Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One In Berlin

It was March, 1990. The Berlin Wall was being slowly dismantled since early November, when the people rendered it obsolete. Throughout 1989, those who demanded freedom realized the mechanism of oppression was giving way to a new day. In several Eastern Bloc countries along the tense Cold War border, unrest grew to a boiling point. And in Berlin, the Wall could no longer contain the will of the people.

When friends and I arrived in Berlin, four months later, much of the Wall near Checkpoint Charlie was still very much functional and intact, but finally demilitarized.

We all wanted a piece of the Wall. You could buy pieces of graffitied Wall from makeshift vendors all along the Wall near Checkpoint Charlie and elsewhere along the border. We just couldn't bring ourselves to buy a piece. We wanted and needed to smash the wall and make it relinquish pieces of itself, one at a time. And preferably, we were after the highly sought-after, wildly-colorful graffitied pieces.

So we set out on a chilly gray day in earnest.

The graffiti artists never stopped spraying the Wall and the Mauerspechte ("Wall woodpeckers") who followed behind them, never stopped hammering. Just as a section of the Wall was chewed away, artists spray-painted the freshly exposed concrete. Once covered in color and form, the smashing and the chiseling began all over again, like some manic battle between beautification and destruction.

The graffitied pieces were so highly valued, some vendors just spray-painted the more generic, unpainted shards of concrete to spruce them up. Then they'd sell them to unsuspecting tourists as authentically graffitied pieces of the Berlin Wall. The dead-giveaway was that these pieces were painted on all sides. There was no raw concrete where the piece was broken off the Wall! Of course this may seem petty now, but these were factors of evaluation at the time. We literally rented hammers and chisels and set off to extract our pound of flesh from the Wall.

After walking for a while, we found just the right place to join in the destruction. The Mauerspechte had worked a fair-sized hole between two sections of the Wall. The hole had just recently become a passageway that was big enough (and the steel rebar bent severely enough) to allow a small-sized adult through. The other side known as "No Man's Land" or the "Death Strip" was the expansive area between the Wall on the border and the other walls and fences to the East.

Weeks and months before our visit, people caught trespassing into the Death Strip would be shot on sight. For decades, this was the buffer zone between Communism and Capitalism, Authoritarianism and Democracy, East and West. More than 136 people were killed trying to flee East Berlin. This is where some of the killings took place.

Now, armed with nothing more than a Walkman, rock 'n' roll, youthful idealism and our rented West German tools, we pushed each other through the hole and into the vast open space. We stayed close to the wall at first, getting acquainted with the sterile landscape. No Man's Land was probably a little over 100 yards wide and seemingly endlessly long. Your eye could follow the Wall until the border bent it out of vision.

There was no vegetation. There was no life. The earth was very well poisoned, salted and infertile for anything to grow. There was only small, perfectly groomed white pebbles covering the ground. The Wall itself on the East side was eerily whitewashed. This was the prefect environment for ultimate 24-hour surveillance and authoritarian population control.

After a few moments of soaking in the wickedness of it all, we turned up the music and started to hack away at the pristine-white Wall. The surface of the West's side of the Wall had been ground down for months by the Mauerspechte. But here in No Man's Land, the surface was painted and flawless as far as the eye could see. We had hit the mother lode and we were also armed with our very own cans of spray paint.

No doubt, the intoxicating element of greed was thick and palpable. We all wanted more and more of the Wall as we smashed it to small pieces. Early into the day we wanted to simply smack the Wall a couple of times, and maybe walk away with a few mementos. Later it became a huge game of one-upsmanship. The winner would poach the greatest amount of material from the formidable, snaking symbol of oppression. We learned to coax bigger and bigger pieces from the Wall by listening for hollow spots and using the claw of the hammer to pre-outline a piece. If possible, we wanted several pounds of the Wall, or more.

It was an all out frenzy. And tourists from all parts of the world, speaking all kinds of languages, pounded the Wall day and night. And they would not be denied. One man was hammering away at the rounded cap on top of the Wall when another man on the ground yelled, "Hey, I hope you know that's asbestos!" Who knows how much asbestos was torn off the Wall and carried back home in tourists' suitcases.

Back in No Man's Land, I noticed several huge clumps of decommissioned barbed wire out in the middle of the white-pebble field. Determined to scavenge all I could, I jogged out towards the piles of metal wire. I was able to hack off several pieces of wire with the claw part of the hammer. I almost had a fourth piece cut away when I looked up to see a small East Germany police car racing towards me. I gathered my tools and prized souvenirs and ran towards the passage hole.

Most everyone became panicked. A dozen people were shoving and pushing each other through the hole as fast as possible. It was too small for timely and graceful exits. Heads were banged up and arms were scraped and heart-rates were escalating. I realized that my buddy Tim had not noticed the mayhem or the police speeding towards us. Tim was lost in the music and oblivious to everything but his quest for more Wall. He continued his obsessive attack on the concrete with an ecstatic expression on his face. In the background, the sirens and lights of the police were closing in. I yelled in vain to get his attention. He was blissfully tearing down the Wall with everything he had, all to his own personal soundtrack.

The police came to a long and dramatic, sideways, skidding stop. White pebbles and dust went flying into a thick cloud and a lengthy, dark scar was burned into the manicured field. Tim finally realized what was happening and ran towards the hole.

At the last second, we all got through as the police came running out of the car. We all laughed nervously while they screamed at the small crowd through the hole. We all knew that they were no longer authorized to shoot to kill. But the No Man's Land or Death Strip was still off limits. Perhaps we could still be arrested and detained. Nobody wanted to find out.

We waited for the police to continue on with their patrol and went right back through the hole and resumed our chipping away at the Wall. As the day wore on, more and more people joined in the quest. And the East German police left us alone.

• • •

On a train heading out of Berlin, I met an elderly East German man, sitting across from me. We exchanged niceties and began to talk about his life in Germany. He was recently allowed to return to West Germany, as he had been confined to East Germany for almost 30 plus years. He explained how his wife had a severe eye problem and that the doctors in the East couldn't help her adequately. She needed Western medicine to prevent blindness, yet would never receive it unless the Wall was brought down.

He described a life of being denied contact with his family in the West. The mail, if it would be delivered at all, was strictly censored and monitored. He and his wife, like many Germans, were completely cut off from loved ones who just happened to be on the other side when the Wall suddenly went up in 1961.

But now he was able to leave the East. His wife was getting the necessary medical treatment that was so long overdue. He was now a free person, on his way to meet up with his wife, who was visiting with long-lost family. He was trying to assimilate all the new technologies and cultural developments that occurred while he was behind the Wall. He conveyed that it was a bit overwhelming, but that he was excited to be reintegrating with the West. He was hopeful for a bright future for his country.

It was an amazing conversation, and too much of it I have forgotten over time. But I'll never forget one thing he said. He told me that I must see his "new passport." He said this was the passport that "allowed him the freedom to travel anywhere in Germany."

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the most beautifully graffitied piece of the Berlin Wall. And it was painted on only one side.

With a long smile and a nod, he turned to look out the train window as we sped away from Berlin.


1 comment:

  1. I also recall meeting East German Engineers who were excited for the unification, but also fearful that they may possess less skill than their more "worldly" West German counterparts. The unification was about the "wall" and families and a county coming back together....but at the same time, the fear and pain associated with this was very real too.

    Great story, and just as I remember. I can't say I had ever seen a sub-atomic machine gun prior to that day (and thankfully not since then either) when the guards chased us back....

    Thanks for sharing, brings back great memories.