What happened to the Berlin Wall?

Berlin Wall

The hated Wall came into existence on the 13th of August 1959 – a huge surprise in the morning. It was the best kept secret. NOBODY had any  knowledge of the plans for it. It divided the great city of Berlin into East and West, and cutting families from families, in many cases even along the center of a street. The ‘Fall of the Wall’ was a another surprise in 1989 as hundreds of thousands marched and the East German Police put their guns down and watched helplessly as the wall was stormed. I watched the happening on TV and thought it was a trick film as people climbed the wall and started dancing on it. Secure gates were broken down and East and West people hugged, laughed and cried and couldn’t believe that no shots were fired. Finally, in June 1990, every effort was made to remove the hundreds of miles of the hated monster. Lots of souvenirs were sold after the “Fall of the Wall” in 1989; thousands of people hacked and picked and took parts home as a reminder of the terror it has caused. I know two people who showed me their treasure, a little piece of the wall. Thousands of people all over the world have a piece and it is impossible to track them all down.

Berlin did not destroy all of it. An ‘Open Air Gallery’ has attracted artists from all over the world to create their art on long parts of the wall. Many places in Berlin now have memorials, one is called ‘Parliament of Trees against Terror and War’ – an imaginative creation by Ben Wagin, using sixteen trees and fifty-eight original wall parts. Tourists visit those places and take photos. There are more memorials: the ‘Mauer Park’ and the ‘Topography of Terror,’ an original part of the wall with Hinterland and Death zone, another one with the tower used by sharpshooters. The Berliners are maintaining these reminders to show the world what has happened here. It is a warning to be vigilant and not let it happen again.The Berlin Wall was built to keep people “in” since they were escaping by the thousands each day. I was one of them.

But not only the Berliners kept relics and built memorials. A commission from Japan came in 1990 and bought two parts for a Museum Village honoring the saving of German Seamen in 1873.

The most extensive collection of the wall is found in the Newseum in Washington D.C. The CIA in Langley, Virginia also displays three relics, and another three are gracing the Garden of the UN Main Office Building in the USA.

Winston Churchill coined the expression ‘The Iron Curtain’ in 1946. His granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, a wellknown sculptor, incorporated eight wall pieces in her ‘Freedom Memorial.’

South Korea was encouraged by the ‘Fall of the Wall’ that a unification is possible. They have five relics of the Berlin Wall in their Theme Park in Uijeongbu, representing the dream of their own ‘Unification’ with North Korea. Right now it is a very timely dream, and we hope it comes true soon. The leaders of both countries shook hands across the border and had long friendly talks.

Brandenberg Gate

You will find a piece with personal graffito of the Berlin Wall in Kingston, Jamaica, next to the Military Museum. It was a gift from the city of Berlin to the sprinter Usain Bolt after he ran a world record during the Berlin World Championships in 2009. Amazing that  many years after the ‘Fall of the Wall’ a relic of it is still a precious and welcome gift.

It is interesting how a piece of the wall came to be at the Vatican: The Italian businessman Marco Piccinini obtained a segment during an auction in Monaco and gifted it to Pope Johannes Paul II.

Last but not least, the City of Berlin presented a piece of the wall to the Freedom Fighter Nelson Mandela when he was released after twenty-seven years in prison. Due to Nelson Mandela, the Berlin Wall is represented in Kapstadt, South Africa.

My personal experiences happened before the wall was built. I escaped the East in 1955. My parents had a close call the day before the infamous “Wall” was put up overnight and saw the light of day on August 13th 1959. My parents tried to escape on August the 12th but did not make it. (see my book “We Don’t Talk About That“) Our family was divided for fifty years. It was interesting to see the new generations struggle with the new reality. The younger people in East and West had a difficult time understanding each other. During those fifty years of communist indoctrination in the East, a lot of brainwashing had taken hold.

We don’t want more walls! The only one we can accept and appreciate when traveling is the Great Wall of China.



Walls and Walls and more Walls?


Gate to Dionkelbuehl

Walls can surround you anywhere. You can build a wall around your heart. People build emotional walls around themselves. Your garden may have a wall for privacy. We had a wall built to shore up our garden against landslip. My favourite city of West Vancouver has a Seawall, the most wonderful place for walking or jogging. I have visited a great number of cities surrounded by walls, mostly built during the last two thousand years to keep out enemies or marauders. Surprisingly, many are still in good shape. And last but not least, I have lived and worked in the beautiful harbour city of newest part of wallStralsund at the Baltic Sea with a city wall which was rebuilt after heavy bombardments during WWII. Lest we forget! This wall is not for protection anymore – but primarily for its beauty, history, and tourism. (My guess!) Stralsund is now listed with UNESCO. You find other places with walls surrounding them along the Romantic Road and many other places in Germany. Some even have moats with drawbridges in front of the wall.

Some medieval cities have a small little door next to the big gate which was closed at dusk. A resident, coming home too late to enter through the big gate, had to make himself known to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper usually lived in a small room above the gate. Giving the right name or password the small door would be opened. During a conversation about religion my old friend Fred had asked me:

“Giselle, do you know how a camel gets through the eye of a needle?”

Fred was a Sunday school teacher. When he asked me he was referring to the Bible, Matthew 19:24. I knew the term but I had no answer. That’s when he explained that the little door next to the gate in the city wall of Jerusalem was called “Eye of the Needle”. During a late arrival with a camel, both man and beast had to crouch and it was very difficult for the animal to get through. Jesus compared it to the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven.

The most famous and longest wall in the world is the ‘Great Wall of China’. I have climbed this wall to the highest point as the only woman of my China Tour group a few weeks after the horrific happenings in the year of 9/11. The trip to China was the most interesting trip I ever did. Climbing the wall started out easy enough but got harder as the stairs got steeper and narrower. With my western shoe size, I had been walking sideways. At one point – by just inches – I almost got the boot of the man in front of me in my face. Respectfully, I put a few more steps between us.

2-image1The part of the ‘Great Wall’ my group traversed starts not far from Beijing and was built to keep invading armies out. It runs on top of a steep mountainous landscape. Invaders would be seen early and would hardly have a chance before being destroyed from above. Needless to say, the views are stupendous. The ‘Great Wall of China’ is supposedly one of the very few constructions on earth seen from space. It took many Emperors, soldiers, and criminals over 2000 years to build it. Most of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and, naturally, it has been repaired constantly ever since. It measures 8,851 km (or 5,500 miles) but in ancient times, all the different sections together stretched over 21,000 kilometers.

Another well-known wall to most of us is the infamous “Berlin Wall”. It was built by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) during the night of August 13th, 1961. To this day it is a puzzle how nobody had known and nobody ever saw or heard the trucks bringing masses of rocks, blocks, barbed wire and fence materials to the different locations. To build this wall was the only way to stop people from fleeing to the west. Parts of the wall ran along the middle of city streets dividing neighbours, families or friends living in houses on either side. Imagine a wall with glass pieces and barbed wire on top where we have a yellow line to divide the traffic. Thousands had fled the DDR every single day (I was one of them) and more were trying to escape after the wall was built by digging tunnels, even constructing a balloon, swimming across lakes and needless to say, many lost their life trying. The East German police had strict orders to shoot to kill.

image2-002-1The Berlin Wall was just one part of what became known as the “Cold War”. After the Berlin Wall had closed the biggest ‘hole’ to stop the escapes, construction of a wall with mine fields, and guard towers was built around the entire communist controlled part of Germany. It was probably the only wall ever built to keep people “in” and not to keep the enemy “out”. Just as nobody knew that this wall was going to be built so nobody expected it to come crumbling down during anyone’s lifetime. Incredibly, during a huge mass demonstration on the eastern side of the wall when everyone expected the Russian tanks to crush them, nothing happened and the East German police, guarding the wall, put their guns down. The people stormed the wall, started hacking away at it and once a section broke down, the rush to get through before all hell would break loose, filled the night with screams. Screams turned to laughter as people were met by the waiting crowd on the western side with hugs and tears. With music and song punctuated by champagne corks popping, they started dancing on the wall. The night turned into the party of all parties, never experienced or dared to hope for, uniting people and families after nearly thirty years of being kept apart.

Brandenberg Gate

Brandenberg Gate

On June 12th, 1987, at a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Ronald Reagan had called out to Mikhail Gorbachev,

“Tear down this Wall!”

It happened unexpectedly on the 9th of November 1989. It was the end of the Cold War, the unification of the two Germanys and it started the break-up of the mighty Soviet Union. Twenty-seven years of friendship, rebuilding and a never experienced quality of life for many countries followed. Today, we ask ourselves what may lie in our future now.

Donald Trump promised during the American election campaign to build a wall along the Mexican border. Would it become the most infamous wall of all the walls in the world? From the English songstress ‘Adele’ to Pope Francis and many others, cries like “Don’t build walls, build bridges” are heard. According to Donald Trump, his will be the highest, the meanest, and the longest wall ever. Will it rival the Great Wall of China and will it be seen not just from the ‘Moon’ but from ‘Mars’ as well!? Just kidding…

German Unification Day

Tree re-unitedThe People of Germany have a special cause for celebration today! It’s their “Unification Day”. East and West Germany were two countries since the close of WWII. They were united in 1989 and are happy to be “ONE COUNTRY” again. For me, having lived through WWII and seen the total devastation but emigrated to Canada in 1963, it is absolutely amazing what and how much the people of Germany have achieved. From saving and cleaning each brick from the rubble their cities were, rebuilding totally destroyed ones and now enjoying one of the highest living standards in the world. My sister tells me not to be blinded by the luxuries visible because despite all, there are many pensioners and  unemployed who have trouble making ends meet with the high cost of living and expensive rents. And still, the country is a strong pillar in the European Union, maybe even the strongest.

When I saw the photo of this tree this morning, placed by someone on Facebook, I couldn’t help but think of the divided Germany and the long years it took to grow together again. Just as the tree shows the healthy growth on top of the united two halves, so does Germany. Let’s hope the roots are strong enough to hold up the ever growing ‘crown’.  For me, – the 5th of October is also worthy of memory. It was the day I escaped East Germany. To this day my heart beats faster just thinking about it. Hundreds of thousands escaped to the ‘Golden West’ risking life and limb. Finally, they built “the wall” to keep their people ‘in’, not to keep unwanted people ‘out’.

For you, who want to know more about the history and rebuilding of Germany since WWI, through WWII and the after effects without reading large history books pick up my compelling book “We Don’t Talk About That” with the compressed political background easy to understand and, as some readers say “understand for the first time” why and how it all happened. The story you’ll read is one of an ordinary German family which stands for thousands of others who lived through the same trials and tribulations but to this day ‘don’t want to talk about that’.

German flagThe Germans have a very good reason to celebrate their special day. Nobody, absolutely nobody, ever expected it to happen; to be able to climb, dance on or hack at, scrape and tear down the Berlin Wall, without any shots fired, without another war happening.


#Escape from your country? #BerlinWall #EastGermany

EscapeCan you think of any good reason to escape from your country? I am not talking about criminal acts causing you to hide from being caught or trying to avoid punishment. No, I am talking about not being able to breathe anymore, not being able to talk openly, always being afraid to say the wrong thing, even to your own family.

About 60.000 people escaped almost monthly from East Germany to the West for many years. A number of them lost their lives when shot by other East Germans, maybe their brothers, cousins, or friends, – boys who had grown up since the war ended in 1945 and became part of the East German Police Force.

The day I escaped, it was October 5th 1955, over 16.000 registered in the West. In my case, it was West Berlin. The two shots fired after me could very easily have hit me but I like to believe the young police man missed on purpose. Maybe he lost his life because of it. Their order was to “shoot to kill.” Maybe he was severely punished. Maybe he could prove that he did NOT do it on purpose. Two Berliner men pulled me into a moving train. Luckily the train was not stopped as a result of my escape.

image2-002-1To stop the exodus the “Berlin Wall” had been built over night August 13th 1961. Nobody, absolutely nobody, knew about it and people wonder to this day how the government could have organized it. The Wall went straight down the middle of streets for some kilometers. Families or friends were cut off from each other. If you had been visiting in either East or West Berlin, maybe just across the street, you were stuck, you could not return. Days later the people living in the houses along the wall on the eastern side were evacuated and all the windows bricked up. The rest of the country was fenced in with miles and miles of barbed wire and a wide strip of mined no-mans-land. In order to see footsteps another wide strip of raked sand was added later. Towers for sharp shooters were built. East Germany became a large prison with life going on as if everything was Berlin Wall-2all right. But nothing was all right. People risked their life by building tunnels, balloons, micro-aircraft, even shooting wires across a street and became escape artists above the search lights. One young police man even stole an armored police truck and made it across the border and, despite being wounded and finding himself in a hospital bed he was happy because he made it! According to reports thousands got shot, many were wounded but they just did not give up trying to reach what is not even fully appreciated by the populace of western countries: Freedom.

Have you ever thought of freedom? What freedom means, to you or your family, your friends? It is something we don’t think about because it is something we take for granted.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall #BerlinWall

Berlin WallIt was in 1968 that my father and I had a chance to talk about his last will and testament. He lived in East Germany, I lived in Canada. East Germany was a communist country with strongly fortified borders, rows of barbed wire fences, mine fields in front of those and guard towers with sharp shooters present around the clock. Within the country you could move freely as long as you always registered with the police after arrival when visiting relatives in a different city for more than a few days. You also had to de-register when you left and register again when you came back to your permanent home. It was practically impossible to get a visa to visit relatives in West Germany – unless you were a 65 year old male, or 60 if you were female. Younger people were kept “in” since too many had escaped before the Berlin Wall had been built. Now, at the end of the sixties older people had a chance; – if they didn’t come back, no loss and one person less to pay a pension to.

Father would never get a visa for Canada but he got one to visit his second daughter, my sister in Hamburg, West Germany. I sent a flight ticket to her, she got him a West German passport in exchange for his East German one and he came to Winnipeg for three glorious weeks. He asked “Wouldn’t it be better to take the train from Hamburg to Frankfurt instead of flying? I am afraid I’ll be late and then I’ll have to hang on to the straps and stand all the way to Canada.”

We talked about a will. He did not have one since he did not know how to do it. His youngest daughter stull lived in East Germany close to them, one daughter lived in Hamburg and I, his oldest, lived in Canada. I tried to convince him to leave everything to the youngest since she would be the one to look after my parents when they were getting on and needed help. He thought it not fair and thought we, the two in the “West”, should have something as well.

“Dad, we don’t need it. We are both established and we couldn’t spend it anyway.”

Eastern money had to stay in East Germany. Even if we came to visit we had to exchange West money one to one for each day we stayed there, so any inheritance would be useless.

With a guileful expression he looked at me and whispered ironically: “My girl, you will see, it will change one day. The way things are going at home can’t go on. Sooner or later the wall will come down.”

“Dream on, Dad that will never happen.” I did not believe him. But I did convince him to make a will leaving me out and my sister in Hamburg agreed to it as well. He never felt comfortable about it but eventually he did leave us out of his will.

On the evening of November 9th I was resting on my couch in my cozy home in Vancouver reading and listening to a Mozart concert when my phone rang. It was my son:

“Mom, do you have the TV on? They are dancing on the Berlin Wall! Mom, hurry – switch your TV on, this is history in the making. You ought to see this! The East German Police have put their guns down, hundreds of thousands are streaming through Check Point Charley into West Berlin, people are hugging and kissing, dancing and singing and drinking champagne, they are hacking away at the wall, Mom, you ought to see this!”

My son in Winnipeg and I in Vancouver, connected by the telephone, sat up long into the night, ran up a huge phone bill, but it did not matter. The wall was coming down! The wall that had divided thousands of families for nearly thirty years, ours included. We shared these first hours and laughed and cried. I had taken him to Berlin when he was about twelve years old and we had looked over the wall from a platform built on the west side, almost twenty years hence.

My father had been right. Oh, how I wish he could have lived to see the day, I know that his tears would not have stopped running down his beloved face. He died in 1983, six years too soon.

Now we are close to November 9th, 2014 celebrating:

“Twenty-five year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”