The Wall

Do walls conquer or divide?

Posted Apr 02, 2019

Carrie Knowles
An artist marking his place on the Berlin Wall.
Source: Carrie Knowles

We were living in Avignon, France in 1991 and took our three children to a resort hotel on the Costa Brava in Spain for Spring break. Easter was early that year and no other hotels had opened for the tourist season ahead.

The day we arrived, a small fleet of buses pulled up to the hotel and several hundred recently freed East Germans poured out. Their clothes were shabby, mismatched and out of fashion, but their faces were bright and jubilant. It was the first time in their lives that they had been able to travel anywhere outside the Soviet block.

Reservations at the hotel included breakfast and family-style dinners.

When dinner was served that first night, along with unlimited carafes of cheap red wine, the East German guests became joyously drunk. By the time the flan was served, they were out of their seats, arms linked, singing at the top of their lungs, while others in their party danced on the tables.

The hotel manager came by to apologize for the other guests’ behavior.

No apologies needed. Our children were fascinated by the German’s unbridled joy, and we were challenged to think about what their trapped lives must have been like.

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, cutting off West Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany and East Berlin. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its populations from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” from building a socialist state in East Germany. The Wall was opened in November of 1989 and its official demolition began in June of 1990. 

Fences may sometimes make “good neighbors,” but high fences adorned with razor wire come with two warnings. On the side with the armed guards the warning is loud and clear, you cannot leave. On the other, it is subtle but still understood: keep out; you are not welcome here.

We were in Berlin a few weeks ago. Although no longer divided, its soul is still marked by the Wall.

When the Wall came down, the reunited city left a kilometer-long stretch in place. It stands not only as a reminder of freedoms lost and later recovered but as a ready canvas for anyone, be they artist, student, or activist, to say something. Artists come at all hours of the day and night, toting their collections of spray paints. No one stops them. Residents and tourists alike come every day to watch the artists work. There is no censorship as to what can be written or drawn. There are no graffiti police.

In addition to this remaining piece of the Wall, there are brick paths throughout Berlin that allow you to walk the original length of the Wall and see for yourself how the city was divided and the West surrounded.

As you walk along this ghost outline, you find bits and pieces of the Wall on display, along with explanations of not only the Wall, but also the “dead” zone, the area between the high Wall and the razor wire barrier where people were shot trying to escape. 

Walking the brick path, that was once the wall, allows you to see how neighborhoods and neighbors were separated, and feel the depth and breadth of the scar the Wall carved through this city.

We sat next to a young couple during dinner our first night in Berlin. When we asked if they were from Berlin, they replied, yes, but that they would rather claim to be from Austria where there was no Wall.

What happened in Berlin during WWII, along with the Wall that divided and dominated their city for 28 years during the Cold War, is for young Berliners, as well as those who are old enough to remember when the Wall went up and when it came down, a shadow of shame.

In 1991, we saw first hand what freedom meant to our fellow vacationers in Spain, but left at the end of that week wondering what freedoms were lost to those on the Western side of the Wall.

There are two sides to every wall, and no matter which side you’re on, something is lost and lives get changed…forever.