Helga Zielinski worked at Daimler from 1990 on as the executive secretary of the then director of the Berlin-Marienfelde plant. She subsequently moved to Washington, and until 1999 she was the personal assistant of the Head of Daimler-Benz’ Group Representation Office in Washington. After returning to Berlin she worked for 16 more years as the secretary of the Group’s Representative Office at Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz. Although she is now retired, she’s still in close contact with the company. In this report Helga Zielinski tells us how she experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and the period after that as a resident of West Berlin.
When Helga Zielinski looked out the window on the morning of November 10, 1989, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The streets of her neighborhood, Berlin-Charlottenburg, were full of rattling Trabis. “That was a very moving moment,” she says. “I realized right away that a world-shaking event had occurred.” Although she slept soundly through the night when the Berlin Wall came down, she remembers all the more vividly the scenes that played out in Berlin during the days that followed.
The fall of the wall
“Absolute chaos had broken out in West Berlin,” she recalls. “It normally took me an hour to get to my workplace in the Zehlendorf district by subway, but in the days after the Wall fell you couldn’t get past the barriers.” It took her three hours to get to work, and on the way there she noticed how people were moving closer together in the buses and subway cars, which were filled to bursting. “There was a very strong sense of solidarity and an eagerness to help others,” she says. “On the streets of West Berlin, residents were handing out coffee to the visitors and giving them a warm welcome. I talked with the first groups of people arriving from the East about their impressions of the West. All of these experiences were very moving.”
But for Helga Zielinski it wasn’t enough to just hand out free coffee. Together with some of her colleagues, she drove to a border crossing point. “We had heard that very little fruit was available in the German Democratic Republic, so we bought piles of fruit, coffee, tea, and chocolate for the children and we distributed all of these things at the border,” she says.
Surging crowds at the border crossings
There were surging crowds at the border crossings, because it was still not clear whether the crossings would stay open permanently. That’s why most of the citizens from the German Democratic Republic wanted to come and receive the promised 100 deutsche marks of “welcome money” as soon as possible. “For us West Berliners it was no longer possible to get inside a bank. People were standing three deep in lines that stretched out into the street. That’s why at work we had our salaries paid out in cash,” she recalls. The supermarkets in the neighborhood couldn’t deal with the crowds of new shoppers, so they were opened for only a few hours at a time. Nonetheless, the shelves were quickly emptied. “It wasn’t until several months later that we realized the Wall had really fallen for good,” she says.
New Years eve at the Brandenburg Gate
Helga Zielinski still vividly remembers New Year’s Eve in 1989, which she spent on the Straße des 17. Juni (17th of June Street), where she had a good view of the Brandenburg Gate. “At first we thought that only a few people would go there, but it turned out to be many thousands,” she says. At the stroke of midnight, Helga Zielinski had her passport properly stamped by an official at the border crossing and crossed into the East together with several friends. “In East Berlin, people came up to give us hugs. We shared our bottles of Sekt and danced until the early morning. The atmosphere was wonderful, and it was a very special night,” she says.
Ten months later, on October 3, 1990, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Berlin to celebrate the reunification of East and West Germany. “I was very happy that the process of reunification took place so peacefully. It didn’t take long for people to stop asking one another, ‘Are you from East or West Berlin?’ I regard this as a stroke of luck in German history — a genuine miracle!” she concludes.