As Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Sunday, Elke Rosin recalled how lucky her family had been.
Her pet parakeet and a few personal belongings were all that Rosin managed to grab before her family fled from East to West Berlin 53 years ago. Hours after their frantic escape, the communist authorities in East Germany sealed off the border and began building the Wall.
“We all got away and nobody died,” said Rosin, who is now 70.
Others weren’t so fortunate. During its 28-year existence, at least 138 people died at the Wall, and hundreds more were jailed for trying to escape.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel honored their memory and paid tribute to those who helped bring down the Wall, calling its collapse an example of the human yearning for freedom.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, thousands of East Berliners streamed through the once-closed border crossings after communist authorities caved in to mounting pressure and relaxed travel restrictions that had prevented their citizens from going to the west for decades.
“It was about reclaiming freedom, about being citizens, not subjects,” Merkel said at the main memorial site for the Wall on Bernauer Strasse.
The protests in East Germany were spurred by changes that had already taken place elsewhere in Eastern Europe, she said, citing the examples set by democracy movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
“The fall of the Wall has shown us that dreams can come true,” said Merkel, who grew up in East Germany. “Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are.”
Activists staged a small demonstration during the memorial event, holding up a banner with the words “No wall around Europe” to protest the treatment of refugees trying to reach the continent.
A million people were expected to attend Sunday’s festivities in Berlin, which included an open-air party at the city’s Brandenburg Gate and the release of hundreds of helium-filled balloon strung along a 15-kilometer (9-mile) stretch of the former border.
Merkel noted that Nov. 9 is a significant date in Germany history also for being the day when, in 1938, Nazi paramilitaries launched a pogrom against the country’s Jewish population in what became known as Reichskristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass.”
“That was the opening note for the murder of millions,” said Merkel, adding that on Nov. 9 each year “I feel not just joy, but the responsibility that German history burdens us with.”