On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. By the end of that year, the Brandenburg Gate would be thrown open wide, crowds would be steadily chipping away at the physical wall itself, and a famous concert would take place featuring Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – with the word “Freude” (Joy) turned to “Freiheit” in the concluding “Ode to Joy.” No other positive event that took place during my lifetime has had the kind of impact the fall of the Wall did on me. It is intrinsically linked with the optimism of my final year at Ohio State, my study of the German language that year, and my deep-seated fascination with the Wall over the years. As the thirtieth anniversary approaches, this fascination has, if anything, deepened.
There were two stories that have stayed with me from the time I first heard about the Wall sometime in the late 70s. One was the the story of Peter Fechter, shot and allowed to bleed to death in the “death strip” at the Wall on August 17, 1962. But the other story was a story of a street where apartment buildings were located in the East, but merely stepping out the front door meant stepping into the West. This was Bernauer Strasse, where the Wall claimed its first victim on August 22, 1961, when Ida Siekmann jumped from her third-floor apartment just nine days after the Wall began to be constructed.
Imagine, if you will, a city. Your city, perhaps. I’ll use Toronto.
Imagine if a wall were to be erected right through the downtown core of Toronto, perhaps running along Bay St, right between old City Hall and Nathan Philips Square, jogging over to Avenue, perhaps, as Bay St. ends. Imagine checkpoints between West and East. Imagine the subway system cut off. Union Station would like in the West, and the connection between King Station and Union, though it would still exist, would be closed. (In Berlin, there were loops in both the S-Bahn and U-Bahn lines that led into the East and then back into the West that continued to run during the divided years through darkened “ghost stations” patrolled by East German border guards).
Except that would be too easy. The actual division between West and East in Berlin took all kinds of twists and turns. Being drawn along the lines of the districts of old Berlin, the border didn’t run conveniently down the middle of streets or along obvious geographical features at all points.
Bernauer Strasse was a street on the border between the district of Wedding, in the West, and Mitte, in the East. On the south side of the street, numbers 1-50, the buildings lay in the East, the sidewalks in the West. Those living in the apartments along that stretch lived in the East, but could step out their front doors into the West.
Until August 13, 1961 this was not an issue. Although Berlin was officially a divided city–and had been since the end of WWII, when it had been partitioned off between English, French, American, and Soviet sectors–the first three becoming known as West Berlin and the last as East Berlin–there was no barrier between the two sides, even though there were barriers between East and West German elsewhere. This resulted in a steady stream of East Germans, many of them young, who wanted to emigrate simply coming to East Berlin and crossing over into the West. The Wall put an end to that. At midnight on August 13, the barriers began going up.
At first, these barriers were simple barbed wire. Famously, a Eastern border guard leapt over them to escape two days later. But the buildings along Bernauer Strasse immediately became a focus for those wishing to cross. On August 16, ground floor residents in the buildings along the south side wereordered to surrender front door keys. The next day, workmen began bricking up all 1253 windows in these buildings. Escapees were forced into the upper storeys, where they began jumping from the windows. West Berliners, including (eventually) fire brigades, standing in the West, held nets to catch them.
On August 19, 2000 residents of the apartments along Bernauer Strasse were forced to evacuate. Three days later, the first fatality at Bernauer Strasse was recorded when Ida Siekmann tossed her bedding and a few possessions from her fourth-floor apartment and jumped from the window. Eighty-year-old Olga Segler became the second fatality three days later, and eight in total would eventually lose their lives attempting to escape from the houses on Bernauer Strasse.
After the windows were bricked up, the buildings themselves became part of the Wall for a time. The area became a focus for escape attempts via tunnels, since in no other area was the West quite so close. After prominent attempts (some successful) in 1962, the buildings were demolished, as were other nearby buildings where tunnels had originated. In 1965, the concrete block and barbed wire wall (which had included the remains of the Bernauer Strasse buildings) was replaced by the first formal concrete wall. Only the shells for the first floors of the buildings remained as part of the Wall (as can be seen in the photo above). All buildings close to the border were gradually destroyed as the so-called “death strip” was constructed.
This animation provides a stunning view of the evolution of the wall along Bernauer Strasse. https://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/uploads/audio_video/bernauerstrasse_3d.mp4
On Bernauer Strasse, there once stood the Versohnungskirche–the Church of the Reconciliation. Like other buildings on the south side of the street, the building and its cemetary lay in the East, with the doorway opening into the West. The entire parish that this church served was in the West. The construction of the Wall cut the church off from that parish.
Unlike the other buildings on the south side of Bernauer Strasse, however, the church was not torn down in the early 60s. It was allowed to stand, increasingly isolated as the no-man’s-land of the Death Strip grew around it. The church was eventually expropriated by East Germany.
In 1985, just four years before the Wall itself came down, it was blown up to improve sniper sightlines along the Death Strip. During that demolition, the cross fell from the spire (clearly visible in the large photo below) and embedded itself in the cemetery, where it was left.
After the Wall came down in 1989, the Chapel of Reconciliation was erected on the site previously occupied by the Church. It is built in a stark, simple, modern style–an oval outer wall, recalling the shape of the old church, made of long lathes of wood, which allow light to penetrate to the rammed-earth clay interior, which includes pieces of glass and stone from the remains of its predecessor. It was consecrated in 2000, on the eleventh anniversary of the fall of the Wall. It’s now part of the larger Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstaette Berliner Mauer). As I mentioned in my previous post about Coventry Cathedral, it houses a Cross of Nails and a replica of Coventry’s Statue of Reconciliation.
And the cross that fell from the old spire still stands where it landed, now in a field planted with rye.
Few buildings have been built on Bernauer Strasse since the Wall fell. Instead, you can see a preserved and partially recreated section of the Wall, including the Death Strip, as part of the Wall Memorial. Here’s an aerial view of the street today, with the course of the wall marked in red and the extent of the Death Strip in blue. Note the oval Chapel of the Reconciliation in the upper part of the photo.
The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years. It’s been thirty years since it fell, and Berlin is once again made whole, the capital of a reunited Germany. Very little remains of those years other than memories, outlines in bricks along streets where the Wall used to run, and a few memorials. It is only fitting, in many ways, that Bernauer Strasse, where the buildings themselves became part of the Wall, where the reborn Chapel of Reconciliation attests to the power of healing in the very place where the scars still show, should be the focus of the commemoration of the Wall years. At the Berlin Wall Memorial that runs along the south side of the street, not only can you see the remains of the Wall and the Death Strip, but also the outlines of the vanished buildings and indications where escape tunnels were located. I hope to visit it some day.
Tonight, I’m attending a performance of ProArte Danza meant in part to commemorate the Berlin Wall and its fall in dance, set to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It’ll be my first dedicated dance concert in many years, and I hope to share my impressions in a future post.