February 10, 2019 10:03:04
John Curtin loves restoring old buildings, using his skills as a bricklayer to defeat time and salt damp.
- Adelaide’s John Curtin helped with the demolition when he was 19 years old
- His family still has memorabilia from the time, including chunks of the wall
- He says it’s important for people to know the history of the significant event
“It’s a real passion for me. I actually sing in the car when I’m going to work, so I’m very lucky,” Mr Curtin said.
But despite his enthusiasm for salvation, the singing brickie said the best job of his career was actually one of destruction.
It was 30 years ago, when he was aged just 19, that Mr Curtin helped pull down the Berlin Wall.
“It was strange and surreal … no one had expected the wall to fall,” Mr Curtin said.
“Having the opportunity to be a part of it was amazing. There’s not too many people who can say they helped take down the Berlin Wall.”
After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Germany was divided by the victorious allies — West Germany under the influence of the US, Britain and France, while communist East Germany was under the heel of the Soviet Union.
But deep inside East German territory, the city of Berlin was itself partitioned — West Berlin was free, East Berlin was not.
In August 1961, the East German government built a huge concrete wall to staunch the flood of its citizens leaving for a better life in the west.
Families were divided. Escapees were shot on sight. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union threatened to go nuclear hot — all thanks to the wall.
John Curtin’s German-born wife, Heike, grew up in West Berlin. Her family could see the wall from their apartment.
“I hated it, I felt pure hate for the wall,” Ms Curtin said.
“Every day it was there, every day I would see it when I went for a jog.
“A lot of people tried to get out after the wall was built, and a lot of people died. In the area I lived there was a special grave for people that died … it was disgusting.”
Demolishing a wall, falling in love
Just how a brickie living in Adelaide helped demolish one of the 20th century’s most detested structures, and fall in love with a German girl along the way, is a tale of both family and fate.
Mr Curtin’s father was in the British Army, stationed in Berlin.
When Mr Curtin turned 16, he returned to the UK to join the Royal Engineers.
“My dad was really keen on me joining the Royal Engineers, because that way I’d get a trade to fall back on if I decided not to stay in the army,” he said.
Once he graduated, he was fortunate to be posted back to Berlin. Soon after that he and Heike met at a formal army event.
“I was told I had to wear pants and a shirt, which didn’t impress me, so I wore the brightest Bermuda shirt I could find,” he said.
“Heike was there with some civilian friends and I thought, ‘Well she’s not bad looking’ … and so it went from there.”
The pair started dating just weeks before the wall came down in November 1989.
Mr Curtin was on base, hanging out with his mates in the bar, when the East German government suddenly announced it was opening the border.
“This guy came rushing into the bar and said, ‘Hey the wall has fallen’,” he said.
“We told him where to go — though not that politely — because no one believed him.”
A few kilometres away in her apartment, Heike’s first reaction was also one of disbelief.
“I heard someone outside shouting that the Russians were coming, and I thought ‘God, not another idiot’,” Ms Curtin said.
“I turned on my TV and saw the wall had fallen, people were running out in their pyjamas to get there.
“The next thing I was in the car. I went to the Brandenburger [Brandenburg Gate in English] climbed myself up on the wall and started shouting ‘let them out’ … it was a peaceful revolution.”
‘Germany was going to be a whole country again’
Extraordinary sights soon became commonplace.
After almost three decades locked behind a wall, the Curtins saw streams of East Berliners spluttering across the border in their Trabant cars — a smoky communist contraption built out of pressed resin and “powered” by two-stroke motors, similar to lawnmower engines.
“You’d be walking down the road and you’d see a Trabant, beeping its horn, the people waving and you’d wave back. They were so happy, the East German people. Everyone was delighted that Germany was going to be a whole country again. The euphoria was amazing,” Mr Curtin said.
The West Berlin government had long relied on the Royal Engineers to decorate the city for Christmas — skills that also turned out useful for demolishing walls.
“We had diggers and cranes and all the plant and equipment needed,” Mr Curtin said.
“Every year the government would ask us to line the Ku’damm district with Christmas trees … we used that equipment to take down the wall.
“Everyone wanted to volunteer, but on the first day I was a few nanoseconds too slow putting up my hand, so I had to wait until the next day to go and help.”
‘He was a part of history’
Mr Curtin said the extraordinary world-changing demo job did not present any unusual challenges.
Nevertheless the wall was very solidly constructed, with the top lined with curved pieces of asbestos so would-be escapees could not get a grip.
“I am proud that John helped pull down the wall, he was a part of history,” Ms Curtin said.
The Curtins have an extensive collection of memorabilia from the time, including actual chunks of the wall.
“I’ve given some away over the years but the pieces I have left, there’s no hope in hell I’d part with them,” Mr Curtin said.
“I cherish them, they are like a bar of gold.”
Today, 30 years on, very little of the wall remains in place. But having played their roles in the wall’s fall, the Curtins feel perhaps more of it should have been left standing.
“I think it’s important that people know what happened,” Mr Curtin said.
“A lot of the youth today don’t know anything at all about what occurred there — that not only was it the fall of the Berlin wall, it was the end of the Cold War.”
And, in many ways, the beginning of the world we live in today.
February 10, 2019 06:05:18