Part of the original Wall at Bernauer Strasse
Seeing the 220 meters of the original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse during 2018 triggered memories of my first visit to that city, in 1991, when long stretches of the Wall had yet to be taken down. Back then, on a jaunt to Europe after college graduation, I had been amazed at everything I saw in the city. Even though I had done much research about Berlin and the history of the Wall as a student, I saw the Wall with emotional detachment. During 1991, I could not truly realize what the Wall represented. I knew it divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989, and I remembered watching the joyous moments of the Berliners climbing the Wall in October of 1989 as a new era was ushered in and no one would look at the Berlin, Germany, Europe or the world the same way again. I knew there had been escape attempts, some thwarted, others successful, some resulting in death, others resulting in new beginnings in the West. But I hadn’t felt the history the way I did this time, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial during 2018.
Poles mark where the Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse
Here’s a little background information. The Wall, built in August of 1961, divided East and West Berlin until October of 1989. Some 156.4 kilometers of Wall bordered West Berlin and consisted of concrete walls lined with pipes at the top. There were 186 observation towers and 20 bunkers plus fences built 100 meters from the Wall. The area between the metal mesh fence and concrete wall was a clearing called the death strip, and border guards had a clear view of anyone trying to cross it. The Wall area also included signal fencing, trenches to deter vehicles from trying to cross, barbed wire and beds of nails under balconies of apartments over the death strip.
Sculpture at the Chapel of Reconciliation
One reason I had a different perspective during 2018 was because I had spent more than 20 years living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. I had scores of friends who told me harrowing stories of life under Communism – about the physical hardships and especially about the mental hardships of having one’s life inundated with the Communist ideology day in and day out. Looking at that small section of the Berlin Wall and the posts that marked where it had continued up and down Bernauer Strasse, I felt almost as if I knew the pain and anguish of the East Berliners, even though I had grown up in middle class America as a spoiled only child. This time, I could feel the history, and it seeped through my body, almost making me nauseous from my thoughts of life in East Berlin, behind that Wall, where now a group of teenagers gathered as they studied their mobile phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, as if the Wall were nothing more than a wall.
Another reason the memorial affected me so strongly was the poignancy of the exhibition about the Wall in the Documentation Center. It featured stories of individuals who had tried to escape, worked as escape helpers or served as informers for the secret police. I looked into each face, read each name and felt as if I had met each person.
Postcard of the Berlin Wall around the Brandenburg Gate
There was Siegfried Uhse, a hairdresser who had resided in the West area of the city since 1960. He became an informant a year later. By pretending to look for an escape route for his girlfriend and her family, he was able to contact escape helpers who believed his lies. Because of Siegfried, five escape tunnels were betrayed from 1961 to 1963. Because of Siegfried, 89 refugees and escape helpers were arrested. Despite all the bad things that had happened in the world during my lifetime, it still amazed me that someone could do something so evil.
Photo of a line for food in the DDR from exhibition at Documentation Center
One of those arrested was Harry Seidel, a racing cyclist who could not participate in the 1960 Olympics because he lived in East Germany. He made it to West Berlin and even got his wife and baby out as well. Then he wanted to help others gain the same feeling of freedom he was able to experience. He dug escape tunnels in 1962. Once he was almost ambushed; it was a close call, but he made it. However, in November of 1962 he was not so lucky. It was a trap. The secret police were waiting for him at an escape tunnel because of Siegfried’s intel. He was sentenced to life in prison. Before his arrest, he had helped 100 people flee to the West. That, I mused, was what real heroes were made of.
I also learned about Hartmut Richter, a railroad worker who tried to escape in 1965. His hopes were dashed, though, and he was convicted with a suspended sentence. In 1966, he did succeed in escaping. From 1971 to 1975, he was an escape helper. Then, in 1975, he was caught and received a 15-year prison sentence. He only served five years in jail, though, as West Germany paid ransom for his release during 1980.
A watchtower at the Wall
I also learned about an escape attempt at the Invalidenstrasse border crossing – I had walked down that bustling street on the way to Bernauer Strasse. Eight young Berliners tried to drive a bus through the border. Fate was not kind to them. They were gravely injured by the 138 shots fired by border guards and arrested. They all spent many years in prison.
Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989 near Brandenburg Gate
I read about the VW Beetle that drove at top speed through the barbed wire fence erected on the first day the wall was built, August 13, 1961. It stopped in West Berlin, and the driver was free to open a new, exciting chapter in his life.
The Chapel of Reconciliation
Residents of Bernauer Strasse had been very innovative in their escape attempts. Some had jumped into rescue nets of fire engines from West Berlin after making calls to the fire department, others had jumped from their roofs to the West, and still others had slid down ropes from their apartments on the border.
Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989
I saw remnants of the inner wall with green area behind it, a place where youngsters leisurely kicked a soccer ball. I imagined a guard in the watchtower being ready to fire on anyone trying to make a dash for it through No Man’s Land, which afforded the border guards a clear line of fire. I could imagine patrol cars driving by and anti-vehicle trenches preventing cars from crossing. I could almost hear the fierce barking of the dogs, their teeth barred, as they spotted a refugee in the border area.
Interior of the Chapel of Reconciliation
I remembered watching American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, on June 12, 1987 and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I had just graduated from prep school and took the concepts of freedom and democracy for granted. I hadn’t been interested in my Czech and Slovak roots back then. I had never thought about life behind the Iron Curtain. That was some mysterious place I was sure I would never go.
I did not stay as long as I had hoped at the memorial because I began to feel sick as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those East Berliners who had dreamed of freedom. I wound up retreating to a museum in the city center. I hope to go back to the Berlin Wall Memorial and spend more time there on a future visit. There is a lot of history to soak in, and one visit does not do the place justice.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.