November 4, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 9 years ago

WITNESS: The Wall loomed bigger than the Alps

Peter Jebautzke, who grew up in East Germany, has worked for Reuters for 12 years as an IT field specialist. In the following story he describes his first trip to West Berlin at age 24.

An undated file photo shows East-German born Reuters employee Peter Jebautzke. REUTERS/Staff

By Peter Jebautzke

BERLIN (Reuters) - I had always dreamed of climbing the Alps but unfortunately, the Berlin Wall was in the way.

In November 1989 I was 24 and working as a trainee at the East German railway after studying cybernetics and information technology. I loved computers and hoped to be able to own one myself some day — a rare privilege in East Germany.

That autumn the air in East Germany was full of hope, change and excitement — but also fear, as we didn’t know if there might be a violent crackdown to the small reform steps.

Along with millions of others I watched Guenter Schabowski’s news conference live on television on November 9 when he pronounced those fateful words — ‘Reisefreiheit’ (freedom to travel) and ‘unverzueglich’ (effective immediately).

It was the moment we’d all been dreaming about. I went to the Oberbaumbruecke border crossing that leads into the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg — a world away until now even though it was just a few blocks south.

I was in a throng of people and held up my passport to show the East German border guards as we all swept across the border.

They didn’t even look at it. It was simply incredible. Just a few hours earlier I might have been shot at trying to do this and now I was being whisked across in a flood of people and the guards didn’t even seem to care.

I couldn’t believe I had simply strolled over to West Berlin.

Over on the other side in West Berlin everything actually looked pretty much the same at first glance — except that the fire alarm boxes were painted differently. But it was quite clearly a whole new world.

I couldn’t believe everything happened so fast and I was a bit overwhelmed. I went to the first underground station I saw, Schlesisches Tor, and took the train into the center of West Berlin.

Everywhere I went people bought me drinks and food. West Berlin had turned into one giant party.

Looking back, I’m not sure how they all knew I was from East Germany. But I guess what gave me away was the permanent look of awe on my face or my fake leather East German jacket.

Then I started to worry about getting back home. What would happen if they closed the Wall again behind me?

I hadn’t even told my family I’d be going over to have a look. There was a long line of people backed up at the border crossing to the East and I was afraid they might say: “You can’t come back, you’ve been expelled.”

But I did manage to get back and bring disbelieving friends over a few days later.

The fall of the Wall was the best thing that ever happened to me. Suddenly, everything I dreamed about was possible. I work all day and night with computers, have travelled as much as possible and been to the United States at least 10 times — climbing mountains in Arizona, Utah, California, Washington and Oregon.

And yes, I finally got to climb the Alps.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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