Remembering the Wall

The fiftieth anniversary of the first bricks that divided Berlin: The memory of a painful generation of fear and separation

Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

The iron poles of the Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. A park where children play in the shadow of where the Wall once stood. | Photo: Izvor Moralic

“It went up brick by brick,” says a blonde woman, her eyes red as she recalls the scene she witnessed as a little girl fifty years ago. “From time to time, people on the other side waved to us.” She stops to stare down Bernauer Strasse.

“My uncle lived here, they came to his home and walled up his windows. Imagine that. Someone comes into your room and does that to you.”

Opposite her, Gisela Kurz, a student at the time, also recalls Aug. 13, 1961, the day the construction of the Berlin Wall began. “I heard it on the radio with my husband,” she says. “All we felt was a terrifying sense of helplessness.”

Several hours earlier, the governing Socialist Unity Party (SED) of the German Democratic Republic had given the order for the construction of a physical barrier to stop the massive westward emigration of its citizens. By the Wall’s completion, some 3.5 million East Germans had already fled to the West. A barbed wire fence at first, the barrier would evolve into a concrete wall engulfing all 155 kilometres of West Berlin’s  border with the East. The 43 kilometres of the border between the Allied and Soviet sectors split the city in two for the next 28 years, transforming Berlin and Europe into opposing realities of the Cold War. East-Berliners were cut off from facilities in the West, families and friends were separated for a generation.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kurz remembers. “The West didn’t react at first and West Germany wasn’t allowed to say anything. Then in October, the tanks came, and we thought ‘Now, we are in for it’.” Soviet and American tanks were literally faced off at
Checkpoint Charlie, perhaps the most famous of the border-crossings between West and East Berlin.

Today, Aug. 13, 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, remembrance is being paid to the separation that the city endured for nearly three decades. The former site of the Wall here at Bernauer Strasse bears little resemblance to the death strip it was until 1989: transformed into a memorial site, it shows the outlines of the torn-down houses and watchtowers, while along the former length of the border, iron poles reach skywards.

People pass through them absent-mindedly. Leaning closely, a Spanish-speaking couple try to decipher the term Fluchttunnel inscribed on steel stepping stones that map out the former site of an escape tunnel. Indeed, the remaining three-and-a-half metre high slabs of gray concrete seem oddly out of place here. Visitors, both local and international, stop to inspect the rusted steel protruding from the crumbling cement. Some are wearing football jerseys from home: Hannover 96, Werder Bremen, Atletico Madrid, Corinthians Sao Paulo.

The morning had belonged to the German president, Christian Wulff, and the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, on an open-air stage.

“The Wall poised itself against its own people, it was an expression of fear… But in the end it was proven that freedom is invincible,” Wulff said in his speech. “The story of the end of the Wall can inspire us, for it was written by the people. The Wall did not fall, it was knocked over.” But Wulff was also critical, reminding the attendees that the West often looked away when injustice was committed in the GDR. “There was a certain amount of moral and intellectual convenience. Wrongs committed on the Left caused much less outrage than wrongs committed on the Right. The Nicaraguan Sandinistas received more sympathy than East German civil rights advocates.” Klaus Wowereit reprimanded all those who soften the past and look at the Wall with an air of nostalgia. “There are no good reasons and no justifications” for the many victims of the Wall and the division of a city, the mayor said.

At noon, the crowd held a minute of silence to pay respect to the victims of the Wall. In fact, the whole city stood still: public transport stopped in the city for one minute at twelve o’clock sharp, shops and businesses also allowed their employees to join the remembrance, although many emphasized that participation was not mandatory.

In front of the central stage people stood quietly, some lowering their heads, some looking lost, out of place. The silence was interrupted by the intonation of the German national anthem sung by a local choir, and the people stood at ease again.

Aug. 13 meant drastic changes in the relations between the two German states. Travel between East and West was not re-granted to West Berliners until 1963 and required a valid visa, since the GDR did not recognize West German passports. Travel to the West was only granted to senior citizens, professionals travelling on official matters, and people attending to serious family matters.

In practice, chances of receiving  permission to travel were slim, and if granted, only a limited number of East German Marks could be exchanged into their Western equivalent. Hence Begrüssungsgeld was established, welcome money that was given out by the West German government to those who managed to pass from the East into the West. On Bernauer Strasse, plaques embedded in the street bear witness to those who were barred from crossing: 24.08.1961, Flight, Max W.; 17.08.1961, Flight, Ms. K. with Child; 30.09.1961, Attempted flight and arrest, Bernd B.

Further inside the park on Bernauer Strasse, a wall of remembrance hosts the pictures of all victims of the inner German border. Not all fell victim to the Schiessbefehl, the order to fire given to the East German border guards. Some were simply victims of the unwillingness or inability of both sides to cooperate in the divided city. On May 11, 1975, the five-year-old Cetin Mert fell into the Spree River that runs through Berlin, and which at that time was part of the border between East and West Berlin. Two border guards on the East saw the child fall into the water, but since they were not allowed to leave their posts without notification and had no means of communicating with their superiors, they were reduced to witnesses.

The alerted West German rescue teams arrived on the scene within minutes, but as so many times before, they were not allowed to enter the river, which across its entire width was East German territory. Requests by the teams to deploy divers were rejected by the East. Finally, more than an hour after the child was last seen, the East German authorities dispatched a rescue boat that retrieved the body of the drowned child. He was the last of five children to drown in the river. Later the same year, the two German sides agreed on allowing emergency measures in the border waters.

“Are they all dead?” a child asks his mother, as he turns away from the memorial wall. He darts off across the grass field before she can give an answer. It is four in the afternoon and people sit in the shade provided by the remains of the Wall. A father is dragged over to another site, where the foundations of a guard house, can be seen. “And what is that?” his daughter asks. “Some sort of ditch, the same thing as over there,” he answers.

On the central stage, Burkhart Veigel explains how he and his associates assisted the escape of East Berliners into the West with foreign passports. The East German authorities were not allowed to monitor foreigners as strictly as they did the West Germans, who sometimes had to endure body searches. Foreign passports were thus a much-sought commodity.

“The biggest problem we had was: How do you explain away a Swede who doesn’t speak a word of Swedish, but can speak flawless Berlinian?” he asks with a smirk. The crowd bursts into laughter. At one point, he says, they had six hundred foreign passports. “The foreigners were much more generous in giving up their documents than the West Germans. They never asked ‘Is this legal?’ while the West Germans always asked, ‘What if the Russians come?’ The foreigners just thought there were people in need whom they had to help.” The donated passports and identity cards then had to be distributed to potential escapees in the East.

Here again, assistance came from outside Germany. To ensure safe passage for himself and the documents, Veigel relied on a Syrian friend, who transported the passports from West to East. “Syria was a socialist state like the GDR; he was thus never searched. We would then meet again an hour later in the East and when we hugged each other, he would put the passports into my pocket.” Veigel would then go meet the escapees and distribute the documents.

To the side of the stage, a hand-written poster reads, “Looking for my escape partner! Fled on Oct. 27, 1961, corner of Bernauer and Ackerstrasse. Should be around 68 years old.” Below it the details of the flight are briefly recounted “From the house on Ackerstr. 41 over two roofs, then descended onto the flat roof, then at 9:15 into the safety-net from the 3rd floor.” Then the writer’s cell-phone number and the note, “I am only here for the day!”

Twenty-eight years later, on Nov. 9, 1989, confusion reigned again. “There was a stream of people coming towards me. I didn’t understand, I was the only one going in the opposite direction, from West to East,” Joachim Wruttke recalls. He did not realize at the time that what he was witnessing was the opening of the border between East and West. Hours before, at a press conference, the SED official Günther Schabowski read a note handed to him which announced that all East Berliners would be allowed to pass the border without prior permission. Asked when it would come into effect, a visibly confused Schabowski shuffled through his papers, turning the note around in his hands, and said, “As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay.” Thus, in a muddle of a miscommunication, the twenty-eight years of separation came to an end.

Wruttke stops and smiles sheepishly, as if taking in the small crowd of awe-stricken faces that has gathered around him for the first time. “My father said to me, ‘They will hang all of them.’” he chuckles. The listening group stands transfixed. “But the border police just stood there like this,” he crosses his arms in front of his body and stands still for a few seconds. He breaks his pose and looks around at the faces staring at him intently, then it dawns on him.

“You’re not from Berlin?” he asks. “No, from Würzburg,” one of them answers. Today, that might as well be worlds away.

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