I’ve been doing a lot of biking lately. Well actually, that’s an understatement. I haven’t used public transportation in quite a while. And when you do a lot of biking in this city, it inevitably means you’re going to be crossing the wall. While any attempt to contextualize this experience may fall flat if you’ve never been here, suffice it to say that, if you know what you know about Berlin history and you’re halfway as observant as I purport myself to be, you’ll feel a little jolt in your stomach as your tires roll over that double line of bricks that cuts its way jaggedly through the urban landscape.
I tell everyone who comes here about the wall, and I usually start by assuming (nay, hoping) that they will be as ignorant about it as I was when I first came here, thereby giving me the opportunity to wend my way through a long and drawn-out tragi-comic history lesson that even I myself still find a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Today as I biked the line that shoots south from the Spree past the Reichstag and the Brandenburger Tor, I thought back to my changing perception of the wall (the country, the language), what I had thought it meant to me, and what it has since become.
- When I was probably eight years old or so, my best friend Samantha showed me something that her father, who had undoubtedly been traveling for work, had brought back for her from a place called Berlin. It was a crumbly cube of concrete, probably only a couple of inches wide and long, grey with just the slightest hint of color on one side. It was enclosed in a plastic case. It was labeled “A piece of the Berlin wall.” I wanted one too, so on the next trip her father brought me back a piece just like hers. She presented it to me, either as a birthday present or an end-of-school present, with a note that read, “we all deserve to own a piece of history.” I never took it out of its plastic casing, believing that it might turn to dust at the slightest gust of wind. It now sits in a cabinet located behind my bed in New York, along with shells, rocks, and starfish collected from various locations over the years.
- A couple of years before that, probably, I can remember having my first conversation about the Holocaust with my mother, right on the corner of our street as we walked past the Bank Street Bookstore. I don’t remember how much I knew, or who had started the conversation, but I remember at the end of it asking my mother if anything like that could ever happen again, asking my mother if all Germans were bad people who were capable of doing unspeakable things. I thought fondly back on my babysitter from the time I was born for about three years. Her name was Mecki and she was German. I couldn’t imagine her doing anything like that. I remember the sound of my mother’s voice, sad but reassuring, telling me that nothing like that would ever happen again because the world wouldn’t let it. I’m not sure whether she was telling me the truth, or whether she even believed it herself—as we talked, the wall was probably just about to come down in Berlin, or already had.
- At about the same time I received a piece of the wall to call my own, I began to read all the young adult novels that come to define our perception of the world, including a few classic Holocaust and WWII novels, like Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, Doris Orgel’s The Devil in Vienna, and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. All of these novels had girl heroines, and each one of them seemed unbelievably put-upon, and unbelievably brave. They usually escaped, although for some of them it was almost too late. I think I began to get a kind of torturous pleasure out of reading that exact type of story—it was an adventure story based in history, terrifying enough to be futuristic science fiction but actually real. I think we all enjoy holocaust stories and books and films with a kind of self-righteous fervor that is in each of us—we assure ourselves that we would never let this happen again, but we kind of sort of want the opportunity to test that theory. I know that as a little girl reading those books, I wanted to be exactly like those strong little girl heroes, and while I was glad not to have to make any of the decisions they did, there was something a bit sad in the knowledge that I would never be in a situation that would test quite that way. Perhaps one day I could prove myself somehow, but the line between good and evil would never be so stark again. There is a reason that, whenever people hate something or are terrified by it, they invoke Hitler and the Nazis (witness the national health care debate currently raging on in America). It is truly the only black and white we know—even the two sides of the wall are opposites that no one can agree on.
- I remember in middle school learning about world history, and learning that Nazis were very, very bad. I was aware that a wall had been built and come down in Germany’s capital at some point, but no one ever told me why it had been built, and why it would have been so difficult simply to go around it. After all, I reasoned, even the great wall of China has to end somewhere.
- At a certain point, perhaps in my second year of high school, I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to learn German. I don’t know where I got this from, seeing as perhaps the only German I had ever heard had been in movies like Schindler’s List, and perhaps a bastardized version of it in Indiana Jones. Something about it intrigued me, and I remember telling a few friends how much I wanted to learn it, and receiving baffled looks or even outright expressions of disgust in response. I think I spoke to the head of the modern languages department at one point, who was also puzzled as to why I would want to learn German. I had my pick of two beautiful languages, Spanish and French, and I had also begun to learn Italian outside of school. Perhaps I liked the idea of learning German because it didn’t seem like a cliché, or maybe I liked that there was something taboo about it. In any case, I never got my German language classes, but I suppose I stored the wish away somewhere in the back of my mind.
- In the year between my sophomore and junior years of college, I took a three-month trip through Europe on my own. Something about Germany seemed awfully drab and grey and boring, so I avoided it altogether. I had heard that Berlin was a great party town, but that wasn’t really what I wanted anyway. When I came across people in my travels who had been there, I immediately asked myself why they would want to waste precious time going to a city that inevitably had little to offer. It was the last place on earth I saw myself traveling to, and I assumed I would never go there.
- A few years ago, I was told about a movie that had just come out and that I had to see. It was called The Lives of Others and it was a German film taking place in Berlin. I naturally assumed it was anther movie about the Holocaust and kept it off my list just because of that. It was only when I went with a group of people to see another movie that ended up being sold out that I reluctantly bought tickets to this film instead. I found myself completely absorbed by a time and place I knew almost nothing about. The Stasi, East Berlin, no Nazis? Why had no one ever told me that part of Berlin’s history was like the greatest film noir ever made?
- Flash forward to a little over one year ago. I was planning on going to graduate school to get a PhD in English Literature because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life (Guess what? I still don’t). My favorite professor told me that if I really wanted to wow the admissions committees in various English departments at various impressive universities, I should learn German. I would need at least three languages in order to get a doctorate any way, and German was a language that had the double advantage of not only being very important in the fields of literary theory and philosophy, but also being a language that almost no Americans applying to graduate school knew. I knew almost nothing about the German capital, but had heard a couple of friends and acquaintances talk about it as “a fun place to go out.” One of my closest friends Sam, had spent a couple of weeks there and remembered it fondly. It took me very little time to convince myself that I should go there to study German. Why stay in New York when I could go to Berlin?
- People told me that Berlin was unbelievably cheap, but I didn’t really know how cheap until I signed onto Berlin Craigslist and looked at the rents. I began to get really excited: instead of two months scraping by and trying desperately not to spend money on anything, I would instead actually live like a real person. Well, maybe not a real real person, but at least as real people are meant to live. With an apartment that cost 300 Euro a month, I could actually take the time to breathe and not feel guilty. I didn’t really understand that the low rents were because of the wall until later.
- A couple of day into my stay in Berlin, living in a palatial apartment in Neukölln, I made an uninformed comment about how great it was to be living in East Berlin to the shocked silence and stammers of my roommates. “Uhh…we’re in the West, Giulia,” they finally said, explaining to me that Neukölln, although most decidedly in the geographically east of the city, was still politically a part of the West. I didn’t get it.
- It was only after a month here, when Germany celebrated the Tag der deutschen Einheit (“The Day of German Unity”) on October 3rd, that my German teacher took the time to talk about the history of the wall, what had separated Berlin and finally brought it back together, and my French friend Judith took it upon herself after class to educated this woefully misinformed American. I had always, in my ignorance, imagined Germany to have been divided into two equal parts after the war, with a wall running the entire length of the country, straight through the middle, coring it like an apple. Berlin, I reasoned, was naturally in the geographical center of the country, and that was why it had to be split too, with a line running straight through the center of the city. Judith, along with my German teacher Frau Schneider (yes, really) explained how Berlin was strategically the most important city, and as such it had been divided into four different sectors to be watched carefully by the four different allied forces—America, Britain, France, and Russia. The Russians had their own ideas, however, and in very little time the other three sectors had banded together as capitalist West Berlin, while the communist East set itself apart in its Northeastern corner of the city. The wall was only built because no one wanted to stay. In order to claim that they were successful they needed citizens, and so they built a brick prison to keep their citizens from leaving. They also built up a psychological wall—an intelligence infrastructure, the Stasi—to keep their citizens from ever saying anything bad about them or doing anything against them. The only comparison today is North Korea, and as mind-blowing as it is to think that something like that exists even today, it is just as absurd to me that the wall was still up when I was born, and only came down when I was five years old. The place where I am sitting right now seemed, a mere 20 years ago, to be as accursed and hopeless as North Korea today. No one believed the wall would ever come down, and then it did.
- I was five years old when it happened, and in four and a half months I’ll be five and twenty. It happened in my lifetime, and yet every time I think of the wall, I can’t help but think of how unfortunate I was not to have been old enough to comprehend the magnitude of what I must have seen on TV—indeed, not to remember it at all. A few months ago, my father came here for the first time since before the wall came down, and I ache to be able to see what he saw, and feel what he felt at seeing it all again. I meet people my own age who grew up in Berlin—not many, but a few. They don’t remember the fall of the wall any better than I do, but they remember the glorious aftermath: a whole city of color and wonder and crumbling splendor opening up before their eyes, a child’s playground for them to discover, and twenty more years of a changing city before they would get to now, this point where they were talking about it to me.
- Back when I was still working at the ad agency, my boss played a video for me. It had been filmed by an American pilot, flying low over Berlin right after the end of the war. It started from the Brandenburger Tor and traveled West on Unter den Linden, over Museum Island, into Alexanderplatz, and down that long stretch of no man’s land that still exists between Mitte and Friedrichshain. I found myself in tears, but I don’t think it was just because of that scene of destruction; of seeing my beloved city lying in ruins before me. I believe I also cried thinking of what was still to come—that period of history that no one teaches you as an American student in New York, that part of our recent past that turned Berlin into a microcosm of the 20th century, that psychological barrier of brick and stone and barbed wire that hurt the city irrevocably, but also made it the mad, colorful, beautiful, and still-not-quite-to-be-believed misfit’s paradise that it is today.
They woke up one day and there was a wall, and they didn’t think they would live long enough to see the other side of it. They had no idea that one day, going from East to West would be as simple as pedaling a bicycle over a jagged brick line in the road.