50 years since the wall split Berlin

Wall of memories: A man lights a candle at the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin on Saturday. — Photo: AP

Wall of memories: A man lights a candle at the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin on Saturday. — Photo: AP  

Gunter Schlusche stood in what was once the foundation of Bernauer Street 10A, right in front of the cinder blocks and mortar that remained, just as they had half a century earlier, when East German workers bricked up the house's windows the day the Berlin Wall went up.

“This is like a sunken ship that has surfaced to tell its story,” Mr. Schlusche said of the border house, evacuated on September 24, 1961, and demolished less than four years later. The foundation was recently unearthed as workers expanded a section of the Berlin Wall Memorial that will be unveiled on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its construction.

“Although it may not be a Greek temple, this is archaeology,” Mr. Schlusche said, shouting to be heard over the din of landscapers running mowers and leaf blowers to prepare for the arrival of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will attend the ceremony.

Two years ago, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall was celebrated by the German government with guests from all over Europe. A ceremonial toppling of giant dominoes was meant to represent the fall of Communism across Eastern Europe.

This is a darker moment to recall, the morning of August 13, 1961, when Berliners awoke to find that soldiers had erected barbed-wire barricades, closed down road traffic and sealed off rail links between East Berlin and West Berlin. To this day, the memory dredges up unresolved issues. Germans have never quite come to terms with the building of a wall that sundered their city for 28 years, forging a border where Germans shot Germans for trying to travel across town.

The degree of ambivalence about the fall of Communism and the end of the East German state was evident in a survey published by the daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung , in which a third of Berliners thought that the building of the wall was either justified or partly justified to stem the tide of refugees leaving for the West.

The task has fallen to Mr. Schlusche, the Berlin architect who coordinated the construction of the Holocaust Memorial not far from the Brandenburg Gate, to act as the conductor of the orchestra of builders, landscape architects, designers and painters to create a fitting monument on nearly a mile of land here that could finally help Germans come to terms with this element of their complicated past.

The problem that confronted Mr. Schlusche and the team from the Berlin Wall Memorial was how to evoke the ominous feelings of a wall that is now mostly gone. Work crews demolished large sections of the wall after it was finally opened on November 9, 1989, while individuals chiselled away pieces for souvenirs. Within a few years visitors, could no longer tell in many cases where this relic of the Cold War once stood.

The incomplete memorial is like a park, with peaceful fields of grass punctuated with information stands. Famous pictures are reproduced on the sides of adjoining buildings, such as the photographer Peter Leibing's iconic image of a young East German soldier in his metal mushroom-shaped helmet making a balletic leap over the barbed wire to freedom. It is striking as a 20-foot-tall, black-and-white painting.

But sections of the wall itself remain the focal point. Alongside original sections of the barrier, workers erected metal poles of the same height — roughly 12 feet — made from red-rusted steel that is often used in sculptures.

“A reconstruction is never authentic,” Mr. Schlusche said. “We are preserving the authentic.”

The metal poles represent what he calls a “remapping” of the wall, not an attempt to re-create.

The memorial is half a mile long now and will ultimately stretch to four-fifths of a mile.

“Our job,” Mr. Schlusche said, “is to make the terrain speak for itself.” — New York Times News Service

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