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Black in Berlin: The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall and its affect on the course of German history will not be forgotten.  At every corner there are reminders of the city’s journey; the course of the Berlin Wall is marked by a double row of cobblestone throughout the city, other pieces are still intact as open air exhibits, and the Palace of Tears, the train station where people said sorrowful goodbyes to loved ones, is still in use.

Fifty years ago, the East German Government (GDR) erected a wall that divided the city of Berlin. The Berlin Wall was built to restrict free movement between the communist East and the democratic West. Construction began early on the morning of August 13, 1961 and began as barbed wire and cement stones along the geographic boundaries of West Berlin. In the years that followed the Wall grew to a heavily protected 12.5 foot high concrete structure that was almost 96 miles long. Before the barrier was erected, between 1949 and 1961, an estimated 3.5 million East Germans migrated to settle in the West, in pursuit of better living standards and higher wages. In a direct response to East Germany’s best and brightest defecting, the government reinforced their borders making it virtually impossible for anyone to leave.

Once contained behind the Wall, the GDR was cut off from the rest of country and the world. Travel outside was not permitted and international collaborations were forbidden. Because of the it’s restricted borders, items not grown or built in East Germany were hard to come by. My coworker, who grew up behind the wall, sometimes humors me and shares what life was like for some Germans just 20 years ago. Simple items that we take for granted like coffee was extremely expensive and even bananas were rare. Once a year he would wait for hours to get one banana for his entire household. I can’t imagine that in my lifetime a banana was considered a luxury item. Variety was not the spice of life in the former East, only the most basic of your needs were met.

For some, the basic needs were not enough and the desire for freedom was worth risking your life. In order to escape dictatorship, citizens of East Berlin, jumped from buildings that bordered the Wall, scaled fences, dug tunnels and even attempted running across the “death strip” where you were an easy target for the guards in the watch towers. In the 28 years the Berlin Wall stood, 138 men and women lost their lives during escape attempts. On August 13, 2011 Berlin and the rest of Germany remembered the victims of the Wall in a memorial service and at noon bells rang from church towers and public transport stopped. The entire city recognized a moment of silence. Personally, I took the time to reflect on the Berlin I live in today and how far the city and its people have come.

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