Tom Majeres (centre) surrounded by the four Luxembourg friends (Marcel, Marco, Marco, Pierre) with whom he had traveled to East Berlin on 8 November 1989 (pictured here a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall) Photo: Tom Majeres' collection
Luxembourger Tom Majeres never would have guessed when he set off on a study trip in November 1989 that he would end up witnessing a momentous historical event: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Tom had been studying engineering at the University of Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany when he and a group of students set out on a bus trip to Berlin on Saturday, 4 November 1989. The university organised a similar trip each year, but this year was different: on the same day Tom and his cohorts set out, the Alexanderplatz demonstration saw nearly 1 million protest against the German Democratic Republic (GDR) regime in east Berlin.
It was, in fact, only one of a number of protests to have taken place across the divided country over the course of the previous months. Leipzig kicked off in September. On 11 September 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans had made their way into Austria via Hungary--“the first cracks in the Berlin Wall”. Protests took place in Plauen, Leipzig and Dresden on three consecutive days in October, leading up to the 40th anniversary of the GDR, when GDR citizens held signs pleading for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to take action.
Tom, then 19, was aware of the backdrop, but what he mainly recalls was “how international our group was”, with students even from China and Lebanon on board.
4-8 November 1989: West Berlin
When the group’s Mercedes bus entered into East Germany, the students were, of course, required to show their documents. “Soldiers entered the bus, and the students were quite nervous,” Tom says. He recalls one of the soldiers upset by the fact that there was a “Der Spiegel” magazine on board, although the soldier didn’t confiscate it.
During the first days of the trip, the students spent time in west Berlin, following an organised programme of company visits and other tours.
Among Tom’s photos in carefully arranged albums are scenes taken from West Berlin, the “zone of death” visible behind the wall. An image of a memorial marker for Klaus Schröter, who had been shot on 4 November 1963 at the age of 23 as he planned to escape underwater, crossing the Spree River.
On 8 November, Tom and four other Luxembourg students decided to take advantage of their free day: they headed into East Berlin.
8 November: East Berlin
First, of course, they were required to get through the famous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. They passed through easily from the western side, but he recalls how nervous they felt in the zone between West and East Berlin. “I really remember one woman soldier especially. She was only about 1.6m [around 5ft, 2.5in], but she was quite large. We were laughing a bit, but she wasn’t at all happy about that.”
Images from the students' trip into East Berlin taken 8 November 1989. Photo: Tom Majeres' collection
They also had to exchange currency--50DM, German marks, into East German mark, which had a 1:1 parity.
Inside East Berlin, Tom says he had a sense they weren’t welcome, not even at the dining spot they selected that day. His first impressions of East Berlin? “Everything looked like the second world war had just happened. There were bullet holes in the façades.”
In his photo album there are images of communist block-style housing--much of which is still present in modern eastern Berlin--but more noticeable are broken windows captured in the images. A “Trabbi” (Trabant) car with a “Nie wieder Porsche” (“Never again Porsche”) sticker on the window. A shop in disrepair, poorly stocked.
And then the photo that stands out most for Tom: an image of the Brandenburg Gate, which had been erected in the 18th century, with the goddess of victory and her horses atop gloriously facing the east--a perspective the students hadn’t been able to see from West Berlin.
“What surprised me is that there was nothing there,” Tom recalls. “Maybe one or two soldiers, that’s it. It was very quiet.”
That would all change one day later.
9 November: from east to west
On the evening of Thursday, 9 November, Tom and his buddies decided to have a drink in Kreuzberg--a place where the nightlife was at the time, and a place known still for its vitality.
“We had been drinking beer when a report came on the radio,” Tom says. “The owner cut the music, and it was announced that the Wall had fallen, but people didn’t believe it. The café was full, and the owner changed the station to verify it.”
Immediately the Luxembourgers paid their bill and set out to see history in the making. They made for the Heinrich Heine Strasse, which he says was reserved at the time for Germans. They had left their one camera at the hotel and, unfortunately, have no photos of the night itself. He recalls hugging. Faces in disbelief. But three things in particular stand out for him: “someone asking me for a Marlboro, a real sign of capitalism at the time, another asking for a Coca-Cola, and one looking for a telephone booth so they could call their family to tell them they were on the other side.”
He pauses before adding, “You have to remember, back then they didn’t know if they would be able to return or not, so there was a lot of emotion, a lot of crying to see that after all those years, everything had changed.”
Two nights without sleep
Tom’s friend with the camera soon went to retrieve it, so there are images captured of 10 November. For two nights, “I didn’t sleep for a minute.” Tom and his friends, like so many others, sat for a moment atop the wall near the Brandenburg Gate, since its larger width allowed for this. A scene that particularly moves Tom even to this day is a woman asking to see the Brandenburg Gate from the east--something she had always dreamt of. Although the guards weren’t supposed to let anyone into East Berlin, an officer accepted her request, let her view the landmark, and then helped her back up. “It was emotional scene,” Tom says.
Scenes after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the officer (centre) helped one woman hop down into East Berlin to see the Brandenburg Gate. Photo: Tom Majeres' collection
Tom and his friends might have stayed longer, but their bus was travelling back on Saturday, 11 November, so they headed onwards.
With floods of people leaving the city to head further west, the trip back took much longer than expected. At one point, “there was a traffic jam of about 50km, nothing moved. It was cold, and because the cars from the east didn’t have heating, the Red Cross was out distributing blankets and tea.”
Since there was such waiting, “at one point [an East German] asked our bus driver to show them the Mercedes bus motor, so he did.”
Tom Majeres today holding his cherished photo album Photo: Delano
The busload of students departed Berlin on Saturday morning, not reaching Kaiserslautern until afternoon the following day. Tom kept up with the progression of events unfolding through news reports, and the event clearly left an impression on him: it instilled in him a deep political interest, and he’s spent time ever since researching and reading about the east-west divide, the Soviet Union, the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Tom, who now works with the CCN, which works on the ecological management of waste from households and has a circular economy vision at its core, also has two children, with whom he has shared his Berlin story. He tells them too how important it is to learn different languages, so they can have different perspectives and get news from a variety of sources.
While he regrets he could not be in Berlin to attend the 30th anniversary on 9 November 2019, Tom believes the fall of the Wall was more than just a structure coming down. “No one was really ready for 9 November. There was before and after, a divide between poor and rich…there was reunification, but not exactly. There was still a very deep philosophy of socialism for many.”