It’s almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. I’ve just returned from a visit to my good friend who lives in Germany. I went on a German Wings flight from Manchester. Browsing the in-flight magazine I read that the anniversary will be marked by an art installation of 12 kilometres of illuminated white helium balloons along the route of what was the wall. The magazine contained interviews with some of the artists involved and each of them was asked about that momentous day of 9 November 1989. Some were at school, some were students, some were involved in political activism, some were travelling. All of them spoke of their amazement at what happened and the sense that they were involved in history in the making. The white balloons symbolise freedom. Hope for a world without walls.
My friend lives in Kiel, on the Baltic coast (or the Ostsee as it is called in German). I always find the tidelessness of the Baltic strange. No tide to make fresh sand twice daily for the first person’s footprints or for the latest sandcastle design. I spent a day with a couple who live near the Olympic village built for the sailing competitions in the notorious 1936 and ill-fated 1972 Olympics. They keep a small sailing boat, called the Hela, at the marina there. The husband, Jürgen, showed me a photograph album and told me how he came to live in Kiel. He was born in a town on the Baltic coast near Danzig (Gdańsk) in Poland. His home town was an important naval base and a popular tourist resort. From the photographs I could see that he came from a prosperous family with a large house. There were pictures of his well-dressed grandparents, parents and their children.
Soon all this was to change. In 1939 the small five year old boy in the photographs was lifted up to see from an upstairs window the German battleship (the Schleswig Holstein) – it was the beginning of the Second World War as Germany invaded Poland. In 1945 his family scavenged potatoes left over in harvested fields – the only thing they could find to eat. Stalin’s Soviet army was advancing and the winter was bitterly cold. The family, along with thousands of others, decided that their only option was to flee. They had hoped to leave on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for Kiel. It was luck, he said, that they were delayed by snow and ice, and missed the ship. The ship was seriously overcrowded with 10,000 people on board. It never got to Kiel but was sunk by torpedoes from a Soviet submarine.
The family reached Kiel by another ship, their only possessions their clothes and the photograph album which I was looking at almost 70 years later. “The three greatest criminals of all time were Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung” said Jürgen with anger in his voice. He had told me the defining story of his life. In the enormous upheavals in Europe during and after the Second World War his family’s experience was one out of hundreds of thousands. This November we will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union – events whose impact is still being experienced today. I thought of the poem “Home” by Philip Gross, written for his father who fled to the UK from Estonia at about the same Jürgen’s family fled to Kiel.
The place Jürgen came from is called Hel in Polish. It is a long thin peninsular in the Gulf of Gdańsk. In German its name is Hela, the name of Jürgen’s sailing boat anchored in the marina at Kiel, the place where his family started life all over again.