The Ber­lin Wall’s legacy

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RUBY MELLEN [email protected]­

Pieces of the wall have jour­neyed to six con­ti­nents, where they serve as shrines to a dis­turb­ing past.

When the bor­der be­tween East and West Ger­many opened on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, rev­el­ers hacked and chis­eled at the Ber­lin Wall, which had di­vided the city for decades. They were try­ing to make way for peo­ple to cross over but also re­volt­ing against a struc­ture that had been a sym­bol of op­pres­sion and di­vi­sion for decades.

The wall was erected in 1961 to pre­vent res­i­dents of Sovi­et­dom­i­nated East Ger­many from de­fect­ing to the West — as they had been do­ing in droves. Once the con­crete bar­rier was in place, get­ting caught try­ing to cross with­out au­tho­riza­tion had life-or­death im­pli­ca­tions. Be­tween 1961 and 1989, at least 140 peo­ple were killed by the East Ger­man po­lice while try­ing to es­cape.

It took more than a year for the wall, which stretched for about 114 miles, to be com­pletely de­mol­ished. Some of the mat­ter was re­cy­cled to build roads, but cap­i­tal­ism also caught on quickly, and the Ger­man govern­ment be­gan to look for buy­ers from all over the world to pur­chase and dis­play parts of the wall.

Thirty years later, pieces of the Ber­lin Wall have jour­neyed far out­side Ger­many to six con­ti­nents and dozens of coun­tries, where they now serve as memo­ri­als to a dis­turb­ing past and joy­ous lib­er­a­tion. But re­gard­less of how far from Ger­many the wall seg­ments travel, the mes­sage, said cu­ra­tors and his­to­ri­ans, al­ways hits close to home.

Ein Hod, Is­rael

For Raya Zom­mer-tal, bring­ing part of the Ber­lin Wall to Is­rael was not an ob­vi­ous choice. The di­rec­tor of the Janco Dada Mu­seum out­side Tel Aviv, Zom­mer-tal was in Ber­lin in 1991 when the di­rec­tor of the Check­point Char­lie mu­seum, which com­mem­o­rates the fa­mous check­point into East Ber­lin, asked her a ques­tion: Would she host an ex­hi­bi­tion in Is­rael on the his­tory of life in East Ber­lin? He said they would send her a piece of the wall to dis­play if she agreed.

Zom­mer-tal hes­i­tated. It would be an atyp­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion for her mu­seum, which pri­mar­ily fo­cused on the Dada art move­ment — an ab­sur­dist form of ex­pres­sion­ism that rose in re­ac­tion to the hor­rors of World War I. But, as she pro­posed to her col­leagues back in Is­rael, the sub­ject mat­ter had a con­nec­tion with the an­ti­war ideals of the Dada move­ment.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, which opened in early 1992, took up the en­tire mu­seum space, dis­play­ing the work of Ger­man artists’ rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the wall, as well as ob­jects and con­trap­tions peo­ple liv­ing in East Ber­lin used to es­cape. Zom­mer-tal re­mem­bers wheel­ing in a car that had a spe­cial com­part­ment used to smug­gle peo­ple into West Ber­lin. The show drew so many peo­ple that they had to ex­tend its run, she said. The piece of the wall, mean­while, was too big to fit in­side the mu­seum, so they placed it out­side, where it still stands. (Zom­mer-tal joked that it was cheaper for the Ger­mans to leave it in Is­rael than pay to trans­port the slab back to Europe.)

“It’s very spe­cial that we did it and that we have this piece, be­cause it’s very sym­bolic,” she said.

Not every­one was pleased with an ex­hi­bi­tion about the plight of Ger­mans.

“It wasn’t so easy to do this kind of ex­hi­bi­tion al­most 30 years ago,” Zom­mer-tal said. “There were a lot of Holo­caust survivors who didn’t like it.”

That was why it was im­por­tant, she said.

“It was the Ger­mans them­selves who were re­spon­si­ble, but they also suf­fered be­cause of what hap­pened in East Ber­lin at that time,” she said. “It’s not just a dec­o­ra­tion or a his­tor­i­cal piece; it has some mean­ing here in Is­rael.”

The wall seg­ment was later ded­i­cated to those killed dur­ing the Holo­caust.


Walk into the spa­cious en­try hall of Wash­ing­ton’s New­seum, a mu­seum ded­i­cated to free ex­pres­sion and free press, and you will be di­rected to be­gin your tour in the base­ment. There, stand­ing 12 feet high, are eight 2.5-ton seg­ments of the Ber­lin Wall, white­washed and blank on what was once the side that faced East Ger­many, color­ful and graf­fiti-cov­ered on the side that faced west. Loom­ing over the wall seg­ments is an au­then­tic, three-story East Ger­man guard tower.

Chris Wells, as a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the Free­dom Fo­rum, the New­seum’s par­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion, trav­eled to Ber­lin in 1993 and pur­chased the eight seg­ments for about $5,000 each (plus ship­ping). The tower, she said, was a gift to the New­seum, which in re­turn do­nated $15,000 to the Check­point Char­lie mu­seum.

“The wall is the most iconic and big­gest sym­bol of what a lack of a free press is and why it’s so crit­i­cal to democ­racy,” Wells said in a 2014 pod­cast, not­ing that what was sep­a­rat­ing the free me­dia from East Ber­lin was the wall.

The New­seum’s cur­rent space on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue was es­sen­tially built around the wall and the tower, said Sonya Ga­vankar, the Free­dom Fo­rum’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions.

“Half of our vis­i­tors are school kids,” Ga­vankar said. “So the Ber­lin Wall and the Cold War are an­cient his­tory to them. What it was like in the Cold War to be com­pletely blocked from free speech — noth­ing says it bet­ter than those 12-foot con­crete pieces.”

When the New­seum closes its doors at the end of 2019, Ga­vankar said, the pieces will go into an ar­chive fa­cil­ity un­til a new home can be found for them.

Cape Town, South Africa

In 1996, a piece of the Ber­lin Wall jour­neyed to South Africa as a gift for then-pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela. To­day, it stands in Cape Town, out­side the Man­dela Rhodes Foun­da­tion, which pri­mar­ily serves as a schol­ar­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion for African stu­dents.

The gift came at an im­por­tant time for Ger­many and South Africa.

“In the early 1990s, both Ger­many and South Africa be­gan to dis­as­sem­ble the di­vides cre­ated dur­ing the Cold War and apartheid, re­spec­tively,” said Judy Sikuza, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Man­dela Rhodes Foun­da­tion. “The Ber­lin Wall phys­i­cally rep­re­sented those bar­ri­ers and di­vides. It was a sym­bol of a lack of free­dom and em­brac­ing of our com­mon hu­man­ity.”

In Cape Town, she said, the wall serves as an in­spir­ing, though omi­nous, re­minder.

“Hav­ing a piece of the Ber­lin Wall out­side our of­fices,” Sikuza said, “is a sym­bol both of how far we have come — of the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial free­doms we have achieved in South Africa — and the ways in which we con­tinue to be di­vided.”

Ful­ton, Mo.

The story of how the Ber­lin Wall came to Ful­ton, pop­u­la­tion 13,000, dates to March 5, 1946, when Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill trav­eled to Ful­ton’s West­min­ster Col­lege to give an ad­dress. He had been per­suaded to do so by a good friend and Missouri na­tive, Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man.

There, Churchill de­liv­ered what be­came known as his famed “Iron Cur­tain” speech, warn­ing of the loom­ing threat of Soviet ag­gres­sion.

“From Stet­tin in the Baltic to Tri­este in the Adri­atic, an iron cur­tain has de­scended across the con­ti­nent,” Churchill said.

The Ber­lin Wall came to phys­i­cally em­body Churchill’s metaphor, seal­ing East Ger­many off from the West.

When the wall fell in 1989, Churchill’s grand­daugh­ter Ed­wina Sandys, an artist, had the idea to build an in­stal­la­tion in Ful­ton, which, she said, “seemed to be the per­fect place.”

She trav­eled to Ber­lin in early 1990 and pro­cured eight sec­tions, which the Ger­mans gave her, she sus­pects, when they re­al­ized who her grand­fa­ther was. The pieces trav­eled by ship to Long Is­land, N.Y., where Sandys carved two open­ings in the wall in the shape of hu­man fig­ures. She ti­tled the work “Break­through.”

“If you’re there, you have to walk through it,” Sandys said, adding that she en­cour­ages peo­ple to think of their per­sonal med­i­ta­tions, re­solves or pris­ons be­fore­hand and then “break through.”

The wall in Ful­ton has brought with it many il­lus­tri­ous guests. For­mer Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev, for­mer sec­re­tary of state Madeleine Al­bright, Bri­tish for­mer prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher and for­mer pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan have all given ad­dresses there.

“In a place like Ful­ton, his­tory doesn’t seem old. His­tory is alive,” said Tim Ri­ley, the di­rec­tor and chief cu­ra­tor at the Na­tional Churchill Mu­seum in Ful­ton, where “Break­through” stands. “As we com­mem­o­rate and cel­e­brate the demise of the bar­rier, we also have to re­mem­ber and ed­u­cate. Walls don’t al­ways work. And this is a prime ex­am­ple.”


“Break­through” by Ed­wina Sandys, made from slabs of the Ber­lin Wall, stands out­side the Na­tional Churchill Mu­seum, on the cam­pus of West­min­ster Col­lege in Ful­ton, Mo.


A piece of the Ber­lin Wall stands out­side the Janco Dada Mu­seum in the Is­raeli vil­lage of Ein Hod, out­side Tel Aviv, in 2014.


A seg­ment of the wall is in­stalled out­side the head­quar­ters of the Man­dela Rhodes Foun­da­tion in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010.


Wash­ing­ton’s New­seum dis­plays eight seg­ments of the wall, shown here at the build­ing’s open­ing in 2008. It will close later this year.

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