Over lunch at Berlin’s trendy Restaurant Diekmann at Weinhaus Huth, Nicole Röbel tells a story that grandparents might tell their grandchildren.
“We had no phone when I was a child,” she says, after finishing a bite of her Nicoise salad. She speaks of a childhood characterized by deprivation, with small rewards only on special occasions. When she performed well on her report card, for example, her parents sometimes took her to a special bakery, Intershop. It was an exceptionally rare extravagance. Smiling, she says, “I still remember the smell of the shop and the fresh-baked goods.”What makes Nicole’s story unique, however, is that she is only 28. She lived the first nine years of her life on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, shut off to the Western world and all that it promised. The Western world’s books, magazines and newspapers were practically non-existent in her home. Television offered only two channels.
And even when the televisions were rigged to receive signals from neighboring West Berlin, Nicole and her family had to be careful. Watching Western television shows was a violation against the laws of the German Democratic Republic, which allowed only GDR-produced television shows. “When we watched Western TV, it was with our curtains closed,” Nicole says.
“Once, when I was in the second grade, my parents let me watch Dumbo,” she says. “The next morning, all of the kids at school were tired and sleepy. My teacher turned furiously red and said, ‘I know what you did last night,’ but she could not say anything, and no one could confess or even talk about it.”
When the Wall fell, a whole new world opened to Nicole. “It’s interesting for me to think about how my life would have been had the wall remained,” she says. “I talk with friends about it. I would have never had a chance to travel. I would not have attended university. I would have left school at age 16 and taken whatever job the GDR gave me.”
At school, old ideas gave way to new ones. “The things we had learned up until then were not true anymore,” NIcole says. “Nearly every subject changed for us,” shifting from the Soviet to the Western perspective.
“I was the first generation who could choose which language we would study in school,” Nicole says. “Under the GDR, it was only Russian. But no one chose Russian after reunification. We all chose French and English. My French teacher, who came from East Berlin and had never had French lessons herself, learned along with us. We were turning pages in the book, learning together.”
Her parents struggled to adapt to the new world. Consider the difficulty they had getting a job when the wall fell. They were in their 40s with skills decades behind the West. Nicole’s mother had worked as a secretary, still typing on a manual typewriter. She had to adapt to the computer age. Her parents eventually upgraded their skills and got work.
I was fortunate to have an hourlong lunch with Nicole and snap her photo by a slab of the Wall that stands now only as a tourist attraction. In the photo, she looks much too young to have lived through a history that now seems so distant. But that’s just the thing about Berlin. History is assertively present.
2009 marks two decades since Germany’s reunification. The year was 1989, and the decades up until that year were lived in a Cold War between the eastern and western worlds. Here, a girl a little more than half my age, was telling me of a life difficult to imagine.
Nicole and I walked through from the restaurant through Tiergarten (the city park) to Brandenburg Gate. To a nine-year-old girl growing up in East Berlin, the imposing structure had served as a barrier to the mysterious and intriguing world beyond. For 28-year-old Nicole, however, the gate stands not as a symbol of an isolated past. Rather it represents an open invitation to a world moving forward.