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Crossing the border, 1990

After the Berlin Wall fell, Michael Moran explored the strange new world on the border of East and West.

(Photos by Reuters; Illustration by Street Attack)

NEW YORK — We hunched in the tall saw grass, Christian and I, he wielding a Nikon, me clutching a reporter’s notebook. With us was a Romanian smuggler named Iordan, a “sherpa” of sorts making a good living smuggling eastern European migrants into what would soon become the territory of the European Union.

It was May 1990 and the river Oder, which formed the border between East Germany and Poland in the fourth decade after World War II, had been transformed by the events of November 1989 into the line that separated the wealth and freedom of “Europe” from the gray uncertainties of the “East.”

It wasn’t much of a river, and it certainly provided little deterrence to a determined immigrant. Still, reports that someone could just wade across a river from Poland into what would soon be the territory of the reunified Germany seemed far-fetched. So we drove to Gubin, a downtrodden Polish border town swarming with discontented Soviet soldiers, looking to follow a group of aspiring Europeans across the river.

The anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse deserves to be marked as a moment when, for once, history appeared to shift in a positive direction. Yet the wall's disappearance, though widely welcomed, also raised a host of troubling questions. From NATO to the Kremlin, for Poles, Czechs and Germans east and west, the wall’s sudden absence proved deeply disorienting.

Since the end of World War II, the concept of German reunification had faded from a stated goal of both sides (under their own terms, of course) into a rhetorical device. Many, including Germans on both sides and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, thought reunifying Germany a daft idea. But it had been easy to be in favor of reunification when it seemed so unlikely to ever happen.

Berlin Wall anniversary

In the year that followed that sudden transformation, I made half a dozen trips to the limbo-land of East Germany. During those trips, I met East Germans whose feelings ranged from euphoria to insecurity to deep disillusionment.

Daniela, a young music teacher and single mom, lived in Halle, an industrial town south of Berlin. I met her at a party shortly after the wall’s toppling, and we talked about what the future held. Her husband, a violinist for an East German symphony orchestra, had abandoned her and their young son four years before during his orchestra’s performance in the West. He sent no money, answered no mail and, as long as the wall stood, he remained out of reach.

For Daniela, the wall’s collapse opened legal avenues to get child support from her deadbeat husband. But it also meant that the subsidies for people, who, like her, worked in the arts, would be severely curtailed. She minced no words: “Life will be harder.”