British Columbia

30 years after fall of Berlin Wall, Vancouver pastor recalls living in Communist East Germany

It’s been three decades since the Berlin Wall came down, but Manfred Schmidt remembers the moment dubbed the “victory for liberal democracy” like it was yesterday.

Vancouver church hosting event to remember fall of Berlin Wall in 1989

Manfred Schmid, originally from East Germany, is now a pastor in Vancouver. (Cathy Browne/CBC)

It's been three decades since the Berlin Wall came down, but Manfred Schmidt remembers the moment, dubbed the victory for liberal democracy, like it was yesterday. 

The Berlin Wall, a concrete barrier dividing the German capital and country between east and west from 1961 to 1989, was the physical manifestation of the ideological struggle of the Cold War. 

Schmidt and his family had once lived in East Germany — on the Communist-controlled side of the wall — before fleeing to West Germany in 1961 and eventually settling in Canada. 

"[When the wall came down] I was in front of the TV here in Vancouver," Schmidt told CBC's host of On The Coast Gloria Macarenko. 

"As I watched the news clips, tears ran down my cheeks."

Schmidt, born in 1957, was in his thirties when the wall came down. Now a pastor at the Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Schmidt is holding an anniversary celebration to mark the fall of the wall this weekend. 

The church will be showing old footage and a discussion about the era — something Schmidt says is important to remember.

"There are so, so many stories," he said. 

In this Nov. 11, 1989 file photo, East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin. (Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)

Living under the thumb of a regime

Even though he was just a young child when he lived in East Germany, he vividly recalls the feeling of oppression.  "You were always under the impression that somebody was listening in, even in the churches," he said. 

"My parents were quite unhappy, they didn't want to live under a regime that put its thumb down."

The final straw came in 1961, when a city councillor warned Schmidt's father that state security was planning to pay the family a visit the following morning. 

The family heeded the warning and fled East Germany that evening on two motorcycles, with Schmidt and his sister — just four and six at the time — clutching one stuffed animal each. 

Secret police arrived the next day and shot their dog. 

Schmidt and his immediate family lived in West Germany for more than two decades. They went back to East Germany every year to visit relatives who were not able to cross. 

The West German passport of Manfred Schmidt's mother passport, showing visitor stamps to East Germany, officially known at the German Democratic Republic. The family visited relatives who were not able to cross over. (Submitted by Manfred Schmidt )

"They were always happy when people from the west came to bring them some bananas and I remember so clearly when we brought them some citrus fruit," Schmidt recalled. 

"That relationship was quite vital." 

But it was a relationship that became harder to maintain once his family moved to Canada in 1985 — just one of the many losses due to the wall's presence. 

Schmidt said he hopes the lessons found in history won't be lost or forgotten with time. 

"I remember these things," he said. 

The "Fall of the Wall" event starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church.

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