If you are on Facebook, as I am, every Thursday brings a phenomenon known as “Throwback Thursday,” or “TBT.” This is where people post pictures of themselves from years ago, so that friends and family can comment on hair styles, clothing, and how young everyone looked.
I’ve never posted a picture for this before today, so you all get to be on the receiving end of my inaugural “Throwback Thursday.” My hair was a little different, and I was a lot younger, but the memories are still vivid today.
The picture is of me at The Berlin Wall as an exchange student in 1985. I was excited to be in Berlin, with the multitude of historical, political, and cultural landmarks in a city that was nearing its 700th birthday.
Everywhere I went in West Berlin, I couldn’t help but know that I was in a city that was surrounded by a communist state, and The Berlin Wall was a constant reminder of that very fact.
One of my friends in the exchange program with me was from a German family that fled to America during World War II. He knew that he had family in the East, so after we got used to being in West Berlin, he asked me if I would join him on a trip to see his family members in East Berlin.
He only had their names, an address for their home, and an older photograph of them provided by his mom. We decided that, being young and adventuresome, we would set out to see if we could meet them.
Americans went to East Berlin all the time through the famous entry point at “Checkpoint Charlie,” so it wasn’t unusual to see a flood of American students and tourists milling around the areas of East Berlin that the communists wanted you to visit.
That tourist area was at a place called “Alexanderplatz.” It was a modern, clean area that was intended to give the impression that communism was working, and was a great way of life for those that lived under its rule.
When the day came to visit his family, we called ahead to let them know we were coming. We milled around Alexanderplatz, trying to look like tourists, and bought some food and gifts for my friend’s family. We then ducked off of Alexanderplatz and headed off to his relatives’ home.
As we walked through old neighborhoods, we saw buildings that we could tell had been bombed in the war, walked along on streets that were in disrepair, and saw entire neighborhoods that were badly run down — Not quite the message the communists wanted shared about their “ideal state.”
As we continued, we stopped to have a soda and a snack in a park. As we finished our food, there were some birds eating our crumbs on the ground. A profound thought hit me at that point: those birds were not restricted from flying over the wall to West Berlin. They could leave East Berlin at any time, but the people who lived in East Berlin were stuck, and if they tried to get to the West, they would be shot. That thought has stayed with me to this day.
We eventually got to the house, and were met with open arms by aunts, uncles, and cousins. We spoke in German with his family members, who all wanted to know all about America, and the life we had “in freedom.”
As we spoke, we learned the truth about life behind The Iron Curtain. There was no freedom of religion, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom from false imprisonment, no right keep and bear arms, nor any of the many other freedoms guaranteed to me as an American by our Constitution.
As this hit me, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: these people were prisoners of an oppressive government, and the concept of freedom was a dream that they could only hope would one day become reality.
I always knew how great I had it in the United States, but it became much more real to me as I listened to these victims of communist rule. I was free to do the things they longed for because of the rights guaranteed me in the Constitution! I realized at that moment what a blessing our Constitution was, and what an important responsibility we had to protect those freedoms for future Americans.
I wasn’t in Berlin when President Reagan made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, but I cheered as I heard him challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” I watched intently in November of 1989 as the wall was torn down –an amazing moment that felt very personal to me.
When I hear about legislative proposals to restrict gun ownership, to muzzle free speech, and to tell people how and where to live, and to minimize the value of life, I fear that our freedom is under attack, which alarms me and brings back the memories of the people I met in East Berlin. As your State Representative, I will fight to protect your freedom, and your liberty in St. Paul.
Thank you so much,