Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s funny to think that for people like my children, the Cold War is ancient history, along the same lines as the Vietnam or the moon landings.
But for me, it’s not history. I grew up, along with my sister, acutely aware of the Cold War. Unlike most Canadians and Americans, the Cold War touched our personal lives in very real and tangible ways.
My father was born in Slovenia, then in the former Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a Communist (Socialist, really, but I’m using the common terminology here) country behind the Iron Curtain. My paternal grandparents, along with most (but not all, strangely, but that’s a different story) of their children defected in the early 1950s, eventually ending up in Canada.
My sister and I grew up hearing tales of a clandestine midnight walk and close brushes with rifle-toting soldiers stopping to light cigarettes, of tears and goodbyes and bribes paid to guides. Of my grandmother bringing nothing but her silverware, because no matter where they ended up, she refused to have her family ‘eat like animals’. The stuff of Hollywood blockbusters for sure, but for us it was real. This didn’t happen on the other side of the world for us, it happened to our Dad.
The Cold War touched home for us every time we crossed the US border with my father. Despite being a Canadian citizen longer than he lived in a Communist country, he was always asked hard questions by border guards, and his eastern European accent didn’t do him any favours there.
My sister and I became convinced that we were being followed by Soviet spies intent on dragging our father back into Communism. We were acutely aware of nuclear escalation, and unlike our friends who dismissed the U.S.S.R. as a poor, backward nation not worthy of fear, we knew that the American powers were afraid for a reason. Nightmares for most children, easily cast aside in the light of the morning, but for us, this was reality.
It is not hard to understand then, why my family was so relieved when the wall fell, when the Iron Curtain dropped forever and we had finally seen the culmination of Perestroika. Glastnost even.
But it wasn’t the end of Communism that was important for us, though we celebrated it like everyone else did. For us, it was the end of fear. Even though we were both in our late teens by then – my sister was an adult, in fact – we still carried those fears in the back of our heads. Fears that at the border that we’d be dragged into a room and eventually deported to a country we didn’t know, fears that our father would some day go ‘missing’. The fall of the wall in Berlin let us put those fears down.
In this I think we had a great deal in common with those who were born on the other side of the wall.