The year was 1984. I was a young American living in Germany. This would be my first visit to the beautiful city of Berlin. With my passport in hand, I boarded the bus that would take us through checkpoints Alpha, Bravo and Charlie and finally into the East German sector. I would never forget the first time that I saw the Wall and the city divided.
The bus was filled with mainly Canadian and American spouses of military personnel. We were a jovial bunch until we got closer to the Wall and then the silence seemed to blanket us. The stark contrast of a city divided, of man’s inhumanity towards man enveloped our thoughts as we approached the armed Soviet and East German guard post. The first thing that caught my attention was the fact that ALL of the guard towers were facing their own people. It was as though the East Germans and Soviets didn’t care what the Allies were doing; they were watching their own community. I wondered why.
At the time, I didn’t realize that East Germans were shot and killed on a weekly basis trying to escape over the Wall which spanned ninety-six miles long and stood twelve feet high. Hundreds were killed trying to scale the Wall and find refuge in West Berlin during the twenty-seven years that the Wall existed in the city of Berlin. The last young man to lose his life was Chris Gueffroy on February 6, 1989. But it is eighteen year old, Peter Fechter, who died on August 17, 1962 that was the most dramatic escape. He scaled the barbed wire at Checkpoint Charlie, was shot over ten times and left for dead as he bled to death. His family stood helplessly watching from the other side of the Wall. West Berliners and the whole world were outraged by this young man’s senseless death. Still, the Wall defied the criticism of the free world and stood for another twenty-seven years.
The Wall came tumbling down twenty years ago this month. Many of the young people living in Berlin scarce remember the day or the events surrounding the erection. One twenty-something Berliner was interviewed recently and she couldn’t cite the facts regarding the Wall. She concluded by saying, “Well, it’s down now. Right? That is a good thing.” Yes, that is a very good thing. We need to remember the tragedy, the torment of families separated and the many lives lost in the pursuit of freedom.
It’s a little too late for Peter Fechter, Chris Gueffroy and the countless others who yearned to risk it all to cross the Wall and lost their lives doing it.
I hope we remember the facts, the cruelty of separating family members from each other. The Wall went up overnight – first as a stockade and then the concrete barriers replaced the barbed wire. We need to remember the mothers and sons who were separated by just a few feet and then, a lifetime.
If we forget the tragedy, we risk the reoccurrence.
May we never forget the Wall.