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Volleyball standout child of Cold War

by Chuck Cordill, staff writer


The sound of gunfire scared her the most. It’s a sound that lives on in HPU volleyball standout Sandra Brunke’s memory, in her heart, distant yet always there, part of who she is. No matter how far Brunke travels from that space, that time, the little girl in her remembers the blast of shots in the darkness and the lost, desperate dreams erased by those unseen bullets. The shots came almost every night, and she never knew if the target was hit.

Brunke grew up near the wall that separated Communist East Germany from the West. Her early years were lived among ominous signs marked “Grenzgebiet,”in German, literally “frontier area,” the border, part of “the Wall.” All she knew was that these signs marked the forbidden area, a place no one should go. Sandra couldn’t really comprehend what the Grenzgebiet was, but she knew it wasn’t good, it was a verboten place where gunfire was frequent.

Sandra Brunke



With the gunfire came hushed, nervous conversation between her parents. Eight-year-old Sandra was supposed to be in bed early, as were most second-grade school children, but she’d feign sleep and strain to listen. It frightened her even more to hear her father and mother talk of escape.
“ Escape? Escape from what?” she wondered.

The Wall, one of the greatest symbols of political tyranny in the modern age, fell 15 years ago this month, part of the domino effect of the movement toward democratic government that swept a continent and ended Communism in Eastern Europe.

The Berlin Wall was actually part of a series of obstacles and barriers that isolated what was formerly Communist East Berlin and the rest of East Germany, or the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic) from the democratic West Berlin. It consisted of approximately 166 kilometers of fences, turrets, concrete walls, mine fields, and active patrols by both soldiers and dogs. On the East German side of this barrier, there was an illuminated “death area” in which would-be escapees were shot without warning.

When the Soviet Union took control of East Germany after World War II, the DDR quickly became isolated from the rest of the world. The new government created a constitution for a “Republic of workers and peasants.” The people soon began to rebel against the forced collectives and socialist policies. In the summer of 1953, the government ordered production up by 10 percent. Workers held demonstrations and several hundred died in the Soviet crackdown. Tens of thousand fled over the years, and in 1961, there were more than 160,000 East German refugees fleeing west. The “Wall” was built, in the words of the DDR’s Communist government, “To keep spies, provocateurs, and subversive elements of the West from impeding Socialism.” In reality, the Communists created a prison where the inmates were the citizens of the state.

One day in November 1989, Sandra and her mother sat in the small living room of their modestly furnished government flat watching one of the two channels of the DDR’s state-run television.

Sandra fidgeted as her mother watched the newscast. The people reading the news always seemed so emotionless, but today she’d noticed a change in their usually monotonous demeanor. Their faces remained stoic, but their voices and emotional delivery hinted at something unsaid. Then Sandra’s mother began to scream.

“ The bridge is open, the bridge is open!”

The bridge was the Glienicker connecting Potsdam to West Berlin, and Sandra and her mother excitedly waited for her father to come home. Sandra was astonished. She’d never seen mama behave like this. The little girl urged, “Calm down,” but as they waited, Sandra’s excitement began to match her mother’s.

Father came home, and soon after, the young family walked across a previously forbidden bridge, past the Grenzgebiet. Sandra Brunke will never forget that moment.

“ We crossed the bridge and entered a fantastic celebration,” recalled Brunke. “It was as if we had walked into a new millennium. We were greeted with flowers and hugs and cheers. It took us about 20 minutes to walk from our home in Potsdam’s Babelsberg district into West Berlin, but after we crossed, I felt like I was in another world. I’ll always remember, there was this huge bus, and people inside had cases of chocolate bars, the West’s chocolate. They were throwing the chocolate out the windows to the people coming across. I must have grabbed at least 20 bars, it was so great.”

Brunke, a senior travel industry management major and a three-year player on the school’s nationally ranked women’s volleyball team, plans to continue at HPU, working on an MBA degree. On the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she stopped to reflect on the journey that started that crisp, autumn day in 1989.

“Before the Wall fell, I don’t think anyone in my family knew where or what Hawai‘i was,” Brunke admitted. “In East Germany, we were taught to focus on our country as the center of the world. We were given a narrow view of the outside world and taught only what the government wanted us to know.”

Government control couldn’t erase all signs of outside civilization. Government markets furnished the staples only, nothing fancy, especially no exotic fruits. But Brunke remembers a special day that could be seen as a precursor to her present life in paradise.

“One day, back when I was in kindergarten, my mother managed to get a banana, a real banana,” Brunke remembered. “Wow, it was really a special treat. I remember seeing it in her hand and my heart leapt. So did my stomach.”

The Wall was more than a barrier to physical movement, it was also a barrier to thought, to dreams, to ambitions. It was these that Brunke’s mother, Ingrid, thought about as she raised her daughter behind the “Iron Curtain.”

“When Sandra was born, I hoped she could live the life I could only dream of,” Ingrid said. “I wanted my daughter to be healthy and confident, independent, and responsible. In the DDR, that wasn’t possible.”

Brunke’s mother explained that the state school system took the role of parent. The state decided what aptitudes a child had and what career the child was suited for. Individuality was discouraged. But a mother always hoped for a better life for a child.

“Sandra lives the life I always wanted,” said her mother. “She is exploring, seeing other countries and cultures, growing and learning, discovering all the creative possibilities in life. When she was younger, I never could imagine a life for her beyond the Wall. I felt the Wall would always be there. I would never imagine her living her life the way she does now. My daughter is living a dream.”


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