It was June 3rd 1991, and I had graduated from high school exactly three days before. I sat with suit cases assembled at a gate in the Phoenix airport, surrounded by family, my friends, and my German teacher. A group of students from my school were headed off to Germany for a month to be exchange students in Berlin. It was going to be my first big adventure as a newly minted “adult”.
Fifteen hours and a very uncomfortable plane ride later, we landed in Munich. After we had toured Bavaria and Austria for a week, we boarded the equivalent of a Greyhound bus, and were Berlin bound. As we drove northward out of Bavaria into Thuringia, the roads became bumpier and less maintained; a sign of communist neglect. We passed fields of bright yellow flowers and forests of thick green trees. What a contrast to the monolithic apartment blocks and dismal architecture of East Germany. As we approached Berlin, evidence of East Germany’s desire to keep people from fleeing to the west became very evident. Abandoned, yet intimidating, grey gates and check points were our gateway into Berlin. Shortly we would meet our host families and begin our stay in the Spandau Quarter of the city, and would attend Hans-Carossa Oberschule.
Spandau and HCO were about as far from the Berlin Wall as you could get. There were trees, lakes and quiet cobblestone streets, cut by the occasional busy street, shops, cafes, street vendors, and children at play. Every few blocks red English telephone booths popped with color and stood sentinel, evidence of Spandau’s place in the British section of West Berlin. By looking at our neighborhood, you would never guess that only a few miles in any direction the grey, concrete of the Berlin Wall stood, ringing the city, keeping people out, keeping people in.
One afternoon we were dismissed from school early. Along with our host siblings and new school friends, we decided to venture into the center of Berlin to see the where the Berlin Wall still stood. We walked down the Boulevard 17th of June, a tribute to the only workers revolt in East Berlin in 1953. We trudged thru the massive Tiergarten park toward the Brandenburg Gate, the epicenter of the division of two countries, but one city. Wide swaths of land, where the Wall had been cleared away, remained as a stark reminder of 28 years of division, oppression, cessation of healing from the brutalities of war, and a city divided against itself. Of course these divisions were only representative of the larger divisions that were born of post-war divergent ideologies. I don’t think I really appreciated what I was in the middle of right at that moment. That came later. I was standing on sacred ground though, a place that would be part of history, and I did know that
However, seeing the wall, and how it cut thru neighborhoods, left a mark on my heart. In places only small canals or bridges separated east from west. The Wall wound its way around the back of the old Reichstag building on the western side and in front of the Pergamon Museum on the east. Even riding the U-Bahn (subway), one was reminded of the divided city, as the train sped thru abandoned and boarded up stations in East Berlin. If you rode the elevator to the top of the Funktrum (TV broadcast tower) in East Berlin, you could see clearly, for miles, the exact outline of the Berlin wall as it cut thru the city, and encapsulated West Berlin. Walking east down the avenue which started at the Brandenburg Gate which was called Unter Den Linden, WW2 bullet holes still pock marked the neo-classical buildings of pre-war Berlin. The Communists never took the time to repair them. I suppose they were too busy building the new and imposing buildings of a people’s republic to be bothered with the past. Even a year and a half after the fall of the Wall, the contrast between east and west was stark, stinging and a lesson in freedom.
I left a big part of my heart in Berlin that summer. The part of my heart that remained in me was impressed though. Deeply and profoundly impressed by the Berlin Wall and what it represented and what it had done to the world. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Five years ago I wrote about the fall of the wall and what it meant to me as a missionary for the Church behind The Iron Curtain. This week in Berlin they have had an art exhibit called “Lichtgrenze” or Border of Light has been displayed. This “Border of Light” consists of 8,000 lit balloons placed in the foot print of the Berlin Wall, closing off streets and intersections, just like the real wall did. My host-sister wrote me to tell me about it yesterday. She said it has been a stunning reminder of a harsh and ugly chapter of Berlin’s history, but that the city is alive and joyful as the residents celebrate their union. Today they will release the balloons into the air, attached with messages of hope and happiness.
Today, I still think about the freedoms I wrote about five years ago. Do we appreciate our freedoms? Are we actively engaged in fighting to preserve them? More importantly, are we teaching our children about our freedoms? Do they understand and know what they have? I hope so, because it’s important now more than ever as we see rights chipped away. I hope you will take time today to think and be thankful for the freedoms you enjoy.
Watch a short video about the Border of Light, the end is what will get you, to see the actual outline of the wall, lit up.