Sunday, 09 November 2014 00:00

"When we were at the Berlin Wall" – Memories of European volunteers

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Photo: Hadar Naim; Licence: CC-BY 2.0. 
Visitors can find such engravings in many areas of Berlin: they mark where
the Wall used to be.


With the gaze of all European media outlets focusing on the Berlin Wall and its historical importance, E&M wants to talk about the 25th anniversary of its fall from a personal perspective. This year, as an exclusive for our magazine, we are pleased to host the experiences of three young Italian women who spent two months in Berlin on a volunteering project at the Berlin Wall MemorialAlice BaruffatoEugenia Pennacchio and Veronica Pozzi, one of our Sixth Sense editors, share with us their feelings and their thoughts, developed over the course of their work at such an important place for the Europe in which we live.


Eugenia Pennacchio foto


Eugenia – The choice of building an historical memory by giving prominence to real life people


Behind the great history of nations and heads of state, there are the little, local stories and, behind these stories, there are real people, their lives, their emotions, their everyday experiences. As an historian I often forget that. I have been studying and analysing epochal events: wars, peace, their causes, the big protagonists of contemporary history and their actions, which seem to be solely responsible for the geopolitical context of the world where we live.


My decision to join a volunteering project at the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin, after having done academic research on the pacifist movements of East Berlin, was a good opportunity to re-live and to explain to visitors some of the pivotal events in the history of Germany and of the whole world. But I didn't imagine this two-month project would give me an approach to history and memory that was slightly different from the one I knew and had taken for granted before.


It is not easy to keep historical memory alive, in this mined ground it is not difficult to join some preconceived parties, dividing the good from the wicked, the victims from the killers. It is a step that often makes it easier to remember history, but in doing so takes away the complexity that we prefer not to face. Working in the Chapel of Reconciliation has taught me that this way of thinking is simplistic, that memory should go beyond annual parades and ceremonies. Memory should be formed taking into consideration and remembering every day the grains of sand, the lives of real people. The ritual that is celebrated every day in the chapel has been, for me, an innovative experience and a starting point to reflect on the best way to build an historical memory.


Every day at noon, my colleague and I took a ladder, a rope and some earplugs, and went to the place where the original bells of the old church, which was destroyed by the leaders of the GDR in 1985, were kept. During the Wall period, the old church remained stuck in the so-called "death strip", a piece of land between the border wall and an inner one, in the East. The parish community wasn't able to go to the church anymore, there were only soldiers patrolling the area. Using the rope and the ladder to reach the bells, we made them sound, starting from the smallest. Their ringing was an announcement that a short service was going to be held in the chapel, which we had previously set up accordingly with chairs and candles. In those twenty minutes the chapel was open only for those who wanted to join the commemoration and was closed to visitors interested only in grabbing some quick photos. People belonging to the local protestant community, many of whom had seen the building of the Wall in 1961, would read the biography of a person who died attempting to escape to the West. One biography per day, every day of the year, with a willingness to remember all of the people who died in escape attempts between 1961 and 1989. These stories don't focus on where or how they died, but on their lives, the jobs they had, their family and their roles as father, mother, son, brother, sister, doctor, artist, soldier... Individual lives, individual stories, many lives, many stories.


The memory which is created every day at the chapel is a democratic one, in which everybody is remembered with his face, his story, his choices. It is an effort to avoid and reject a scenic memory. It is the decision to remember, in the silence of that sacred place – so symbolic of divided Berlin – that history is made of and by people, their lives, their choices.


This way of creating memory is, to my eyes, a commitment to see history not as something fallen on citizens who did not have the right to have their say. Rather it is an effort to focus, once again, on the fundamental role people play, as every citizen is, with his small, everyday actions, builder of the world in which we all live.




Alice – The hidden meaning of the memorial's architectural choices


Brief but intense. This is the way I would define my experience as a volunteer at the Berlin Wall Foundation, which, by the time 9 November came around last year, had already ended some months before. 60 days in total, a period of time that runs quite fast, one could say, but was so dense as to actually seem much longer. I was assigned to the Chapel of Reconciliation, which has belonged to the memorial area since 1999, the year of its construction and not by chance the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall.


Even then in the midst of the experience and now looking back, if I were to choose three representative words, these would be: time, content and silence. What a surprising building I had in front of me, so minimalist in its architecture and literally cold! To all appearances, at least. However, after accessing an enormous quantity of bibliographical and photographical sources – and especially after being in contact with eyewitnesses of the Wall period – I had the chance to discover its true essence. A small contemporary chest of remembrance of the previous majestic Church of Reconciliation, which was blown up just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, after it became the symbol of the local community's opposition to the Wall.


Chapel ReconciliationBerlin
Photo: Lisa Ann Cassidy; Licence: CC-BY 2.0. 
The new Chapel of Reconciliation at the Berlin Wall Memorial



According to the functional tradition of chapel typology, relics are to be found even here. Tangible relics that survived the demolition of the earlier building, such as the altar piece portraying the last supper, with the Apostles' faces taken away by Soviet soldiers during the occupation. The bells, the cross, originally on the top of the bell tower, the foundations of the entrance to the church basement, the ruins of the church itself included in the clay masonry, the misalignment of the two concentric ovals that form the base of construction, in remembrance of the old church orientation and the usual east-west axis of religious buildings; these relics are symbolic too – evoked by the old church perimetral line marked outside and by the daily commemoration of the Wall victims – and they break the silence of the place by sounding the original bells in order to tell what happened all over again. 


This is why the choice was made not to rebuild as it was before, but to innovate. Clay as a material of earth and then life, isolating, pressed and self bearing, a nod in the direction of sustainability. Rye, let it be sprouted again in the area adjacent known as the "death strip" and transformed into bread for the transnational project PeaceBread. They are sparks of responsible ecology that one can see first-hand during Berlin Urban's Nature Day.


The deep meaning of this building popped up to me like when a veil is removed from a work during its inauguration. Discovering gradually its details I felt that there was no other way for the place to be (re)built but like this. The power of architecture. The resolution and the intelligence of a community. A warm greeting to those who are no longer here.




Veronica – A public space to give back to Berlin what has been inaccessible for too many years


25 years. The number of years since the fall, my age when I participated in a volunteering project at the Berlin Wall Memorial, in spring 2013. While Alice and Eugenia were assigned to volunteer in the Chapel of the Reconciliation, I was given the task to be outside, in the open space of the memorial site.


The first time I got off at Nordbahnhof underground station, in Gartenstraße, in the vivid area of the city where the memorial had been created, a variety of things fell caught my eye. By my side there was a long line of poles, built next to the original parts of the wall in order to show how endless it was. I walked, carrying my luggage, along Bernauer Straße, the sun was shining unusually bright and hitting several objects, the meaning of which I wasn't able to understand at the time, with its rays.


I must have walked the one kilometer that runs between the two stations and demarcates the memorial area thousands of times. I would see the watch tower, an original from the wall period, overhanging the so-called "death strip", a no-man's land patrolled by soldiers who had the duty of shooting at anything alive, and the street lamps that used to cast daylight onto the death strip. I stood many times in front of the inner wall, the one erected inside the East, the first obstacle for anyone who wanted to flee to West Berlin. In this inner wall, there are some holes and I used to put my cheek next to the wall and leave my eyes free to explore the desolated landscape the death strip has to offer. The noise of a crowd of visitors gathering just round the corner was ended by the silence of that place, a speaking silence that made me feeling uncomfortable as I wasn't able to catch all of the immensity it wanted to tell me.


Photo: Ali Eminov; Licence: CC-BY 2.0. 
Original parts of the Berlin Wall at the memorial site in Bernauer Straße



It is no coincidence that the memorial was constructed in that area of Berlin. This is where the majority of escape attempts took place, this is the point where the laceration of the divided Berlin reached its highest levels. There is a cross here to remember all the graves of the Sophien cemetery. They had to be removed to make room for the wall. The cemetery, in particular, became a controversial place: in 1961, at the very beginning, young lovers used to spend hours there, in the hope of seeing their girlfriends, now living in the West. Later soldiers demanded that visitors to the cemetery show them their authorisation to be there. As it became clear that the situation was getting worse, people tried to flee to West Berlin. They jumped from the windows of some border houses in Bernauer Straße, the pavement on which they landed was already in the West. But even that escape route was condemned to a short life. It was when soldiers started to wall up with bricks the windows of all border houses that people began to built underground tunnels, with the aim of creating another way of escaping. The memorial now hosts photos and audio interviews of families who found their freedom thanks to a tunnel, together with the remains of an old house where it can be clearly seen how its windows were closed.


The memorial area is a public space and it is not uncommon to see parents pushing strollers or students going for a run within the site. To my eyes, this is the outcome of the smart choice of giving back to the city and its soul what has been inaccessible for so many years. But the people who are making the difference there are the old volunteers. Many of them witnessed the building of the wall and lived in its shadow. Even if I spent less time with them than Alice and Eugenia, I understood that these people are making the memorial a vivid place. I wonder what the memorial will look like, after the last eyewitness are long. Life, by its own nature, is not eternal. I wonder if memory can be.


1961 – 1989: a period that contains two generations, as close as different, mother and daughter. I was born in 1988, "I shall be able to understand the Berlin Wall", I repeat to myself. Instead, I am stuck in the inability of understanding something that my mind cannot imagine. During the volunteering project, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts from many young visitors, who came from both Europe and other parts of the world. We all agreed there was something still beyond our understanding, something that we are not able to grasp. But, even in such a fragile position, it will be our duty to hand down to posterity the essence of what it was, even if it sounds confusing and remote to ourselves. Which is, at the same time, a good thing and a bad thing.

ChapelReconciliation Belrin
Photo courtesy of Luca Allievi
The writing (in Germany) that welcomes visitors at the Chapel of the Reconciliation


Alice Baruffato graduated in Medieval Archeology in Italy. After some experiences abroad in several museums, she is now developing her professional profile as an archaeological illustrator. She has a sincere passion for cultural tourism, which she mostly practices by foot, for cats and cakes!

Eugenia Pennacchio graduated in Contemporary History at the University of Bologna, Italy. She has a master's degree in International Cooperation, Human Rights and Conflicts Resolution from the University of Roma Tre.  

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 January 2015 10:34

If the Editorial team had an actual office it would have to stretch from the corner of Britain to the edges of Spain, Sweden, Germany and beyond. (With frequent trips to America too) .  The term 'from the editorial office' then, is very much a figure of speech. 

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