Divided by the Wall: a Family's Tale

One woman recounts the fall of the Berlin Wall and how she picked up the pieces.

BySamantha Fields
November 09, 2009, 7:53 AM

BERLIN, Nov. 9, 2009 — -- Anna Kaminsky is a child of the wall. She was born behind the wall, raised behind the wall and gave birth behind the wall.

"My family is a divided family," she said. "My father is from Sweden and my mother is from the East. But my parents were separated by the construction of the wall."

Her parents' relationship, in the late '50s, early '60s, was not condoned by the East German government and, because her mother was from the East, the couple needed government permission to marry. They were refused.

But on Aug. 12, 1961, Kaminsky's mother learned that she had, somehow, been granted permission to travel to Sweden.

"Normally," Kaminsky said this week, "that would be the happy ending."

But her grandparents had convinced her mother to leave her young son behind with them while she went to Sweden, and to come back for him once she got settled.

Then on Aug. 13, overnight, the Berlin Wall went up. Kaminsky's parents and her brother, as with so many thousands of German families, were suddenly stranded on opposite sides of an impossible barrier.

The East German government would not allow Kaminsky's brother -– a toddler -– to leave the country to join his parents. They would also not allow his mother to come and collect him.

She could return but she would have to stay. And, if she didn't return, the government had threatened to send her son to an orphanage. Either way, her Swedish fiancé had no chance of entering East Germany. A writer with a political agenda opposing that of the East German government, he had been branded an enemy of the state. They never married.

Months later, in 1962, Kaminsky's mother made a heartrending decision: She took the one-way trip back to East Germany, to her son. By then, she was pregnant with Anna.

Anna Kaminsky would never meet her father. He died in the early 1980s, before the wall came down.

On Nov. 9, 1989, Kaminsky was asleep in Halle, nearly two hours from Berlin. When she heard the news, she said, "my first opinion was fear. I feared that the East German communists, that they couldn't accept that the wall is coming down. What I feared is that they would find the first opportunity to shut it again."

A Moving Memorial

It took weeks of people streaming back and forth across the once-impassable border for it to register that the barrier defining her life was down for good.

In the years since, Kaminsky, 47, has traveled across the world, something that would have been unfathomable before. Seven or eight years ago, on a trip to Washington D.C., she came across an exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a memorial to the Berlin Wall. It was respectful, informative, powerful and, for Kaminsky, who had grown up so close to the wall, profoundly moving.

Seeing such a massive piece of the wall that had once been so immovable thousands of miles away in the United States made her wonder: Where in the world had the rest of the wall ended up?

Not long after that trip, she set off to find out. The trip took her around the world and, eventually, spawned a book, "The Berlin Wall in the World," published this year. More than 80 countries on every continent, Kaminsky found, have substantial pieces of the wall.

In South Korea, there's a Berlin place, built around a segment of the wall. In Portugal, there is a monument housing the only piece of the wall to have been blessed by the Pope. The Vatican has its own segment but it hasn't received a papal blessing. And, in Berlin, pieces of the wall are everywhere, including the posh Galeries Lafayette in what was once East Berlin, although little of it still stands in its original place.

"The first demand to buy the wall was written the 10th of November [1989]," Kaminsky said. "The first letter is arriving here in East Berlin to the East German government, and they asked how much we have to pay when we want to buy your wall."

It came from a U.S. businessman.

"The East German government is a little bit confused," she said with a laugh. "First of all, they don't know do they really want that wall will remain open. They have to decide what to do. But for our luck, it was not any longer their decision."

Collecting the Pieces

After that first letter, offers to buy pieces of the wall kept flooding in. One U.S. businessman offered the government $50 million for the entire thing. Eventually, much of the wall did end up getting sold, on the street, in auctions, to governments, organizations and private individuals.

Today, a Polish dentist living in West Berlin "has the greatest private collection of pieces of the wall," Kaminsky said.

Thirty or 40 pieces, and counting.

"He lived with it, too," she said with a shrug. "It has a lot of attraction to a lot of people."

Twenty years after the wall came down, Kaminsky still lives in East Berlin. Now, there's no reason to leave.

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