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Berlin Wall: Bemidji man recalls historic period

Martin Graefe, now program director for Concordia Language Villages, displays chips he hammered off the Berlin Wall about six weeks after the border opened Nov. 9, 1989. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

On Monday, Berliners celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall dividing the Communist-held east side of the city and the west.

Martin Graefe, who grew up near Tübingen in southern Germany and graduated from high school in Grand Forks, N.D., was in his native country at the historic moment.

"I didn't wake up this morning thinking this is a huge day," Graefe said in an interview Monday.

But as the retrospective on National Public Radio spent the day commemorating and analyzing the opening of the Iron Curtain, he said he became more excited.

"I was actually working for a German company at the time," he said.

He was 28 and had lived in the United States for many years, but his company sent him back to Germany for additional training. He said he was probably in a company office in Bavaria when he heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He said one of the most important parts of the story is that the opening of the walled border and freedom of movement from East to West Germany was accomplished through peaceful demonstrations without a shot fired. The demonstrations started a few months before the wall's destruction in Leipzig, Germany. The demonstrations gained strength.

"It was gradual, but fairly fast," he said. "People didn't know where it would go, where it would end up. It wasn't a planned diplomatic effort."

Graefe said he recalls growing up with the division between his family members in West Germany and those in East Germany.

"We had relatives in Dresden and Leipzig," he said. "We were always sending packages over."

Although the Communist regime promised every East German citizen a job and a paycheck, and people weren't going hungry, they missed luxuries. Graefe said coffee, nylon stockings and chocolate were prized goods in the care packages his family sent to East Germany.

East Germans who were retired and no longer in the work force could obtain visas to visit relatives in West Germany, Graefe said. They were allotted daily lump sums of Deutschmarks from the governments of the cities they visited and could even apply for and obtain West German passports to visit other European countries. The West German passports were not legal in East Germany.

West Germans could also visit relatives in East Germany, he said, but they had to obtain special visas and exchange a certain amount of currency each day.

Graefe's mother, Barbara Engle, who lives with his stepfather, Ron, in Minnetrista, Minn., had to cross the borders when she returned home from college. She told Graefe of the border patrol searches, including mirror scans under cars to check for contraband. One time, she told him, the guards unloaded all her brother's dirty laundry he was sending home with her for their parents to wash. Graefe's mother said she wasn't pleased about repacking all the clothes back into the car.

A friend of Graefe's in Berlin snapped a photo of him with hammer and chisel chipping pieces out of the wall shortly after the border opened. Graefe also has a photo of himself and his future wife, Lisa, sitting before some of the famous graffiti that decorated the wall.

The Graefes met at Waldsee, the German Language Village at Concordia Language Villages. Lisa was from Bloomington, Minn., and earned a master's degree in German. Graefe returned to Concordia Language Villages as program director. He said he sees the circle of his life from student to working in Germany to director as appropriate because the mission of Concordia Language Villages is bridging cultures.