Europe

'I flashed my pregnancy pass to get in': Australian recalls fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years on

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Saturday 9 November, 2019, marks three decades after the end of almost 30 years of division in the German capital. Here, Australian-German Ilona Prindable remembers the moment she stepped foot into West Germany for the first time that night.

Pressure had been building on the then-communist East German government for months to let its citizens travel freely.

The autumn of 1989 saw a wave of political protests, people demanding more personal and political freedoms, as well as the right to travel freely.

In the early evening of 9 November, a government spokesperson told a press conference East Germans would be free to travel into West Germany.

He said the directive was effective immediately, when in fact, it had been planned to begin the next day, along with information on applying for a visa.

But the news had already made it to television, and East Germans flocked to the border wall in huge numbers.

In this early morning, Nov. 10, 1989 file photo, Berliners from East and West crowd in front of the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate).
In this early morning, Nov. 10, 1989 file photo, Berliners from East and West crowd in front of the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate).
AAP

Being a part of history

Ilona Prindable was 28 years old and seven months pregnant with her third child.

“There was a strange feeling in the air … one of my colleagues brought a portable television to the hotel ... we could sense something big was happening,” she told SBS News. 

Ms Prindable was working as a bartender at a hotel in East Berlin that night. As she began to see history unfold before her, she knew she had to be there.

Ilona Prindable was 28 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and she remembers that day like it was yesterday.
Ilona Prindable was 28 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and she remembers that day like it was yesterday.
SBS News

"As soon as I finished my shift at 11.30 pm, I took my friend and we rushed to Checkpoint Charlie," she said. 

“We were wearing tracksuit-type clothes and we smelled of beer from working behind the bar, but we didn't care.”

SBS German: 'We joined the stampede' - What it was like to see the Berlin Wall come down

Arriving about 15 minutes later, she saw hundreds of people already lined up, clamouring to get to the other side.

"Being pregnant was an advantage sort of in Germany... we had like a little mother's passport, I would call it," she said. 

"It had all your details in it in case we had to call an ambulance, but it gave us the right to jump the queue.

"We went straight up to a border control policeman and we showed him our pregnancy passport to prove we were pregnant -and he was so perplexed that he basically let us go in!" 

SBS News
Ilona Prindable reflects back on the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.
SBS News

A wall of division

The wall divided friends, families and loved ones, causing people on both sides to lose their jobs and livelihoods if on the other side.

Ms Prindable said it was only when she reached her teenage years she began to learn what it meant to live in East Berlin.

“As I got older, you started to ask yourself questions: 'why can't I do this? What can't I say that?'"

"It was while I was at school that I began to realise that in the East, everything is a bit different."

"Eighty per cent of my family lived in the West and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t visit them.”

She said she recalls standing up in class as a child to protest one day after the teacher said people beyond the wall were their "enemies".

"All of a sudden I got up and protested ... I said, 'my mother and uncle live on the other side and they are not my enemies'." 

"The teacher immediately took my arm and pulled me into the principal's office."

At least 138 people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin to the West after the wall was erected in 1961.
At least 138 people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin to the West after the wall was erected in 1961.
Reuters

But, Ms Prindable said, she was one of the lucky ones. Unlike some of her friends and family, she did not end up in jail.

"I remember one October, it was a national holiday and my school friends wanted to go to town and celebrate. I missed it because I had a family holiday.

"But when I came back, I found out that my friends who had gone to the town had been arrested. I think security forces thought what they were doing was some sort of a demonstration.

"I think they were trying to make a statement."

Ms Prindable said being able to step foot into West Berlin for the first time was euphoric.

“Everyone was dancing, crying, hugging each other.

"It was one of the happiest days of my life."

The divide today

Despite leaving Germany after celebrating the reunification of the country, Ms Prindable said she feels the divide, though no longer physical, still exist between the two sides.

"If I talk to my family or friends back in Berlin, there are still a lot of people who want the wall back," she said. 

"They still have conversations about the east and the west and it will probably take another … one or two generations to get it out of people's heads".

Ilona Prindable reflects back on the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.
Ilona Prindable reflects back on the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.
SBS News

Peter Monteath, a historian at Flinders University, said while economic disparity between the two sides is one reason for the continuing divide, another is that many people from the East did not feel they were treated equally after the wall fell.

"When unification did happen a year after the wall fell, it was not a unification of two equal sides," he said.

"It was basically a takeover by the west, not just economically but politically and socially of a smaller population in the east, and many felt they were treated in a somewhat patronising way".

A German government report released this year found many former East Germans still perceive themselves as second-class citizens, despite the study reporting per capita GDP in former East Germany growing from 43 per cent of that in West Germany in 1990, to 75 per cent in 2018.

Last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself grew up in East Germany, acknowledged German unity still had unfinished business.

“Official German reunification is complete. But the unity of the Germans, their unity was not fully complete on October 3, 1990, and that is still the case today,” she said.

“German unity is not a state, completed and finished, but a perpetual process.”

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