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A girl in Berlin

October 14th, 2004 · No Comments

I was a girl in Berlin with a broken heart. Close my eyes and I see the concrete, rigid and gray, unending. I see the space of no-man’s land between the two nations. I see it still, one of the most vivid colors of my life, the turqoise and yellow of West German graffiti.

In 1986 this Bellevue girl saw the Berlin Wall. I am German, by heritage, as more Americans claim as ancestry than any other ethnicity [makeoutcity]. Technically I’m half-German, recent immigrants on my mother’s side, but since I am much closer to my mother and my father’s side is a smogasbord, it is simpler to claim my Teutonic roots. German was spoken on holidays when my older relatives didn’t want us kids to understand their secrets. Choosing which language to learn in middle school was a simple decision:Deutsch, aber naturlich!.

Going to Germany had always been something I wanted to do, and when the opportunity came to travel with family, I was excited to go. The fact that I would be forfeiting a few weeks of summer earnings didn’t matter much to me. I was a wide-eyed Seattle girl whose only foreign excursion had been quick summer trips to Canada, crossing the border again and again at Peace Arch Park by chasing my siblings around on the grass.

A trip to another continent was different from visiting our North American neighbor. Two experiences from the trip in particular are still vivid to me today, nearly two decades later. One was our visit to Dachau. The other was our stay in Berlin.

I had heard about the Wall but I had never seen it. Well, maybe I’d seen a picture or two. But it is one thing to see a picture of a place. It is another to be there, standing, your feet on the German ground, the cursed concrete monster unfurled before your face.

I saw graves where escaping East Germans had been buried, some names unknown, marked by a row of white crosses.


The graffiti on the Western side of the wall was wild and energetic. The East German side of the wall was cold concrete. The Western side was covered with shapes and words, squiggles and sentences. It was rebelling and rejoicing. It was living and flowing in color. It was defiant against death.


For an afternoon or so, we crossed into East Berlin. I remember going through the checkpoints. I was a teenage girl and this was my first experience of subjecting myself to a government of fear. We were told to hide our cameras and all newspapers before we went through the checkpoint. Soldiers boarded the tour bus. Our passports were collected and inspected before being returned. Dogs were brought onto the bus to find any refugees. I was frightened a little but also I sensed the desperation of the East even more after experiencing a brief taste of its control. I understood more why one would want to escape and even die rather than life behind the wall.

On the Western side, my relatives and I stood for a while at the lookout. A set of stairs allowed me to see over the wall, across the barren buffer and into East Berlin with its TV tower, a supposed symbol of progress.

Berlin was the city I had wanted to see. Its split identity spoke to the teenage me. I too had walls. My parents divorce had divided the city within me. I knew what it was like to live in a place that no longer was whole. A place where freedom had been lost. My heart wasn’t whole any more either. It was broken. Like Berlin. And my heart ached for this city that ached for its unity.

I was in college when the Wall fell. My last year of high school I wrote a paper for history class predicting that the two Germanys would reunite. My teacher didn’t think it would happen, but thought I had a nice idea. I confess that my opinion on Germany came as much from the heart as the head. I knew that the Germans wanted to be together again. And I knew that emotion is a powerful force within people.

German Unification Day came last week on October 3. This fall I’ve been thinking a lot about Germany and geography. The other day while teaching the girls, I looked at the map and realized how it had changed since I was a child. I don’t know how much time I have spent since high school looking at the shape of Germany. It looked strange to my adult eye to see the two countries now enclosed in one border.

I started talking to the girls and then I went to get my photo album from my trip. I showed them pictures of Berlin. For a while afterwards, I amassed a collection of articles about the city. I tried to explain to them what it was like to be in a city cut into two by concrete walls.

Recently I’ve wondered why I was able to see Berlin when it was East and West. If our trip had been delayed a few years, I would have missed it. Was there a purpose that somehow fit into a plan?

In my life I am finding myself in situations where something whole has been split into two. I am seeing walls being built against freedom. I see hardness and death. I see anguish and anger and a desire to heal two into one. And I want to know how to help tear the walls down. I think I am learning.

I had already planned writing this post, composing some of the sentences in my head, when I read Monica White’s blog post on Berlin: powerful, personal and beautiful.

It’s been 23 years since I was in this city last and had someone told me (or, more likely, my parents) the circumstances under which I would stand here today, they would not have believed a word. I was then 3 years old and the citizen of a Soviet empire that looked too frighteningly solid to ever crumble.


Berlin, then, to me existed only as half a city. The other side – West Berlin – was surrounded by a wall, by barbed wire, by sentries with machine guns, by land mines, by anti-tank ditches and by a psychological barrier that was at least as formiddable as all these put together. The last may not have yet been formed in my young mind but would eventually be there as potently restrictive in me as in the rest of the population – my free education would have seen to that.

23 years ago, I would have been shot dead for what I did today.

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