Climbing the stairs from Nordbahnhof Station to Bernauer Strasse in Mitte, Berlin today you will find a vibrant city centre with cyclists, pedestrians and and trams jostling for roadspace. Patrons in the hip coffee shops and bars enjoy a relaxed Berlin lifestyle in a bustling business district.
It is hard to believe that just 28 years ago, this area formed part of one of the most iconic sites of the cold war – the Berlin Wall.
Berlin Wall Memorial
Today we are visiting the Berlin Wall memorial,. This is an interactive display providing an insight into the lives of those ‘beyond the wall” during the cold war years. Spanning one kilometre through the centre of Berlin, the memorial describes escape attempts made during the history of the Wall.
Vertical metal rods mark out the original outer wall, constructed from August 1961. An interactive memorial provides a graphic history of “the Wall”, from its hasty construction to its eventual deconstruction in 1989.
Initially the wall was a hastily erected barbed wire fence to prevent the escape of Eastern residents. The construction eventually evolved into two prefabricated concrete walls, separated by a floodlit “deathstrip” patrolled by shoot to kill guards, guard dogs, minefields and booby traps.
The station from which we had just alighted became one of many “ghost stations”. These stations were sealed up to prevent escape by easterners, while western train travellers continued to ride express through the empty platforms.
On Bernauer Strasse, the facade of the apartment buildings formed the outer wall. Windows were eventually bricked over as residents jumped to freedom. Picture boards bring humanity to the story, providing the stories of those who attempted to escape – both successfully and unsuccessfully.
History of escape attempts
It is hard to comprehend that in our lifetime, families were so abritrarily separated, unable to visit relatives “across the street”. That austerity and suppression, versus prosperity and freedom once sat within such close proximity. Sitting in our son’s previously “eastern” apartment that night we could see the roof of his brother’s home a few streets away. We were struck by the fact that a divide existed during their lifetime which would have prevented normal family contact.
The interactive display shows the tunnels used as escape routes through the basements of the long demolished buildings. Further along Bernauer Strasse you will come across the local church, destroyed by the Russians and now a chapel honoring those who attempted escape.
The adjacent graveyard was moved to make room for the wall construction, relatives no longer able to visit graves. This new graveyard now forms part of the memorial garden, commemorating those who lost their lives attempting to escape across “the Wall”.
Entry is free to the adjacent tourist centre , providing a history of the wall, stories of local residents and an interesting display of artifacts. Catching the lift up to the gallery provides a view over the remaining watchtower and “deathstrip”, the memorial gardens across the entire one kilometre stretch
East Side Gallery
Walking around to the East side, a similar remnant of the wall along the Spree River now serves as a modern art gallery. Artists were commissioned to paint murals along the remaining one kilometre stretch of the wall. The East Side Gallery depicts life in cold war East Berlin and celebrates reunification.
Thirty years on, the austerity is beginning to lift as building work begins to revitalise this part of the city.
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