Living Between Two Worlds

Regine Hildebrandt was famous as the “Mother Courage of the East.” In 1989 the biologist became active in the citizen’s movement “Democracy Now“ and a short time later joined the newly founded Social Democratic Party (SPD) of East Germany. In April 1990, as a representative of the first freely elected People’s Chamber of East Germany, she was appointed Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in Lothar De Maiziere’s administration. In October 1990, after reunification, she successfully ran for a seat in the state parliament in the newly established State of Brandenburg and was appointed Minister for Work, Social Services, Health and Women. She served in this office, which earned her great popularity, until the end of the second legislative period in 1999. She died in 2001.

Regine Hildebrandt grew up on Bernauer Strasse in the heart of Berlin. The street was divided after World War II when the Allied occupying powers partitioned Berlin. The buildings on the southeast side of the street belonged to the Soviet sector, and thus to East Berlin. But the sidewalk, road and buildings on the other side were situated in the French sector, in West Berlin. The border ran right along the fronts of the buildings that were on the East Berlin side of the street. The family of the pianist Radischewski lived in one of these border houses, on the ground floor of Bernauer Strasse 2. Like so many residents of the divided city, the Radischewskis wandered easily between East and West. ID checks took place at the sector border, but it was not blocked off. Moreover, every step outside the entranceways led automatically to the West. This special situation affected the daily lives of the residents. It was commonplace to visit the Vox-Cinema on the other side of the street, to read the West Berlin “Tagesspiegel” or to shop on the busy Brunnenstrase. Until the 6th grade, Regine Radischewski attended the elementary school around the corner on Strelitzer Strasse in the West. But when the East German authorities threatened her parents with professional consequences, Regine had to switch to the school in the East, and she quickly learned the difference between the two school systems. Her new school routine was dominated by flag ceremonies and Pioneer activities. The FDJ, the youth organization of the Communist Party, also played a dominant role. She was now expected to learn unfamiliar words like “central committee.” Instead of studying French she had to learn to speak Russian. Although she never joined the pioneer organization nor did she become a member of the FDJ, she was able to complete her high-school diploma (Abitur) at the Max-Planck-Gymnasium and begin university studies. She was an active member of the young congregation of the Reconciliation Church that was located just two lots away from the Radischewski family’s building. Her best friends were the minister’s sons who were her age. She later married one of them.

Regine Hildebrandt learned about the Wall going up on August 13, 1961 when she was on holiday in Dresden. To get an idea of the situation, she hitchhiked back to Berlin. Since she lived on the street, she was able to get through the blockade on Bernauer Strasse and even attended the baptism ceremony of her godson on the west side of the city the next day. At that time it was still possible to access Bernauer Strasse from the border houses. Then she returned to Dresden to continue her vacation. When she returned home at the end of August, she was greeted by a walled-off city. The family no longer lived in their ground floor apartment. They had been forced to move to the first floor of the building at Bernauer Strasse no. 10. The front doors of the border houses had been blocked off and the ground floor apartments were evacuated. The buildings could only be exited through the back courtyards and were heavily guarded. But this situation did not last long either: A number of residents climbed out their windows and slid down ropes to the west side or they jumped into the rescue nets that the West Berlin fire department held ready. To put a stop to these escapes, the East German company militias evacuated all the border houses in September 1961. More than 2,000 residents lost their apartments and were forced to leave the familiar surroundings in which they lived.

Regine Hildebrandt remained connected to Bernauer Strasse her entire life. Each year she and her husband and their three children approached the border area at Bernauer Strasse to keep themselves aware of the monstrous division. When the Reconciliation Church was blown up in January 1985, she managed to secretly photograph the collapse of the tower from her building on Rheinsberger Strasse.

Given her personal history, it is no surprise that night of November 9, 1989 was an overwhelming and joyful experience for her.

Maria Nooke

Dr. Regine Hildebrandt

Dr. Regine Hildebrandt


Border situation at Bernauer Strasse

Daily life before the Wall was built

Experiences on November 9, 1989

Excerpts from an oral history interview from April 22, 1999, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)