Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

The Berlin Wall - my part in its downfall

Olenka Frenkiel arrives with a piece of the Wall

Olenka Frenkiel was in Berlin for Newsnight when the wall came down 20 years ago. She was the first BBC reporter on the scene as East Berliners passed through the Brandenburg Gate and made TV history when she presented Peter Snow with a brick from the Wall live on air. Here she remembers those events.

We had filed from the BBC feed point in East Berlin, the Newsnight opening titles had rolled and our report on political tremors in East Germany would soon be on the air. It had been a long day, the crew had gone to bed and so now would we.

As we strolled back to our hotel we knew history was in the making.

It had been announced that day that travel restrictions would be lifted and that the gates of Checkpoint Charlie would soon open allowing people in East Germany to leave.

East German border policemen, right, refusing to shake hands with a Berliner at the Checkpoint Charlie border (November 10 1989)
The fall of the wall led to the collapse of Communist power

But East German students had laughed scornfully when I told them earlier that they were free:

"You really believe them?" they asked. "Yes, perhaps they may permit us to leave. But not to return."

As we headed back to our hotel at midnight my producer and I took a detour to see the Brandenburg Gate.

There, as always, was the line of armed guards - soldiers known to shoot anyone trying to cross, as they had done months before.

It was an image which had haunted me from childhood. My father had narrowly avoided arrest by the SS in Berlin in 1938. A year later he had fled Nazi-occupied Krakow, and a year after that he had been arrested by the Soviet NKVD, the secret police.

My safe London childhood had been all the more secure against the backdrop of my parents' escapes, of dodging and weaving, of the peaked caps and guns.

First brave few

But that night when we looked at this last symbolic frontier of our divided Europe what we saw did not square with what we knew and it took some seconds to understand.

They had conquered that symbolic yet physical line between East and West - between freedom and communism

There were people walking through the line of soldiers. Just a handful - ordinary, anonymous, with their backs to us.

They had left the pavement where we stood and were walking quietly towards the huge pillars of the Brandenburg Gate and beyond.

Like ghosts they seemed unstoppable as they walked through the line of soldiers to the forbidden zone and towards the Berlin Wall.

No-one shot them. No-one shouted "Halt". No-one barred their way.

The guards stood still, impassive, unblinking. And beyond, up on the Wall itself, the silhouette of a figure, maybe two. Not the crowds which the television pictures would later show. Just the first brave few who had tested the line.

'Metaphysical moment'

We had no mobile phones, and no cameras, so my producer turned back to the office to call London and raise a crew. I walked on towards the Wall.

Berliners danced on what had been the land of the dead

I had heard there were landmines so I followed the path of the woman in front, but there were no bangs or explosions, just silence.

As I approached the Wall it seemed far too high to climb. A man reached down to pull me up.

There were perhaps 10 or 15 people there who had done the impossible - they had conquered that symbolic yet physical line between East and West - between freedom and communism.

It was a metaphysical moment as I stood suspended between these two worlds, above them, straddling them, between the past and the future, the end of something and a beginning.

But only one thought possessed me, here I was, a reporter at the heart of the biggest story of my life - the first on the scene - with no phone, no camera and no way to tell the world.


As I scanned the people below I spotted a freelance cameraman, a man I knew, notoriously grumpy with a reputation for misogyny.

He was not popular with Newsnight and knew it. But he had a nice shiny video camera and battery lights.

Brian Hanrahan reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall
Brian Hanrahan still regrets letting go of his Berlin Wall souvenir

"Thank goodness you're here, come up," I gushed, reaching out a hand to help him up. "I don't have a crew. Would you take a few shots of me here and film me doing a piece to camera for tomorrow's programme?"

"I'm here for News, not Newsnight," he said. "Can't spare the batteries. Anyway where's your effing crew?"

"They're asleep and now you're my effing crew," I smiled. His face was like a stone. I begged: "Please, come on, give me a break. This is history!"

"One take" he warned. "That's all."

I stumbled through my metaphysical moment - "Here's the East and there's the West " - turned and saw my old friend and colleague Brian Hanrahan had arrived - a senior correspondent who was ready to claim "his crew".

His piece to camera was professional and smooth - and worse - it would appear way before mine on Breakfast News just a few hours away. Mine would have to wait until Newsnight later that night.

If we could not bring the camera to the wall, we would bring the wall to the cameras

First on the scene - and scooped!

Mindful that the next day would be busy I ran back to the hotel to get some sleep. But first to phone my parents, claim my place in their history and quote Wordsworth: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive - to be young was very heaven."

On the night of 10 November, just two days after I had first climbed up on the Wall, we heard that a bulldozer would start to lift off the bricks that night.

I was to meet the camera crew at the given spot and film the first bricks coming down.

Deadly scramble

When I arrived I saw the bulldozer and the crowd, but no crew. Brian Hanrahan arrived but he too had no camera man. A news reporter, it was rumoured, had absconded with our crew into a first floor apartment overlooking the scene.

People place roses into cracks in a still-existing section of the Berlin Wall at the Bernauer Strasse memorial, 9 November 2009
Thousands of Berliners have been marking the 20th anniversary

They were probably watching our confusion, laughing at us, filming us looking for them. But where? Time was running out for me to get the pictures to the Newsnight studio where Peter Snow was waiting.

But the digger would not wait. So, if we could not bring the camera to the wall, we would bring the wall to the cameras.

As the first bricks came off there was a courteous, but deadly scramble as Brian and I dived to claim them.

We piled into our car, but with no mobile phones there was no way to tell the studio I was planning to bring them the first brick off the wall.

I arrived back at Newsnight's studio in East Berlin with a live discussion between Peter Snow, Jens Reich and Thomas Kielinger in full flow.

In the studio I waved my brick at the programme editor and signalled that I intended to walk onto the set with it.

Awkward moment

He smiled absently, which I took for consent, but which I later realised was friendly bewilderment.

I had no microphone pinned to my lapel and no-one was offering to mike me up, so I knew I would need to project anything I said towards Peter's microphone.

I prepared to go on. Peter looked at me strangely. Later, he told me he thought I was carrying a baby!

I marched on the set, placed the brick on the table, said a few words into Peter's microphone and waited to be asked to describe the scene.

I had been there after all, and witnessed the first bricks coming off. But there was silence - an awkward moment when I realised I could not remain crouching in silence on live TV for very long. I straightened up and walked off.

Peter began to understand it was a brick not a baby. Jens Reich began to cry. And I watched from the wings as my moment in history drifted away into memory.

Later that year I took the brick to Children In Need to be auctioned. But they never mentioned the dramatic scenes of its retrieval.

Only Brian remembers. Last time I saw him he looked at me darkly. "You took my brick" he said.


Berlin Wall archive: 'Pure Monty Python'
13 Nov 09 |  Newsnight
Berlin Wall archive: The exodus begins
11 Nov 09 |  Newsnight

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