"Over the Wall"

Illustrator Christoph Niemann's exhibit "Over the Wall," posted on the New York Times website this week, is a simple piece of work. In a captioned series of woven paper sculpture images, Niemann--who says the Berlin Wall was only an abstract notion when he was growing up in southwest Germany--describes his recent move back to Berlin. Living in the Bernauer Strasse neighborhood, which awoke on August 13, 1961 to a new national boundary running down the middle of the street, Niemann says the Wall has now become far more real to him, even though it's been gone for almost two decades.

I understand. For one thing, history almost always becomes more personal, and real, in the places it unfolded. But I also remember the Berlin Wall. I was an exchange student in Germany in 1978, and I remember the ghost stations Niemann talks about ... populated by soldiers, guns, and dogs, but no waiting passengers. I remember the eerily cemented windows along the mined and fortified border zone, and the memorials to people who had died trying to get across. I remember, after spending time on the eastern side of the Wall, my relief at seeing the checkpoint back to the western side. And my discomfort, even at the time, at recognizing how undeservedly lucky I was, to be able to pass easily through a barrier that no one else around me could.

As Niemann is discovering, a place like that, where so much anguish was spilled, bleeds its pain into the air long after any physical structures of its past are dismantled. Even now, Germans struggle with the Wall's legacy. Some western residents resent having to pay to rebuild the east. Some eastern residents still feel like second-class citizens. In 2006, I spent time again in the eastern part of Germany, and found some residents who even said that, while they liked the free access to consumer goods, they missed the security of the Russian state.

On some level, the impact of the Wall will probably continue to be felt in Germany until everyone who lived with it, and remembers it, has died. But while that day and shift will undoubtedly be a good thing for Germany's collective citizenry, it will represent a loss, as well. For there is something important, and powerful, in the remembered stories of the people whose lives were affected by the Wall ... a point Niemann clearly feels and understands.

Niemann talks about a couple of those individuals in his captions ... a woman who became the first to die while attempting to jump over the wall from an apartment window, and an East German soldier whose successful leap to freedom over the barbed wire, when the border was first closed, has become an iconic image from that day.

That photo, which has been widely acclaimed, is a terrific action shot, to be sure. And it reinforces all our most cherished notions of victory and a burning desire for freedom, even in the soldiers paid to oppose us. But for my money, the attention should have been given to another photo taken that day--one far less available and known in the world, but arguably far more powerful. (I came across it in Berlin, in 1978, but I couldn't even find a copy of it on the internet to link to here.) It's a photo of another East German soldier along the barbed wire barricades. But instead of leaping to his own freedom, he's reaching down to help a small boy over the wire. A boy who'd gotten left behind in the chaos of people fleeing and families caught on different sides of the border. The soldier is young, and his eyes, looking warily over his shoulder, are full of fear. And yet, he persisted.

The boy escaped. The soldier did not. He was seen helping the boy and, moments later, was taken away. And, at least as of 1978, nobody had ever been able to find out what happened to him.

The stories all matter. But of all the stories that I, like Christoph Niemann, found in the lingering shadows of the Berlin Wall, that's the one that's stayed with me. Because risking your life for your own freedom is one thing. Risking it, or sacrificing it, for the sake of someone you don't even know--someone you have orders to kill--speaks to something far more profound. Which is why even today, almost 50 years after his probably death, and 20 years after the Wall came down ... that soldier gives me hope.