11.08.2007

tonight, we party like it's 1989 (part IV)

This is a statue of Mstislav Rostropovich, a world renowned cellist who traveled to Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall to play an impromptu concert. The photos behind the statue are of Berliners, Eastern and Western, coming together atop the wall that same day.

The display is from the Checkpoint Charlie museum, situated just a few feet from the actual checkpoint. The museum began as just two rooms in 1962, not long after the wall was originally constructed, and has been expanding ever since. Though it is still rather compact as museums go, the amount of knowledge, insight and artifacts preserved there is absolutely mind boggling. If you read every word, you could be there for hours.

As I walked through the museum, I was overwhelmed by my own ignorance about exactly what went on in Germany post-WWII. I don't recall ever discussing the conditions extensively in any history class, other than perhaps the reasons the wall was built and the fact that it came down in 1989. After my weekend in Berlin, I would equate that to knowing why we sent troops to Vietnam and that we brought them back in 1975. There's a little something missing there -- the real story.

As Americans, I don't think we can have any concept of what it was like to be German, or be a Berliner, in the years following the second World War. Obviously, because we weren't there. But also because I don't think we have a collective experience that can ever compare to what it feels like to have your city cut in half, to be governed by not one, not two, not three, but FOUR different countries, to be separated from your aunts, uncles, cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, because they picked the wrong side of the city to live on -- and to be shot dead for trying to change any of it. Children drowned swimming in the river because the shore belonged to one side but the water itself to another; thus no one would help a struggling child for fear of being shot.

The stories of people who were killed trying to cross the wall were gripping, but perhaps even more telling were the accounts of the lengths people went to in order to cross the barrier successfully. Flying machines, underground tunnels dug tediously over weeks and months, jet-propelled water escapes, hollowed out car engines and trunks, devices you can't imagine someone conceiving of in their own basements and attics; but then again, you can't quite feel the same urgency they did, can you?

One of the earliest devices to keep people from crossing the wall was an motion-activated machine gun that was attached a few inches from the wall, set to fire as soon as anyone entered its path. I can't decide what's more chilling: that someone would attach such an apparatus to the wall to anonymously kill, or that later guards -- people -- would be asked to do the same thing.

One of the most talked about victims of the wall is a man named Peter Fechter. Fechter and a friend attempted to cross the wall, and though his friend made it, Fechter was shot in the pelvis while atop the wall and fell back onto the Eastern side. He was in plain view of on-lookers on both sides, but none of the guards would help him for fear of entering the danger zone. He cried out for help and after about an hour, finally bled to death. People watched him die and did nothing out of their own fear.

But death might have been the route of less suffering for some of the Berliners. It was practically commonplace in East Berlin for children to be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, most often without the parents knowledge of where the child was going. This could be punishment for any number of sins that demonstrated lack of support for the Soviet cause, most notably attempted to cross over into West Berlin with a child. This particularly would brand you as an unfit parent who wasn't teaching her children proper Soviet principles, and the child would be taken from you. Families were ripped apart by the wall, but by forces like this, too, for decades. Some parents never saw their children again, like one woman whose story was told vividly in the museum. Her son was kidnapped during a family outing and never truly investigated; it later came out that the files on the case were ordered to be destroyed.

The internment camps didn't end with Hitler, either; the museum housed records of thousands of Germans who died in the camps during the time of Soviet occupation.


Just outside the museum is the brick foundation of the wall, which remains in the ground around the entire perimeter of the former West.


After we left the museum, we bopped back down to Unter den Linden, eventually found a suitable pub and had a few beers and some dinner -- bratwurst and sauerkraut for me! We wandered around the city a bit more that evening, found a place for coffee and dessert and then headed home. It was late, and I had to be up at 7 in the morning to catch my flight out at 9:30.

Not a moment of the weekend was wasted, and for that I owe all thanks to my fantastic host and tour guide. I won't say I didn't feel the urge to write a letter to Shelby County Schools about stepping up the game on post-WWII Germany, because I did; but I'm kind of glad I went into it the way I did, knowing so little. Because I left knowing so much, and knowing it because I had the opportunity -- as much as one can in 2007 -- to really feel it.


cheers,
HRH e. cawein
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