The wall that is always with me

November 10, 2014

Berlin, Germany

By Fabrizio Bensch

In the middle of a bustling Potsdamer Platz, a young tourist asks me: “The wall. Where is the wall?”

Tourists take pictures with a mobile phone in front of a painting depicting former Soviet leader Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Honecker painted on a segment of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin

I look at him astonished and almost want to answer: “It’s over there!” Because for a moment, that picture wells up in full force: the high concrete walls with the rounded tops, which looked like giant tubes snaking through the city. The barbed wire, the watch towers. Where I look now, however, there is no eerie silence, no border with a death strip, but the loud sounds of a lively city, with traffic horns being honked and crowds of people enjoying daily life.

“The wall? The wall does not exist anymore.” I tell him. He gives me a confused look and I quickly realise I should be saying: “If you continue straight on, then you will find remainders of the wall.” He thanks me and quickly moves in the direction I pointed out along with his companion. 

Segments of the former Berlin Wall for sale are pictured at a storage yard in Teltow south of Berlin

The man’s simple question triggered memories of a completely different time in my hometown. As someone born and raised in Berlin, I only knew “the West” as being surrounded by those winding tubes.

I never imagined that one day the wall could really fall, the border would really be opened. This concrete beast – 3.60 meters tall, 155 kilometers long and wildly colored with graffiti, at least on the Western side – was not always in sight during the day, but it was always present. You came across it eventually.

Its oppressiveness was just part of life as we knew it, and at the same time, it was unique. So 25 years after the fall of the wall, I decided to track down its remainders, and what these remainders could mean to me as an eyewitness of this part of local and global history.

Painted segments of the East Side Gallery are pictured at the largest remaining part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin 

Anyone who still calls themselves a “West-Berliner” probably still knows the queasy feeling when climbing the wooden tourist platforms, such as the one at the Bernauer Straße, to see the wall and its surroundings, including the death strip. The whole area was deadly silent, except for the barking of a watchdog or the rattling of an army trabi driving by.
 
There were one way streets on the eastern side, which stopped at the wall, but one could see their continuation over in the West.
 
You could see the watch towers, always with two soldiers, and their faces: either stale with boredom or focused on intense searches of the border lines through their field glasses. Patrollers were always in pairs, so that neither could easily try to flee.
 
Even in darkness, the death strip was so glaringly lit that you could see every detail: the meticulously raked sand strip to capture footprints of those attempting to flee; the barbed wire atop the security fence, which sent a silent signal to the watch towers if people attempted to flee without them knowing that they had been caught; the street and bridge blockades to discourage any attempt by car. 

A general view shows the the Berlin Wall memorial site in Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

 I recently climbed the rooftop of a house at Bernauer Straße. The maintenance assistant accompanied me. He is a former East-Berliner and almost the same age as me. Together we look down at the area that used to be the border, which is now a memorial saturated with greenery. In the background newly built, rather stylish buildings are visible.

Even with these changes, however, the two of us can still spot the death strip in all its width.

At Griebnitzsee in the north of Berlin, where fragments of the wall remain, I chat to an older, spry gentleman, who is cutting the grass in his garden. He has been living here since the wall was built in 1961, and recalls how life next to it became normality. One tried to talk to the East-German soldiers once in a while. One tossed cigarette packets over the wall. Children used to throw apples.

Soldiers were not allowed to speak to Westerners, but once in a while one of them picked up the cigarettes.

A combination picture shows former border watch towers of the Berlin Wall in Berlin

In an area called “the duck’s beak”, as it was an East-Berlin settlement that reached into the West in just that form, no one I speak to can imagine that the wall once cut into West-Berlin anymore. It is a beautiful area with lovely villas, family houses and gardens.

A lady is busy trimming her hedges when we get talking. Yes, she still remembers the wall. One could see into the houses of one’s Eastern neighbors directly from the top floor of one’s own house.

There was no direct contact, but one could tell what the neighbors were doing, such as tending to the garden or eating a meal. Why on earth the city decided to reconstruct segments of the wall near her house is incomprehensible to her. None of the residents were asked, but all of sudden the wall had reappeared.

A general view shows the East Side Gallery the largest remaining part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin

 As I drive on, I reflect on these stories and impressions. The wall literally fenced in my childhood and youth. Now its power is irretrievably broken. For those who witnessed it, however, the wall with all its details still shapes us – even 53 years after it was built and 25 years after it fell. It will always be alive in some way – as a construction, as a border, as an experience, as a historic sight. That is why people like me will always need a second when a tourist where the wall is. I quickly have to think about how it is still around today.

File picture shows East and West German citizens celebrating as they climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

 

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