Berlin preserves past no matter the pain

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Berlin preserves past no matter the pain

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The remains of the Berlin Wall inside the grounds of the Berlin Wall Memorial. All photos by Yooyoung Nah


BERLIN - “So, is that all that remains?” asked Laileng Kun, a journalist from Malaysia. She was pointing at a few segments of a concrete wall on a grassy field at the Berlin Wall Memorial.

The visitors, part of an organized media event earlier this month, were gathered on Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, the street along which the Berlin Wall once divided not only a city but a continent.

But when the wall came down in 1989, images of which are now iconic, little was done - and even fewer thought - to preserve the physical scar.

Left in the wake of the wall’s demolition were only a few sections and pieces, including some of the watchtowers. East Side Gallery, a 1.3-kilometer-long section of the wall along the Spree River, has been preserved and decorated with colorful graffiti by artists from around the world. Where the wall once stood near Potsdamer Platz, a city square, is now marked by cobblestones.

Segments of the wall were sent to museums, universities, governments and public parks around the world. Three sections of the wall can be found in central Seoul, around Samil Bridge over Cheonggye Stream.

Whereas once Berliners were in a hurry to rid themselves of the ugliness of what the wall represented, today Germans are looking to preserve the remnants, realizing that the wall, despite its tragedies, is inextricably part of their history.

“Many people thought that they overcame the communist regime by means of civilian revolution of resistance. They wanted to prove it by completely getting rid of the former border,” explained Gerald Salter, historian and head of research and documentation of the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was established soon after the fall.

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“Windows of Remembrance,” another part of the Berlin Wall Memorial that commemorates 139 people who died while trying to cross the “death strip,” the border between East and West Germany.


But over time it became evident that with almost the entire wall torn down, few significant places were left to remind people of the history.

“Visitors came to Berlin with anticipations to see and touch a bit of the wall but only a few blocks of the wall were found, being scattered here and there in the city. We realized that we couldn’t understand this city without having this wall in mind,” Salter said.

“It was a shock and disappointment for visitors and an awakening for us as well. That’s when we started to talk about the memorial and find the appropriate form and design of commemoration of this historic event,” Salter added.

In 2006, a master plan to preserve the memory of the Berlin Wall was passed by the Berlin Senate, calling for an integration of the various wall sites.

And as part of the plan, Bernauer Strasse is now being established as the central site of the memorial. The street, where the wall stood, was once the notorious “death strip,” with mines and armed guards who shot at civilians.

With some memorial buildings and sites already built in memory of the over 270 people who died here, it was easier to link them together - the national monument for the victims of the Berlin Wall and the German division, the Chapel of Reconciliation and the cemetery of the Sophien parish.

The new element to be added is a permanent open-air exhibit accessible at all times. This large outdoor memorial is divided into four areas and is meant to enrich the meaning of the place and all parts of the memorial. When completed in 2012, it will convey the history of the people whose lives were affected by the Berlin Wall - those who had to move because of the wall as well as those who aspired to get to the other side.

“The Wall and the Death Strip,” the first section of the exhibit opened in May 2010.

“Three more sections are in preparation now. When section B opens in August, you can get more detailed pictures of the whole memorial site. But I think this section can give you a big picture about how we wanted to conceptualize this historic place and event,” explained Gunter Schlusche, planning and building coordinator of the Berlin Wall Memorial.

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People walk past the remains of the Berlin Wall, on the other side of the memorial.


As the title of the section implies, the place was designed to illustrate the brutality of the border and its role in the system to prevent escapes and limit freedom of movement. However, the landscape of the ground is surprisingly tranquil with simple artificial objects on the grass field.

Where the original relics of the wall and border fortifications have been lost, poles and boards made of weathered steel, which are rusty in appearance, are used to indicate where they once were.

“One thing I was amazed by at this place is that it moves me only with a few elements made of rusty steel and some blocks of the concrete wall,” said Kun, the Malaysian journalist.

Archeological displays behind windows at the exhibit offer a stark contrast to the present landscape, showing the preserved ruins of the border fortification’s concrete layers beneath the street.

In the center of the memorial grounds, the “Windows of Remembrances” convey the tragic stories behind the Berlin Wall. Commemorating the victims of the Berlin Wall with their names and photo, each one has a heartbreaking story, despite the wall’s calm and composed appearance.

“When this place was opened to the public, we heard complaints that it’s too green and too relaxed. Some people expected to see walls completely restored and to experience the chilly tension of the death strip. We could have done that, but we did want to make people think and feel as if reading a book ... We didn’t want to bring this commemoration site to you as if serving some fast food,” said Schlusche.

The Berlin Wall Memorial has a growing number of visitors from all over the world. According to the Berlin Wall Memorial Foundation, it posted 400,000 visitors in 2009 and the number is rising each year.

The memorial has more young visitors compared to other historic sites in Berlin. Educating younger generations who have no personal experience of the Berlin Wall has become a major issue for the foundation. “Fortunately, many teachers and students still think that history is important. They actually visit this place and want to know more. So we are trying to provide them with more specialized tour and services,” Salter said.

While the Berlin Wall Memorial is not yet complete, it already shows how Germans created their own way of memorializing with just a few remaining blocks and pieces of history.

“When the unification took place, the wall was simply seen as a barrier for the future. While many people thought that new buildings would be more helpful for the next hundred years, only a few believed lost pieces of history eventually define who we are and who we will be,” Schlusche said.

Salter hoped that Berlin’s experience could one day help Koreans, too. “After long years of controversy and argument, we have come a long way around, learning tough lessons. When the time of unification comes to you as well, I hope you can remember things you thought here at the Berlin Wall Memorial.”


By Yooyoung Nah Contributing writer [racheln@joongang.co.kr]
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