A city divided: Tales from the Wall

(NOTE: I had hoped to finish my chronicle of my trip to Germany and Poland by this point. But it has actually worked out fine, as I get to write about our visits to the Berlin Wall and related sites pretty close to the 50th anniversary of its construction. As moving as the visits to the death camps were, this was more real to me in some ways. The images of the Cold War – fallout shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the wall that split Berlin in two – are a vivid part of my childhood in the late Fifties and early Sixties.)

Through most of history, cities built walls to keep undesirable people out. Fifty years ago this past weekend, the Communist government of East Germany split the city of Berlin in two with a wall designed to keep people in. Nearly 6 million people had left East Germany after the newly re-formed Germany was split between the free world and the Communists in 1949, and the wall started going up on Aug. 13, 1961, to stem the tide.

The Berlin Wall stayed up for nearly 30 years, dividing Berlin into two very different cities and ways of life. Families were divided. Travel , work and just about everything else about life in the city became more difficult. And more than 130 people died trying to get over, around or under it.

We walked along what’s known as the East Side Gallery, the longest unbroken stretch of the wall still standing, about a mile long. It has been turned into a big outdoor art display by artists from all over the world who have painted politically-themed murals on it. Here’s a shot of one of them, and I’m not sure what it was about.

A panel from the Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery

Our tour guide for the morning, artist and self-described activist Gunther Schaefer, has painted one of the most controversial. Called “Vaterland” (“Fatherland”) it’s the current German national flag with a Star of David superimposed over it.

It’s no surprise that the image is an uncomfortable one for many Germans and Schaefer says he’s had many angry responses to it, from verbal to outright vandalism. Click here to see it.

Our next stop is the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauerstrasse, which was “Ground Zero” for the construction of the Wall. Houses and businesses on this street literally had their windows and doors walled over. Inside the Memorial’s visitors center are pictures of people leaping out of the windows at the last minute to the West Berlin side of the street and freedom.

But most of the Memorial is outdoors, to good effect. Across the street from the Visitors Center one walks through a kind of picket fence into the exhibit area – the red slats look from a distance as though they form a solid barrier, but there’s actually enough space for people to pass through. It’s an interesting metaphor.

Lots of artifacts are preserved as they were in the Wall’s heyday, including guard towers and electronic equipment used by the guards for surveillance. But the most memorable feature was a “wall” of photos, each in its own red frame, memorializing the approximately 130 people who died as a result of the Wall’s existence.

The staff of the Memorial has done a wonderful job of research, getting photos of just about every victim, and humanizing them with their often tragic stories. One of them was a five-year-old girl who fell into the Spree River and drowned while playing near the Wall. East German guards wouldn’t rescue her, and West German guards couldn’t without sparking an international incident.

Most of the people pictured were killed trying to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin. And the inclusion of one of the last of them was the cause of much debate. In 1985, a young Communist guard, finally sickened by his job, chose to make his own run to freedom and was shot as he did.

The German news media played a role in the decision to allow him to be remembered on the photo memorial. A reporter learned of the plans to include the soldier on the memorial and he asked several family members of the other victims their opinion. Their consensus was that in the act of trying to go over the Wall, he stopped being an oppressor and became one of them.

We had some rare free time at the end of the visit to the Memorial. So I struck out on my own for a couple of excursions. I went to the Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe as it’s known for short, probably the nicest department store in Berlin, on the glitzier west side of the city.

It reminded me of a couple of the great shopping palaces we learned to love in London, like Harrod’s and Selfridges. What I loved about those places was the elaborate food halls, and the KaDeWe had one to rival either of those famed old British stores. I ate a piece of chocolate there and bought some cookies to take home.

Before that, I spent some time at the Museum of Film and Television on the Potsdamer Platz. I spent more time on the film side of the museum. Old Hollywood had strong German connections , and there was nearly a whole wing devoted to Marlene Dietrich. One could watch clips of movies like “Metropolis,” directed by Fritz Lang and “M” starring Peter Lorre.

I didn’t spend as much time looking at the television side of things, not having as much context as for film. But one TV clip did stand out, just for its incongruity. As in the U.S., television was still in the experimental stages in Germany the late 1930s. A video clip showed a pretty young blond woman in traditional dress reading a “this is a test” type statement. She signed off with a perky “Heil Hitler” and a Nazi salute and walked off camera.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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