“Mr. Gorbachev — tear down this wall.”
Some of the most famous words uttered by President Ronald Reagan were brought to bear in November 1989, more than two years after the president’s dramatic speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Thomas Kislat, a native of Erfurt, in what was then in East Germany, on Thursday recalled the days when the wall came down during a presentation to the Rome Rotary club.
Kislat, now a marketing director for the Forum River Center and Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism, said that Germany was essentially divided into four zones after World War II. The east was dominated by the Soviet Union and west by the United States, Great Britain and France. In 1949, two states were developed, the socialist eastern portion of the country known as the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany on the west.
“By 1961 people had been fleeing from the Soviet zone since 1945,” Kislat said. “Everybody was dissatisfied with the political situation and also with (the lack of) career prospects. Well-educated people tried to escape and that was actually an essential threat to the GDR.”
Hence a wall was constructed around West Berlin to stop the exodus.
A fence with a five-kilometer exclusion zone was constructed from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia to separate the rest of the country.
“Many families were torn apart,” Kislat said. His own father and brother were separated. “Visiting was only possible through extremely difficult circumstances.”
As part of that, people over the age of 65 were allowed to cross the border alone to visit family.
“They wouldn’t let you go over with your wife because you might have just stayed over there,” Kislat said.
Tourism, now central to Kislat’s role in Rome, was limited for East Germans to neighboring countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
“Those were exotic destinations for us,” Kislat said. “Our Florida was the Baltic Sea, a very cold Florida.”
He said a family would have to apply up to two years in advance to get a hotel room.
Residents of East Germany were cultivated by the government and people loyal to the socialist regime were allowed to advance ahead of people who might have a better education or were better qualified for work.
People might have to wait 13 years to buy a car, and Kislat said there was always somebody from the GDR secret service watching them.
“You always had to be really careful about what you had to say,” Kislat said. “Freedom of speech was non-existent.”
Demonstrations seeking freedom mounted in the late 1980s.
“Peaceful demonstrations and meetings started that actually led to the fall of the wall,” Kislat said. Germany was officially reunified a year later.
“There are still differences,” Kislat said about the two regions. He explained the country was essentially separated for two generations and Kislat said it may take several more generations to achieve full unification.