Lufthansa Highlights Berlin: "And the wall came tumbling down"
There’s no stopping this Trabbi. It bursts through the Wall to freedom without sustaining a single scratch. Unstoppable it may be, but over the years graffiti almost destroyed it. That’s one reason why Birgit Kinder is repainting the Trabbi in the East Side Gallery – for the fifth time. Surrounded by tourists and a Japanese television crew, she’s been touching up her painting on the concrete wall on Mühlenstraße since the early morning. Nineteen years ago, artists from all over the world painted their euphoria onto what remained of the fallen Wall and created the East Side Gallery, the longest open-air gallery in the world.
The Wall’s demise also marked the start of Birgit Kinder’s career as an artist. In 1983, she moved from her native Gehren, in Thuringia, to East Berlin, working there for the railroad company and attending art classes in the evening. When she heard the news about the Wall, she said to herself, “This is my chance. All the walls are gray now,” Ms. Kinder recalls today. She first painted the Trabi picture in July 1990. “I felt I had to get everything off my chest. We were so sick of being cooped up, of the general drabness,” she explains. The Trabbi she painted was her own car, license number included. Later she changed the number on the license plate to the historic date the Wall came down.
The East Side Gallery, the longest preserved section of the Berlin Wall, makes history tangible, symbolizes both division and unity. In that sense, you could say that Ms. Kinder paints to keep memory alive. Twenty years on, there is precious little left to recall the mighty fortification that divided the city for 28 years, two months and 28 days. In early 1990, East Germany began tearing down the concrete border. Over the following months, Berlin’s most imposing structure disappeared almost without trace. What remain today are gaps, wasteland – and memories.
You really have to keep your eyes open to detect any traces of the Wall today. Like the strip of paving stones on Ebertstraße near Brandenburg Gate, for instance, that runs like a scar through the city, retracing six kilometers of the Wall’s path.
In the early days, Berlin showed little interest in preserving any traces or what was left of the Wall as most stories connected with it were stories of suffering. The historic structure divided what belonged together; tore families, friends and lovers apart. At least 136 people died attempting to flee.
Kieler Straße, 11am. Jürgen Litfin sits on a camping chair outside a former watchtower near Humboldthafen dock, waiting for visitors, as he does every day. People come in groups, school classes and adults, often several hundred a day, and sometimes so many he doesn‘t even find time to eat. A welder from Berlin-Weißensee and political prisoner bought free from the GDR by West Germany in 1981, Mr. Litfin rescued the watchtower from demolition. Of the 302 that encircled West Berlin, only three still stand on city territory.
Inside the tower, a memorial-cum-mini-museum, he tells the story of his brother Günter, the first person killed attempting to defy the then 11-day-old Wall, shot dead by a policeman on August 24, 1961. The 24-year-old tailor had planned to swim to the West here at the Humboldthafen dock. He had no idea the border patrol had orders to shoot – until the first shots fell. The tours are also a way of coping with grief for the gnarled retiree, who is still haunted by his brother’s murder. Mr. Litfin’s work at the watchtower has created a memorial that keeps alive the memory of the crimes committed at the Wall. “To forget would be the worst thing,” says the widower. “The horrors of the Wall are no longer visible anywhere in Berlin.”
Least of all at Checkpoint Charlie, where history is playacted and the border guards are as genuine as Disneyland characters. Sana Berjawi poses for tourists in front of a wooden barrack – one euro a photo. The attractive young woman in the US uniform holding a US flag in her right hand comes from a Tunisian background, but her nameplate reads: Gardner.
“You can make a picture with me,” she says, breaking the ice. Ms. Berjawi also speaks French, Arabic, German of course, and a smattering of Spanish, Italian and even Chinese and Japanese, depending on where the tourists are from.
Some go straight up to her, particularly Americans, and tell her how inhuman the Wall was, and how humiliating the entry formalities were. Then Ms. Berjawi gives her visitors a comforting – complimentary – hug. That usually helps, that and her infectiously cheerful manner, which even earns her invites to faraway places. Her memories of the divided Berlin are limited. She was only ten when the Wall fell.
Twenty years on, Berlin, the city that originally wanted to obliterate all memory of the Wall, is fighting to preserve the last remaining segments. Now that the pain is easing, exhibitions, monuments and memorials are springing up to remind us of the defunct border. It’s 12 noon and Frankfurt-born minister Manfred Fischer is holding a service for the victims of the Wall in the Chapel of Reconciliation.
His former parish church, the Church of Reconciliation, previously occupied this site, but he never saw it from the inside because when he came to work on Bernauer Straße in 1975, it had been in no man’s land for 14 years, out of anyone’s reach. The Wall had torn his parish in two. In the East, the border destroyed the houses, in the West, services were moved to the church hall in 1965.
Mr. Fischer was traveling in the United States 20 years later, when he saw his church being blown up on TV. The pictures traveled around the world, but the church was lost forever
After the collapse of the GDR, Mr. Fischer fought to preserve a section of the Wall on Bernauer Straße and together with a group of like-minded people, initiated the Berlin Wall Memorial, where a stretch of Wall runs alongside the Chapel of Reconciliation and the Documentation Center, demonstrating the true scale of the structure. An extension of the Memorial is scheduled to be completed by 2012. “We felt so powerless after the church was destroyed,” he says, “but we realized how important it is to know our own history. So it cannot repeat itself.”