Friday, June 29, 2007

Berlin #3 - The Wall

For me, reading about the Berlin wall and seeing the remains of its ominous and sinister presence are two entirely different experiences. I knew very little about the ‘nature’ of this wall and as I walk around Berlin, even though the wall no longer imprisons and contains, it’s hard to miss the enormity of its impact on the lives of people. I’m always one for maps, and this one . (Visit for large and small maps of Germany) shows how the country was divided. Note the 'island' of West Berlin in the tan part of the map.
Indeed, West Berlin, under the protection of the allied forces, was surrounded by Soviet East Germany, and became the ‘island’ around which the wall was built – all 96 miles of it. This map shows the wall around West Berlin. General Berlin city map, 1961 based on a map published in "Unser Berlin", Paul List Verlag, 1961
Its construction occurred in the early 60’s as a ‘Anti –Fascist Protective Rampart’ by the East German government and what is chilling is to see the way in which the wall evolved in its sinister design, fortified with additional barricades and other inhumane detractors.

Today, much of the wall is gone, its traces marked by a single line of cobbles along the original footprint. However, the wall was never just a wall – it was at least two concrete barriers with land in between called the death strip, where the watch towers, massive rolls of barbed wire, trenches, and underground cells were located. The death strip is where most people trying to escape were killed. It’s chilling to see remains of this architecture in some places.

Parks and gardens, trees and flowers, have emerged in playing an important role in healing and remembrance along the Berlin wall. As I walk around, small groves of trees, gardens with vegetables and flowers, and circles of benches have been created by local artists and gardeners, some with official sanction, and others as free-spirited and temporary expression.

Parlament der Bäume

One place in particular that captivates me is the Parliament of Trees. Wedged in between the new government district along the River Spree, this space defiantly holds its own as a grass roots initiative that could not be removed to make way for the new office buildings. The grove of trees stands adjacent to sections of the original wall, and memorializes the 258 people who died trying to cross the wall. It’s sad to note that the last victim fell four months before the wall came down. “Parlament der Bäume” was initiated by artist Ben Wargin who brought together many others to create the grove of trees, the granite memorial stones and the wall inscriptions. Willows now occupy the death strip. Ben happens to be there busily working with a photographer, talking rapidly in German. He has lots of plans, but his biggest challenge right now is letting people enter the site. Apparently while concessions were made to retain the site, Ben is not allowed to have people on the property - one has to scale a fence to get in!

Chapel of Reconciliation

I walk up to an oval wood frame building through a field of rye, the landscape is unreal. So is the story of this new chapel that now stands on the footprint of its predecessor originally built in 1885. In the sixties when the wall went up, this chapel had the misfortune to be right in the middle of the death strip. For many years, it stood abandoned amidst the walls and barbed wires as a symbol of the separation, and then in 1985 the East German government tore it down, stating that it was interfering with monitoring efforts. Pictures of the chapel tower coming down were broadcast all over the world.

The new chapel was imagined by the parishioners who felt a deep sense of loss and as early as 1990, came together to imagine its new chapel. Amidst the rubble, they found the altar, the bells and the statue of Jesus Christ. The decision was to return the altar and the bells to their original locations, but to create a new Chapel of Reconciliation, with architecture that would be a symbol of a new and peaceful future. I walk into the oval building built of rammed earth and wood – it’s peaceful in its simple beauty. Through a window in the floor I can see foundations of the old chapel. The rye fields, interspersed with poppies and blue flowers, give the space a surreal feel. Every fall the parishioners come together to harvest the rye and bake bread for the community. This is a space that is not shiny and glitzy, its quiet beauty is its heart.

East Side Gallery

I walk to the east side gallery, with some anticipation! When the wall came down, one of the first things to happen was a gathering of more than a hundred artists who came armed with brushes and paint and created the largest outdoor gallery in the world. What had been completely inaccessible section of the wall in East Germany is now filled with images and paintings touching on many a topic. There were plans to take this wall down and make way for new developments along the river, but a group of artists prevailed and the wall remains. It shows signs of wear, and a non-profit has been formed to promote its restoration – however funds have been hard to come by. The mile long stretch feels stark, but behind are some of Berlin’s most frequented restaurants and bars along the River Spree.


Michael L said...

Maitreyi - What an incredible travelogue! I see a brown bag lunch presentation in our future when you return... So many special features, grand and small, that you have highlighted throughout your journey. One can only hope that Philly can achieve something comparable with its canvas. Clearly, you'll be returning with loads of ideas! - Best, ML

Maitreyi Roy said...

Hi Michael:
Thanks for checking in. Its quite a treat to be on this fascinating journey. It's also helping me see what a great city Philly is! Looking forward to being back and sharing. Best, Maitreyi

Jewell said...

Good for people to know.