepherds everywhere. They were checking cars and passports thoroughly. Amazingly, we bullshitted them and said the embassy had told us no official paperwork was possible in such a short time. We paid a visa on the spot and drove the 200 kilometres to Berlin.
It was really grey when we arrived in East Berlin. There were hundreds of people trying to get to the train station to get to West Berlin. We arrived at West Berlin and for the next four days stationed ourselves around Checkpoint Charlie (this was designated as the single border crossing point for foreigners and members of the Allied forces). It was a pure party atmosphere. There was so much joy. Many families hadn’t seen each other since the wall was built – in 1961. There were people coming from all over Europe: Poland, France, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Many had been born when the wall was built and so had never ventured beyond the border. It felt like Europe was united.
The West Germans had given 100 deutschmarks to all East Germans. This was overwhelming for some East Germans – they were under Communist rule for so many years. They were used to food rations and coupons and now they were allowed to buy things from shops and cafes. We were refused entry to shops because they just couldn’t cope with the amounts of people wanting to buy things. I remember this East German man looking at a banana like it was a piece of jewellery. It was the first time I became aware of how good we have it in our country and how we take things for granted.
There was still a slight tension in the air, though. The East German police were on alert. They still had their guns and dogs. Although the wall was falling, reunification didn’t happen until 1991 and so the power in place was still there. Also, some West Germans were worried how they were going to absorb that amount of people into the country and how it would affect their own livelihoods.
What I remember most about that day was people pulling the wall down with little hammers – everyone wanted a scrap, including me. I managed to get a piece, but lost it two or three years later, unless it’s still at my parents’ house in France. I also remember looking at the Elbe River that divided East and West Berlin. On the west side they had built a swimming-pool ladder, so when people escaped from the east they could climb down quickly and escape. It was quite unbelievable.
Witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall is definitely one of the highlights of my life so far, mainly because I have never shared so much emotion with so many people.
Jean-Francois Ponthieux Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9th 1989
Interview by Louise Bannister, published in Frankie magazine
East Berlin…. empty.
It was really grey when we arrived in East Berlin. There were hundreds of people trying to get to the train station to get to West Berlin.
What I remember most about that day was people pulling the wall down with little hammers
There was still a slight tension in the air, though. The East German police were on alert.