O.C. German Community Celebrates Fall of the Wall


Wolfgang and Trudy Wirthgen woke up at 6 a.m. Friday and flipped on the television to face an unbelievable image: an East German man taking a pickax to the Berlin Wall without being arrested.

"We both started to cry," said Wolfgang Wirthgen, who left East Germany 30 years ago with his wife and now lives in Corona. "Not in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine this."

For Orange County's tight-knit German community, Friday was a day of celebration, a day to marvel at the amazing events that appear to have transformed their native country into a land of hope and joy.

At the center of the local festivities is the Phoenix Club, the Anaheim social group that is the largest German-American organization in Southern California. At the club's regular bimonthly meeting Friday night, more than 300 members gathered to toast this historic week.

As the celebration unfolded, Gunter and Segrid Kunkel, tall, fair and looking much younger than their 50-odd years, stood in the back of the room and smiled as German beer flowed and free bottles of California champagne were placed on every table. A banner on one wall read: Die Mauer ist gebrochen!

"The Wall is broken," Gunther Kunkel, 55, translated proudly.

Kunkel, a past president of the Phoenix Club who arrived in New York from the Saar Valley in West Germany 33 years ago, explained the significance of the club's name, taken from the mythological Egyptian bird "that rose from the ashes" to demonstrate its immortality.

"Germany has risen in a sense from the ashes of World War II. I think East Germany is lagging 40 years behind West Germany, but I think their time is coming."

The opening of East Berlin, Kunkel said, "is something that we never would have dreamed possible even only a year ago."

Most of the ceremonies and speeches were conducted in German, but officials were happy to translate for the dozen television and newspaper reporters who looked on.

"We are delighted that our American friends take such an interest in our freedom," said current club president Hans Klein.

Earlier in the day, Klein had marveled at the good news from Berlin.

"I'm still in a dream world," Klein said. "It's unbelievable the feeling you have."

Telephone calls poured into the Phoenix Club on Friday from members and non-members alike eager to offer felicitations and discuss the latest developments in Eastern Europe, said Barbara Mann, the club's bookkeeper.

Mann lived in Berlin when the wall was built in 1961, and remembers the horror of seeing the city gradually divided by the barrier of cement blocks. On Thursday, she called friends in Berlin and told them to save her a piece of the wall. To her brother, she sent a telegram asking when he could visit her from East Germany.

"I feel like I want to go back right now," she said. "I want to be part of it."

The greetings even came in by facsimile machine. "The wall has been broken," read one message received by Klein. "Freedom, unity and peace."

The figurative end of the wall also provoked unpleasant memories about what led many Germans to leave their homeland, knowing they might never see family members again.

The wall itself was enough "to give you goose bumps," said Trudy Wirthgen. "They walk big dogs. There's a watchtower with soldiers who have machine guns. They treat you like dogs."

Wolfgang Wirthgen recalled that one of the few acceptable reasons to leave East Germany was old age. Women older than 62 and men older than 65 were permitted to leave the country "after they weren't useful to the government anymore," he said.

Before relatives could secure permission to visit the United States, the East German government required the Wirthgens to send a statement from local police certifying that the couple lived in Corona.

"They laughed themselves silly," he said of police officials.

Klein told of a nephew, a cook at a local country club frequented by government officials, who was afraid to speak to Westerners on the telephone for fear that he would lose his job.

Klein said the Phoenix Club will be paying for five German families to travel to Anaheim to see if they would like to move to this country. The Phoenix Club, which has a membership of 3,500 families, will offer help with finding jobs and housing, he said.

"They have earned it. They have voted with their feet," Klein said. "Even the toughest regime can't resist when people want something different."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World