The Berlin Wall is familiar to us and yet much more complicated than I understood before visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial. The line of the Wall, built in 1961, zigs and zags all over the city, rather than being anything like a straight line. The Wall was about 96 miles long. It surrounded West Berlin in an attempt to keep East Germans from migrating there. Markers in the sidewalk today note the line of the Wall.
As the Wall went up virtually overnight, families and friends woke up to find themselves stuck and separated from each other.
For about 28 years, the Wall divided East and West Berlin, until it fell in 1989, marking the end of East German oppression and making reunification of the city possible. Most of the Wall was knocked down right away, but a section along Bernauer Strasse was kept that today stands as a memorial to all who lost their lives trying to escape from the East.
At the Berlin Wall Memorial, you can read about those who lost their lives seeking freedom. About 136 people we know of died trying to cross the Wall. It’s thought that many more didn’t make it, but their names are so far lost to history. Memorials can be found in the sidewalks or grounds, too.
People escaped in “any way you could think up,” according to our guide, Finn. They were in car wheel wells and trunks and inside seats. They ran, they jumped from buildings adjacent to the walls. They tunneled.
One of the most famous escapees is Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier. While the more long-lasting Wall was still being built, he leaped over the temporary barbed wire wall on his motorcycle and reached freedom. A sculpture of Schumann is around the corner from no-man’s-land.
Colorful graffiti decorates the east and west sides of the Wall remaining today, but only the west side was painted when the Wall stood. It was a crime to get too near to the east side, so that side was plain cement.
Everything in the no-man’s-land was destroyed for the sake of the Wall. The demolition of the Reconciliation Church was especially hard to bear. The burnt cross is the only surviving part of the church. But the church was eventually rebuilt and today holds memorial services and other gatherings. The pastor of this church is the one who urged that a small portion of the Wall be kept intact, as a place of remembrance. And so this section about a mile long draws visitors from all over, encouraging us to pause and remember what happened here.
Along the higher ground at one end of the Berlin Wall Memorial are markers where the most successful escape by tunnel took place. On October 3, 1964, 57 East Germans escaped. The next day, the Stasi (secret police) found the tunnel – one day late, fortunately.
IF YOU GO
The Memorial is open free of charge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We signed up for a Context Travel tour and learned so much from our wonderful Irish guide Finn. I highly recommend this tour!