On August 13, 1961, a 12-foot high concrete wall was constructed in Berlin, dividing the city in two, separating families and neighbors and people from their jobs across town. The wall stood for 28 years out of the 45 years that the Soviets controlled East Germany.
After World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors, governed by the US, UK, France, and Soviet Union. Soon, the three western nations combined their sectors into one. People living in the Soviet sector wanted out. As a matter of fact, 3.5 million of them succeeded in fleeing. Khrushchev ordered the 87-mile-long wall built to halt this mass defection. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) thought of everything. In case anyone was able to scale the 12-foot height, they could find barbed wire, minefields, beds of nails, or German shepherd dogs waiting for them. A huge No Man’s Land provided a clear line of fire from the guard towers to the fleeing refugees.
Snaking through Berlin today is a cobblestone strip where the Mauer (wall) once stood. I hadn’t even started elementary school when the wall came up. A few months ago, as my feet touched that strip, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me if I’d been born on the same day but in Berlin. I would have had very few memories from a time when I’d tasted the freedom to cross a street, spending my days instead imprisoned in an area of just a few square miles – imprisoned for the crime of being raised in the end of town unlucky enough to draw the Soviet short straw. I would have felt taunted by the illusion of independence sported by the West Berliners I could see on the other side, free to travel but actually isolated in their island surrounded by a raging totalitarian sea. I tried to envision it, but I could not.