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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Recalling History at the Berlin Wall Memorial

I stood in a tower in what was once the French sector of Berlin. From the metal perch I could see a preserved section of the Berlin Wall; guard towers, a lighted sand field – once known as the death strip – and the wall itself were all there. It was almost twenty-two years to the day – November 9th, 1989 – since the wall was opened between East and West Berlin and a domino effect transpired. The Iron Curtain was falling under Moscow’s principles of glasnost and perestroika, and it was doing so once again as I stood there immersing myself in memories.

Twenty-two years ago I was a thirteen-year-old kid sitting in my parent’s basement watching live broadcasts from the Berlin Wall. People were dancing in the streets as others straddled the top of the wall, celebrating something I did not quite understand. I didn’t feel right, though, asking my parents questions, since it felt like an uninterruptable moment; they were witnessing something they likely never thought possible in their lifetime and I thought it wise if I reserved my line of questioning for another time.

I relieved those memories as I arrived at the Nordbahnhof; once a ghost station where trains zipped through, unable to stop since it was actually on the border, the Nordbahnhof is now a stop for tourists looking to see the Berlin Wall Memorial. That is why I was there. I left the station, ready for a tour of one of the greatest symbols of man’s inhumanity.
Construction of the Berlin Wall began overnight on August 13th, 1961. It stood as a demarcation between East and West Berlin for over twenty-eight years, keeping in those who wanted to leave; the East German government touted it as a protective measure against the western fascists. East German citizens knew better, though, since they could receive news broadcasts from the West. They knew what was happening in the world and that the grass was, generally speaking, greener on the other side.
In total, the Berlin Wall stretched for more than 96 miles (155 km) throughout town. Most of it is marked today by a pathway of inlaid cobblestones. It is particularly visible in areas like Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdamer Platz, and at the Brandenburg Gate; preserved sections of the wall, removed and erected for educational purposes, are also commonly on display.
The Berlin wall not only succeeded in keeping poeple in, but it was also a catalyst to inspire people to attempt escape. Before the wall was erected, residents between East and West Berlin casually crossed back and forth, some having jobs on the other side of the city, and generally returning to their own homes at night. But in an instant the border was closed and roads would mysteriously dead-end into a twelve-foot-tall concrete slab, cut off from the rest of the world.

Beyond, the death strip sprawled as a murderous deterrent.

It is likely that thousands attempted to flee the enclosure the wall presented to the East when it was initially just a barbed wire fence. It is an undocumented statistic, though, which can only be guessed. The one number sadly known is that 136 people were killed as a result of the wall: eight guards and 128 civilians were killed in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Ninety-eight of those who were killed were shot. Others died as a result of drowning, jumping out of windows that bordered the western edge of the Berlin Wall, or crashing in a hot air balloon-escape attempt gone wrong. Of those who died, there were a handful of children; the youngest person to die was a two-year-old child. His picture is part of a photographic wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial. Most everyone who was killed as a result of the wall has been identified and their picture, at the consent of the family, is framed in the memorial; photos of the guards, those who died enforcing the wall’s brutality, are not included out of respect for, what my tour guide called, “the real victims.”

I had seen other sections of the Berlin Wall throughout town on this trip. Passing through Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin’s Topography of Terror, and through areas like Potsdamer Platz, I felt as though I was becoming desensitized to the effects of the Berlin Wall. Seeing it so often made what the Berlin Wall symbolizes today actually lose some of its meaning for me. It didn’t hold the same weight, seeing the cobblestone line running everywhere through the streets of Berlin, as it did on my trip twelve years ago.
“Wow. This is serious,” sighed one of my RIAS Berlin Kommission colleagues in exasperation at what she was seeing as we stood outside of the Nordbahnhof looking back across the Berlin Wall Memorial. I understood waht she meant. I felt as though I was witnessing history unfold once more. All of the horror was still there, preserved, and the magnanimity of it was hitting me again as it did thirteen years ago. I wanted to say something, but all I could do was nod and agree.
We had come down from the tower and were about to board the return train. Turning to the station, we waved to two of our group members and caught the next ride back across town. A heavy feeling hung in the air. We tried to ignore it through light banter, but the thought of such horrors the wall presented – both real and figurative – could not be put aside. After all, the blatant disregard for human rights such as the wall epitomizes continues to be executed around the wrold. It does not take the Berlin Wall – desecrating cemeteries and dividing families in its path – to make it real; atrocities happen everywhere, it is just a matter of whether or not we wish to learn from the past and acknowledge them.

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