Building Hope, Not Walls

Barriers, both physical and psychological, are structures that tend to harm us over time rather than protect us. Such is the case of the Berlin Wall. It was a monstrous symbol of the cold war, dividing a city not only by concrete, but also by political ideology.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany was split into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin was also divided amongst the four powers. It became a multinational island within the Soviet zone who occupied East Berlin. The other three Allies controlled the West side. When I arrived in the city in 1988, nothing much had changed ... and no one knew what was about to happen.

It was autumn, and my first time to Berlin – a trip that would have been wildly unrealistic just months earlier. My mother had recently died, and I was recovering from an accident that left me with a broken jaw. Though weak and a few pounds lighter, I made a full recovery. Days later, I unexpectedly met Anke, a German woman who had been working in Toronto as a liaison with a European clothier, who later returned to Germany to continue her education. By coincidence – or good fortune – she decided on Berlin. A year later, the fall of the Wall reverberated around the world to become one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.

INVASION OF THE "WALL-PECKERS"

Seven months after the border opening, I landed in Berlin again to visit Anke and continue working on a photo documentary. The Wall was an important component of the project and I was optimistic there were at least some remnants of concrete still to be found. As I set foot on my first trek, the sound of distant tap-tap-tapping was an encouraging sign that the once-guarded barrier was still putting up a fight.

When I arrived at the historic Reichstag building, a long section of the Wall could be seen behind it. The artful, bold colours of this graffiti-laden stretch presented an illusion of an enchanting whimsical palace. More remarkable was the Wall’s physical condition. Except for the punishing scars left by the so-called “wall-peckers,” it stood defiantly tall.

Another friend, Mathias, joined me at this stage. Armed with a small chisel and hammer (and for good measure, a crowbar), we stood face to face with the massive structure. With a mocking glare, it gazed down at us like a mighty warrior – intimidating, sturdy and standing three and a half metres in height! I began my attack. I could almost hear the great beast laughing at me as I struck hammer to chisel in its backside. Its armoured shield fended off blows with ease and thwarted my desire to gain ground. Mathias explained that the Wall was assembled from thousands of separate sections of reinforced concrete, known as Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall 75). Built in 1975, it was the final, and indeed, most sophisticated version. Although heavily constructed with mesh fencing and thick wire, it didn’t stop the unwavering wall-peckers from discovering that the seams of each section were the penetrable weak spots.

I unleashed the crowbar and pried behind an exposed cable wire for better leverage. A little easier than the chisel, but it only provided a scattering of small pieces that attracted an audience of mostly young kids who scrambled to pick them up. After much determination, I was able to free some large chunks from my antagonist’s grasp. Suffering only minor injuries, our clash on the battlefield was over.

Mathias glanced over, smiling broadly. As a Berliner, the thrill of the Wall had worn thin on him at this point, but he was cheerful enough to participate for my sake. I put down the weapons, picked up my gear and gave a nod of respect to our opponent.

A DEFINING MOMENT

The crowd grew, as did the noise level of tapping, chipping and pounding. The Wall was now under siege, yet oddly, the atmosphere was quite peaceful. Conscientious men, women and children worked diligently with tools in hand, appearing more like stonemasons at a job site. Those less committed sold stone fragments – many of course fake. Nearby for amusement was an imaginative hair stylist who set up shop in front of the Wall while an over-exuberant man dressed as Santa Claus hugged all in his path bellowing “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Buzzing all around were curious onlookers or wall-peckers like me who either wanted to enjoy the entertainment, snag a keepsake or take a few pictures.

Later on that day, my attention was drawn to a wreath placed near the Bradenburg Gate to commemorate the brave residents who were killed trying to escape from the east. The last person shot down was Chris Gueffroy, who sadly, had he waited a mere nine months, could have danced freely across the damn barrier without fear of the bullets, guards, landmines or trenches that ultimately ended his life.

As the cool, spring day was ending, I was fortunate to capture an image of an East German guard standing watch from atop the Wall; a defining moment to evoke the close ties between place and politics. Alone and looking rather subdued in his new role as peacemaker, he embodied the consciousness of an emerging new world order. A defeated, outdated regime held captive in its own barricade, if you will. The guard’s elevated posture was emblematic of repression and war, teetering undeniably to crumble and fall.