Joining the Berlin Wall “woodpeckers” in 1989

By Kamen Zahariev


On 9 November 1989 I was sleeping peacefully in my bed about one and half miles from the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin when the telephone rang and my sister-in-law called, all excited, from a telephone booth in the western part of the divided city.

She had heard a lot of noise in the street, she said, - she lived in East Berlin close to a border checkpoint near Friedrichstrasse - and had joined the crowd moving towards the checkpoint. News of the botched press conference at which East German party officials had announced the opening of the border to West Germany had travelled fast. Her children were still asleep at home in East Berlin! I told her that she was crazy and went back to bed.

The next morning it became clear that this was not a temporary mistake: the Wall was crumbling; the border guards had given up. My wife Kathrin and I boarded our blue Trabant and headed for Checkpoint Charlie.

It was indeed open and on the other side there was a huge crowd of West Berliners who gave us the “Trabi patting” welcome: clapping on the roof of our car, while we were crawling towards the West.

The following days the phone did not stop ringing. Friends, colleagues and relatives from all over the world were calling to ask for our first-hand experiences. The following weekend I joined the “woodpeckers”, who were busily chipping away at the symbol of Germany’s and Europe’s partition.

Needless to say,  the fall of the Berlin Wall changed my and my family’s life profoundly. The entire world around us was changing at lightning speed! Old truths became obsolete overnight. New and previously unthinkable opportunities were opening up, old certainties were disappearing fast and a new sense of excitement, but also fear of the unknown, were spreading.

It was like being born again: an exciting, but initially traumatic experience of readjustment to a completely new environment!

Ultimately, I was able to realise my dream of working in an international business environment and – beyond my wildest dreams – to contribute to change in my region.

To say that the fall of the Berlin wall “changed” the country of my birth – Bulgaria – and my adopted country – Germany – would be a huge understatement: it was a tectonic shift. One of them disappeared altogether and the other one was propelled into a traumatic decade which saw hyperinflation, collapsing banks, the rise of organised crime and the mass exodus of thousands of well-educated Bulgarians. What followed was the slow healing process of reorientation towards European values which culminated in the EU accession and is still ongoing.

The face of Bulgaria is changing before my eyes. It is getting more modern and European every time I visit. The process is still painfully slow and has yet to show substantial improvement in the lives of many ordinary people. Nevertheless, it is irreversible and even today it is already slowly improving lives and opening opportunities for younger generations.

By Kamen Zahariev, the EBRD’s Director, Corporate Recovery