Berlin Wall Fragment

A Piece of the Berlin Wall in Bremen (by Antonia Bontscheva)

On the square in front of the Bremen Übersee-Museum stands a piece of the Berlin Wall. A fraction of the 155 kilometers of concrete and barbed wire that separated Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Separated families, separated lovers, separated people. Most of them irreversibly.

I stand in front of this piece of remembrance for a little while and then notice something: it doesn’t evoke the emotion I had expected. Something like a sense of oppression. I have more of a warm feeling when I look at it. Not because the symbolism of the wall is so comforting. No. What is comforting, here, is the artwork. For what stands in front of the Bremen Übersee-Museum is not a bare or graffiti-sprayed piece of the wall, but one that has been artistically reworked: a figure in black paint on a white background, bound by an iron chain. Black-painted words divide the figure, just like the wall divided Berlin.

Sand, stone, concrete, death wall
Sand, stone, concrete, death wall

The Berlin sculptor Ben Wagin has successfully captured the symbolism of the wall in art. Still, the memorial doesn’t feel oppressive. Because art stands between the horror and the observer. And art is necessary. So that horror can be made visible. And bearable. A worthy memorial to the not less than 140 people who died in attempting to overcome the wall.

That is what I find comforting here.

Sand, stone, concrete, death wall
Sand, stone, concrete, death wall

I know the Berlin Wall. I knew it back when it was not yet demolished, but still intact and carrying out its grim duty.
I spent one year in East Berlin. The year before the wall fell.
It felt like staring directly into the true face of communism for the first time.

Even though I came from Bulgaria, a communist country. I came from a family whose DNA carries the legacy of brutal communist violence. I had a father who hated communists and raged against them daily. His irreconcilability with their inhuman system was handed down to me.

Nonetheless, communism in Bulgaria had distinctly southern features and played out in front of a sensuous backdrop. “Bulgarian communism” meant lack of discipline and inconsistency. It meant unpredictability and a dismal work ethic. It meant greed and nepotism. It also meant that relationships – familial, neighborly or between friends – that relationships between people were more important than loyalty to the communist ideal. This factor made Bulgarian communism somewhat softer. In addition to the sun and the heavenlytasting food.

In East Berlin, I experienced severity, I experienced implacability, I experienced imminent deadly peril, I experienced soldiers, I experienced weapons, I experienced how the system interfered with relationships and destroyed them. I experienced fear. So much fear.

Sand, stone, concrete, death wall
Sand, stone, concrete, death wall

Then, in the fall of 1989, I experienced death-defying resistance. Resistance that didn’t exist in Bulgaria. My compatriots were rather timid and also complacent. They preferred to live in their comfort zone and were reluctant to put their families in danger.
But the East Germans protested, they went all in, they risked their lives. Week after week. Monday after Monday. How I respected the East Germans for that, how I admired them.
When I think about the Monday demonstrations, tears well up in my eyes. Even now. And I won’t put up with enemies of democracy who try to appropriate their symbolism.

Then, overnight and to widespread bewilderment, the wall fell.
No, it wasn’t “blowing in the wind”. No, you couldn’t feel it coming. In spite of glasnost and perestroika, in spite of the protests, in spite of the overcrowded trains heading towards Budapest and Prague. Nobody expected the wall to fall. More likely, they expected tanks. Or they didn’t know what to expect. In any case, not that the wall would fall.

Sand, stone, concrete, death wall
Sand, stone, concrete, death wall

The evening that the wall fell, I was in the hospital. When I was able to leave it months later, the world outside was a different one.
Immediately, I learned a new word. “Ausländerin” – foreigner. In this new world, I was a foreigner.
My origin was suddenly something that separated me from others.

In the GDR, I had never heard this word in connection with myself.
Communism proudly laid claimed to internationalism and put a lid on anything that didn’t fit. In this new world, all the lids were blown off.

Alongside many other things, the East Germans discovered that they were German. And they seemed to like that idea. It separated them from people like me. It brought skinheads and combat boots into the open. I got scared and was glad to leave this new, German Berlin.

I arrived in charming, free-spirited, cosmopolitan Bremen and brought the wall with me.
“You talk like an East German,” I was told here.
“You don’t understand communism properly,” I was told here too. The idea was good. Its implementation was flawed.
As if communism were a simply a nice idea and not a concept for how to organize society.
How has the implementation of this nice idea worked out worldwide?
Hasn’t every attempt eventually produced an inhuman dictatorship?

That is what the piece of the Berlin Wall in front of the Bremen Übersee-Museum makes us remember.

Sand, stone, concrete, death wall
Sand, stone, concrete, death wall

Translation: Julie Comparini