The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Twenty-five years later, Jane Hill finds a city still haunted by its memory.
In a way, it’s the ghost of the Wall that’s more moving than the Wall itself.
On my first morning in Berlin, on a backstreet a couple of blocks from my hotel, I noticed a double row of stones built into the tarmac, quietly marking a border between the two sides of the street. Two sides of the street that now look almost identical.
A simple unobtrusive plaque read simply, “Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989”.
Two major parts of the Wall still stand as monuments. One, at Bernauerstrasse, marks the place where flats in East Berlin abutted the border so closely that at times they formed part of the Wall itself. People jumped to freedom (or death) until the west-facing windows were bricked up.
Another remnant, at the place known as The Topography of Terror, just happens to be the site of the old Gestapo Headquarters, a double helping of hurt, division and cruelty.
Just across the road from the Topography of Terror, placards tell the story in comic-strip form of the Holzapfel family. They escaped to West Berlin by ziplining across the Wall under cover of darkness. A Soviet guard spotted them, but assumed they were secret agents being sent in to West Berlin to spy.
But it’s the route of the Wall, marked by that double row of stones, which starts to obsess me. I follow it whenever I can. I know when I’m in what was once East Berlin because of the distinctive hat-wearing green man on the pedestrian crossings, a green man who can now be found on postcards and keyrings and T-shirts.
The trail goes through Potsdamerplatz, once a no-man’s land and now a busy traffic hub with high-rise shiny modern buildings. On a bustling Friday evening, I follow the route from Potsdamerplatz towards the Brandenburg Gate, through crowds of Berliners and tourists. The double row of bricks disappears into a new building, a brightly-lit branch of the pizza chain Vapiano, full of young people celebrating the end of the working week.
A short walk from Checkpoint Charlie, there’s an extraordinary panorama of the Wall as it was in the 1980s. It’s an almost circular painting, showing a scene in the area of Kreuzberg from the West Berlin side, and it makes you feel that you are actually there. Children are cycling, there’s graffiti on the Wall, people are milling around near shops and bars. And across the Wall there’s the Death Zone, with guards and watch towers and barbed wire.
At the DDR Museum, which bills itself as Berlin’s “most interactive museum”, children open drawers and cupboards to reveal school books and East German food packaging. They take turns “driving” a Trabant and, chillingly, being interrogated in a Stasi cell.
Is it kitsch “Ostalgie” or a vital act of remembrance? The parents are my generation, in their 40s and 50s. This is their childhood. How do you explain to your children that when you were growing up, this city was divided into two entirely separate worlds?
And then there’s the Tranenpalast, the Palace of Tears. It’s a stylish piece of 1960s architecture, steel and glass; and when I visit, the early evening sun is streaming through the many windows flooding the place with golden light. It sits just outside Berlin’s busy Friedrichstrasse station and this is where goodbyes were said. Final goodbyes. East Germans left for the west here, and those West Germans permitted to make a fleeting visit would arrive.
It’s now an exhibition about departures and arrivals in the divided country. There’s a scale model of the station and a diagram above it, showing the routes of entry and exit. Pale blue for those leaving, red for those arriving. Two completely separate streams of people funnelled through the station, never meeting each other, divided by walls and corridors. I spend a long time looking at the diagram, tracing the journey in both directions.
Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.