Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Berlin: A Wall and a Cemetery

I feel anxious to wrap up these posts about Berlin, as I know they are dragging on and on, but I have a few more I want to add first, and this one has been particularly hard for me to write. I've been doing so much thinking and reading about World War II and the Berlin Wall years that I've felt almost immersed in that period lately—but I also know how comparatively shallow my understanding really is, so I hesitate in the attempt to lay it all forth.

I also know that until you are interested, yourself, for some reason, wars and hardship can seem fairly colorless. Though you know they have importance, all those facts can blend together into a sort of obligatory "that-must-have-been-awful" lump in your chest, which you would just as soon shove aside and get on with real life.

And then there's the inescapable reality that someone like me who has never experienced anything, anything like the horror of war, must, when discussing it, run the constant risk of obtuseness or sentimentalism.

Well, I will just mention some of the things I read and learned, so that if you DO have an interest, you can pursue it for yourself. For my part, my interest in the world wars in Europe really blossomed last year when we studied World War I. The two wars are so inextricably linked that I have actually felt, all year now, like I've left off in the middle of a two-act play and am breathlessly waiting for what happens next. Once I found out we'd be going to Berlin, knowing that I'd be teaching World War II for school this Fall definitely sharpened my interest in the history of the city.
So, on the (long, long) plane ride to London at the beginning of our trip, I read two books. The first was Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. The "Stasi" was the nickname for the state police in the GDR (East Germany), and the enormity of their reach was incredible. They had citizen informants everywhere (one member of the Stasi for every 63 people, or something like that), who were gathering information about everyone, all the time. Some of it sounds almost silly now, like the way the police would collect "smell samples" from people's clothing or chairs sat on. The Stasti leaders were convinced they could use a sort of "smell print" to identify people's movements and provide evidence of illegal activities. But it wasn't funny at all to the people involved. They threatened and spied and blackmailed, and people either collaborated with them or faced bureaucratic obstacles (or worse) at every turn. The stories were heartbreaking. One talks about a young girl posting "revolutionary" fliers at school on a teenage whim and being taken, tortured, and put in prison for years. Another tells about a baby born with a medical condition that only the more advanced hospitals in West Berlin could treat. Somehow the East Berlin doctors got him to a West Berlin hospital, but that same week the Berlin Wall went up, and the mother was stranded back in East Berlin without her baby. Without access to the advanced treatments the baby would die, but the GDR authorities would not allow his parents out of the country. So the baby was raised to boyhood by the West Berlin doctors, living in the hospital and not meeting his mother and father until he was nearly five years old. The doctors and nurses had been kind to him, but he didn't even know what a family was, and addressed his parents with the formal "sie" like strangers. That story made me cry more than any of the others. And then there were stories from the other side; Communist leaders who were baffled by the opposition and still look back fondly on the glorious days of the "German Democratic Republic." It was fascinating.

(Another book I should mention, which I'm still in the middle of, is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. It came well-recommended and so far I'm loving it. It's about the American ambassador to Germany right before World War II, and it is an amazing feeling to "watch" helplessly, with the benefit of hindsight, as events unfold.)

The other book I read on the plane was The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, and this one, while not quite as poetic and story-like as Stastiland, was just as enthralling. It talks about all the bizarre, unlikely coincidences and the many interlocking layers of events that led to the Berlin Wall's collapse in 1989. Things like memos that didn't get sent, and people being sick and going home early when they should have been at press conferences, and reporters asking unlikely questions that prompted hasty or unprepared answers…if you were reading it in a novel, you'd never believe it! The GDR leadership was never intending to get rid of the wall altogether, and in fact they were trying to strengthen their position by loosening up in a few, mostly meaningless, ways—but the tide of events, each on its own seemingly small and insignificant, just swept everyone along until it was too late. I read the book all in one gulp, unable to stop. I loved it.

Then, adding to the miraculousness of it all, there's the story of my own church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in East Germany! This is a truly amazing story; one I never knew till just a few weeks ago when I happened on this article. It tells how, of all things, a Mormon temple was built in East Germany behind the "iron curtain"—with the support of the GDR government!! I was overwhelmed, reading about it, with amazement and gratitude. I may write about it more when I've had time to digest it, but the most amazing detail was President Kimball's advice to the LDS Church leaders in East Germany: "make friends with and overcome your resentment of the Communists!" The advice was so strange and counterintuitive…and yet it led to miracles and the changing of hearts. You've got to read the article.

You can also read this and imagine sweet little 11-year-old Dieter Uchtdorf in the hills of East Germany, running with his mother from the border guards, trying to reach safety in West Berlin. That made me cry too. Each one of these small, personal stories brought the history a little more to life for me until, as I said, I almost felt part of it myself.

Thus, the one thing I went to Berlin wanting to see was the Berlin Wall Memorial, where they have preserved a small section of the wall and built a museum commemorating it. Even this little area, apparently, was somewhat controversial, as after the wall fell, most people wanted to get rid of every vestige of that hated barrier. But I'm so glad they didn't, painful as the recollection may be, because it seems a very important thing to preserve a memory of.

I felt like I walked around Berlin surrounded by a haze of the past. I wrote about it a little here. Whether it was because of the damaged buildings, or the books I'd been reading, or some lingering spiritual disturbance in the air, or just because my thoughts kept running down the same channels, I don't know, but I just couldn't shake the feeling of being in two worlds. When people asked me what my favorite part of the city was, I said it was this Berlin Wall Memorial, and that felt like a strange thing to say I "enjoyed"—but I think it was a relief to, at this place, give free rein to those thoughts and let them flow and linger as they would. There was a sense of weight and presence to the very ground, and it felt almost sacred to me—not that it was in itself a holy place, but that the memories there were meant to be preserved.
The museum was full of stories of all kinds of people affected by the wall. Sam and I couldn't stop talking about how strange the dichotomy was: on one hand, the pure obvious evil of it—slicing families apart, stifling freedom, murder and torture. There were pictures of people jumping out the upper-floor windows of the buildings next to the wall, breaking legs and ribs in a desperate attempt to get out before the police bricked up the rest of the windows. There were letters written between sisters, arranging to meet every Sunday at the wall and just wave to one another, though the guards threatened them and chased them off if they saw it going on. There were accounts of cruel soldiers finding half-dug escape tunnels and lying in wait to punish anyone remotely involved. And yet—on the other hand—there was the almost terrifying normalcy of it all. Guards that were regular people, following orders reluctantly or half-heartedly. Children so used to the wall's presence that they didn't even see it anymore, feeling that it was just the way things would always be. Families that watched the wall go up literally overnight, but who didn't flee, feeling sure it was temporary and maybe even necessary to help the struggling economy stabilize.
I think the other thing that kept washing over me was the immediacy of it all: the fact that this evil, this imprisonment and breaking of spirit, was going on in my lifetime, as I was living my oblivious and happy childhood in the United States. And I know that, indeed, things like this are still going on in many places in the world. Atrocities that seem so removed from a "modern" and "civilized" world—but that are only a breath away from rearing up again, as the evil in human nature always will when left unchecked. I know intellectually that there is nothing permanent separating us from darkness and barbarism—but in this place I felt it and knew it for a truth. That was sobering and made my thoughts plunge into a darkness I often manage to avoid. And yet it wasn't a despairing feeling—more like just a seriousness, an "awareness" (to use an overused word) that the fight against evil is real and profound, and we are all part of it, knowingly or unknowingly.
The memorial area is well done: where the wall used to run, there is a row of disconnected iron posts marking its path. There are also markings on the ground delineating the space: inner wall, outer wall, guard towers, and so forth, and—most poignantly—stones marking the path of each attempted escape tunnel, and circles to preserve the spot of each person shot while trying to escape. There are far more of these than you might imagine.
This arrangement is a powerful way, I thought, to capture the reality and the presence of the wall without making you feel imprisoned behind it. It's impossible, as you walk that line, to avoid thinking about how easily you could slip between the posts at will, and about how dearly that simple freedom came to those who lived behind the wall.
Where the wall itself is not preserved, there's a simple line of bricks marking its path through the city. Again, as you cross it, there's a feeling of unreality, as if the weight of the past rises up with your footsteps. I suppose you would get used to that feeling eventually. But I didn't while I was there.
For years, the church in this picture stood directly behind the wall, unused and off-limits, but an iconic sight nonetheless. The communists hated it, apparently. It seemed to defy all they stood for, and so, a few years before the collapse of the wall, they blew it up.
This non-denominational chapel now marks the site where it stood.
This structure shows the size and location of one of the guard towers
There was a subway station at Bernauer Strasse that crossed between East and West Berlin. When the wall went up, the station was closed and covered with barbed wire. Above you can see the re-opened entrance of the station today.

(If you like that sort of thing, the comparison between past and present, you'll like this gallery of before and after pictures of Berlin. You can move a slider back and forth to see the same places past and present.)
This statue made me cry
From an upper balcony in the museum, you can look out at this section that preserves the whole layout of the wall, with inner and outer wall, lights and guard towers, left just as they were back then. It's strange to see that grey, stark patch of ground standing still amid of the bustle of everyday life.
Maybe our favorite part of all, though, was this cemetery that runs right along the border of where the wall used to be. Some of it was torn up, and the graves desecrated, by the Communists building the wall, who weren't supposed to care about that superstitious nonsense of honoring the dead. But now the cemetery feels like the most beautiful, peaceful place in the whole city. It was old and overgrown and indescribably beautiful. Sam and I both immediately expressed our wishes to be buried here ourselves.
There was such a sense of holiness to it. I like cemeteries anyway, but this was unlike the sort of vast expanses of lawn and sunlight I'm used to at home. It was sheltered and enclosed, a space of birdsong and silence apart from the whole world around it. There was an old lady humming to herself as she dug in the earth around a grave, planting something and making it beautiful.
We walked quietly, feeling the expanse of years settle around us. We didn't want to leave, and I think it was because we could feel, here where spirit and earth are close together, the strength of good in the world. The hopefulness balancing out that soberness I spoke of earlier—a reminder that, ultimately, the darkness of human nature WILL be overcome, for God is there, and his arms of mercy are stretched out still.
"For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us…
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God." (Ephesians 2:14, 19)

3 comments:

  1. Oh. Wow. Such amazing stuff to ponder in. And such an incredible experience! And I'm so glad you'd been reading and preparing so you COULD appreciate so much of what was there so well. I must not forget to go back and read the temple article!

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    1. That "in" after "ponder" just . . . appeared out of nowhere. I don't know why I even try to type anymore.

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    2. Ha! I love it when autocorrect fails you. It means I get two comments from you instead of one! :)

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