Fall of the Berlin Wall: On historic event’s anniversary, a family remembers East Berlin

Celeste Barber and her son Eric Friedman hold pieces of the Berlin Wall. The two lived in East Germany for six months in 1988. IANA BOROVA/NEWS-PRESS
Celeste Barber and her son Eric Friedman hold pieces of the Berlin Wall. The two lived in East Germany for six months in 1988.

Twenty-five years ago today the Berlin Wall fell, an event that was as sudden and surprising as it would be historically important.

A Santa Barbara mother and her son, Celeste Barber and Eric Friedman, have a chunk of the wall in their possession, a reminder of their days spent living in Communist-controlled East Berlin, and will soon be releasing a memoir of that life-changing time.

Ms. Barber, an English instructor at Santa Barbara City College, was 37 when her husband, Frank McConnell, a UCSB English professor, received a Fulbright Grant to move to East Berlin as part of the International Exchange of Scholars.

For six months in 1988, the McConnell family, including their 10-year-old son Eric, would “build relations with the East German people,” by teaching and studying and living day-to-day.

“I was so excited,” said Ms. Barber. “How often do you get a chance to go and live in a Communist country. It was the Reagan years, too, so it seemed like the right time to go. There was Gorbachev and glasnost, and we thought we could contribute in a small way.”

Life in East Berlin meant life under the Stasi, the secret police who spied on everybody. It was just accepted that they were in your life, Ms. Barber said, even if you never saw them.

She recalled coming home to see boot prints all over their floor, a sign that somebody had been in their house while they were out.

“People couldn’t talk to us like they wanted to,” Mr. Friedman remembered. “A couple of people did and we never saw them again.”

For Mr. Friedman, it was a difficult move. He wasn’t happy about it at first, Ms. Barber said, but “as a mother I knew that this would be the experience of a lifetime for a child. I knew that in my heart, and it turned out to be that. And that’s why we wrote the memoir, because it stayed with us all these years.”

“It opened up my world. Before, my world was Santa Barbara County, Ventura County,” Mr. Friedman said. “And then all of a sudden I was in a city at the heart of the Cold War.”

Mr. Friedman went to a school for non-German students to learn the language. He found himself making friends with a “who’s who” from countries “we were taught to fear,” such as Cuba, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

He made great friends with a boy from Hungary named Dezso and they bonded over the same things as back home, like Legos and music and food. “Kids are kids” he explained.

A year and a half later, back in Santa Barbara, they watched the Wall come down.

“We were completely surprised. I remember when we left (in 1988) I had a friend, just before we drove off, who just collapsed in my arms, because we were just convinced that this would be the last time that we’d ever see her.

“It happened so fast, we had no idea it would be that soon.”

The family returned to Berlin in summer 1990 to find a country transformed. Many East Berlin residents were still having a hard time coping with the transition to democracy and capitalism.

“People had lived under socialism for 40 years,” she said. “With the government not only telling them what to do, but also doing it for them. It was the ultimate nanny state. So they were frozen. They could not do things for themselves. They wanted the freedom, but they didn’t understand that with freedom comes responsibility over their own life. It was a challenging two years.”

“They didn’t have the skills to compete in a capitalist economy,” Mr. Friedman said. “They were scared, especially those in middle age, like our friends. They were scared they would be homeless. They were scared they wouldn’t have jobs.”

He remembers how eerie it was to walk in the area where once the wall stood, standing in a spot where guards would have immediately shot anyone in the area.

The Berlin Wall was actually several walls, and the ones that faced West Berlin, Ms. Barber said, reflected the color and the fun of that city, filled with graffiti and paint. The chunk they took faced East Berlin and reflected that city: whitewashed, drab and pale. Ms. Barber uses her wall pieces as bookends.

Frank McConnell died in 1999 and Celeste remarried. Mr. Friedman works wrangling public policy for Santa Barbara County 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s office. Mother and son started writing the memoir seven years ago on and off, but as the anniversary neared, they put more time into it, adding articles that Mr. McConnell had written for magazines and the Daily Nexus about the trip.

“So all three of us are in the book,” she said. “It’s just fabulous to include Frank, because he was the heartbeat of the whole trip.”

The book will be released later this year.

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