personal essay

“My” piece of the Berlin Wall

I was there when the Berlin Wall fell. I toured with the Rolling Stones. And I was in a stroller at the time.

I have a piece of the Berlin Wall to prove it.

My parents got it from the source – the wall itself. The wall had been built the year my mother was born; it fell the year I was. By the time we got there, there was still enough of it left that, as my mom tells it, half of Europe was there to party and hack off what they could.

I heard about our piece long before I ever saw it. It was one of my mother’s epic stories, one that I’d latched onto as something between metaphor and birth-right.

I worked it into my personal mythology – my story of how, of why, I had to travel – it stood for where I had been and where I would go. Now, it’s carrying a heavy load of alternative readings and references: Politics. Family. Authenticity. Defacement. Revision. Redemption. .Justification.

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My mother had lived in Germany as a child. She was an army brat – her father was stationed on a base between 1962 and 1967. Her family returned to the States, but the time in Germany supplies her only childhood memories of her father; he volunteered for Vietnam and, after serving, never returned to his family.

She “found” him again in 1990.

As it turned out, he’d built the wall. Well – worked on the construction of it – and the installation of nuclear arms. He regretted it (he returned from Vietnam, like so many of the Vets, a medal-throwing pacifist), said he wished he could go over and rip them out, with his same hands. She took the stone from the Wall to him and her presence at the fall of the Wall was a pivotal part of their reunion, before he passed away in 1992.

It was a “process of self-discovery” she told me, when I asked her if the stone and the trip had much to do with her finding her father. “Of course,” she said, motherhood gave her a “changed understanding“ She says that at the time it felt like “the world was being reborn” and that “everything was going up”. The political energy of the time, the hope and optimism with which she said everything was charged, only further entangled the personal with the political, making instant metaphors of the immediate imagery.

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They called them the “Mauerspechte” (wall-peckers), the thousands who picked up chisels and jack-hammers to break holes and “steal” pieces. The Wall was reviled, hated; it’s still invoked as a metaphor of oppression and evil. Yet, as soon as it was fragmented and broken, everyone wanted a piece. Call it catharsis or exorcism – the party, the destruction, the dismemberment – it was a symbol of change, that changed the meaning of the Wall. To be fair – the souvenir pieces are reminders not of the Wall itself, but the destruction of the it and everyone’s pride at having been a part.

The remnants of the Berlin Wall are not on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Less than 25% are protected by any form of conservation edict. Of course, excepting the East Side Gallery, most of the Wall has been reduced to rubble and recycled – more roads are paved with it than pieces still stand. Those 300 plus segments that are in-tact have been dispersed around the world.

Some stand in monuments and memorial to the Cold War, “respectfully” reminding of us of history (countless embassies, the Reagan Memorial Museum, the Vatican, the CIA headquarters). Others have been “forced” to less reverent service. Decorating the walls of shopping malls (there’s a statement about capitalism in there, somewhere). Even more inappropriately, anchoring a row of urinals in the in a Vegas casino (you don’t even have to squint for the metaphor there).

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The Rolling Stones assembled for a reunion tour in 1989. “Urban Jungle”, the European leg, took them through East Germany in 1990. An IMAX crew accompanied them to shoot the “Live at the Max” documentary. My godfather was one of the directors and my father, the first assistant cinematographer. My mother joined the crew briefly in August 1990, to assist with production and to visit, bringing me along with her.

The East Berlin concerts had not been planned, but were added to the tour at the last minute and paid for out of the band’s pocket. No tickets were sold; the audience, which was almost entirely male and incredibly energetic, had lined up for weeks in the rain.

As she tells the story, after shooting the concert, they took me in a stroller and went to the Western side to see the destruction of the wall – it had an atmosphere of a giant festival, a party that had been ongoing for months. They rented pick-axes to hack at it themselves but were unable to remove a piece larger than a coin; they considered renting a jack-hammer but instead spent hours comparing pieces – going from kiosk to kiosk, searching for the most interesting piece they could find. $25 finally got them one colourful enough for my father and small enough to fit in my mom’s suitcase.

In high school I asked my father for the stone. Sophisticated show-and-tell for a public speaking class about the “year you were born”.

I didn’t expect a piece of the Berlin Wall to be greeted with cheers of American patriotism and bows to Reagan. To my peers – all of us too young to even remember the Cold War, it should be stressed – the end of WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t seem so entirely separate. We came of age to 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was 2004 and some of us still believed we were “saving the world for democracy”.

The stone from the Berlin Wall seemed to symbolize American victory, superiority, and virtue – it was proof of the American “birth right”. It was proof that we had won – that we had saved people – that we were righteous – that we could.

I was horrified (being of a liberal political pursuasion, my idea of American legacy had more to with decades of covert ops in place of warfare, the regime change military interventions, and the bombings of nations that no one seemed to even know the names of) – and upset that a piece of history could be commandeered to justify another.

But it makes sense that my generation, looking at an object with significance that pre-dates our awareness if not existence, we seek to relate ourselves, and our time, to it. It makes sense that the relationship take the form of “birth right” or “legacy”.

History remembers the 9th of November 1989 as the day the Wall fell. It was breached that day – thousands lined up to cross after a government leak started a rumour of free travel – and, only a few weeks later, long before the “officially” scheduled demolition, an American business man tried to buy the entire wall. The governments reunified East and West Germany in Oct 1990; the GDR had already passed a resolution to take “commercial advantage” of the destruction of the wall in Dec 1990 and gave control of the marketing and sales to a state-owned import-export firm.

(So much for communism.)

In fact, today, one man has a monopoly of souvenir pieces. Volker Pawlowski supplies over 90% of the fragments sold in souvenir shops. (Most of them tiny pieces in a plastic sleeve on a postcard – the infamous “clip cards”.) Some of his hoard was bought from the government at the 1990 auctions (he won’t name the price he paid) and the rest he’s since “found” – and painted.

They call his pieces the nachegefarbt (the after-painted). During the Mauerspechte carnival, the Wall was covered with paint and graffiti – mostly on the Western side – and its the colours, the paint, that everyone seems to value now. So – he paints more stones – giving them what they want, I suppose; a piece of history, which not having witnessed, they can believe in.

Is it even “mine”?

My mother refers to the stone as if it were. I hesitate. I do expect to have it, eventually – but am uncomfortable saying that I have it now…

I almost feel like I’ve stolen it – ironic, given that it was perhaps already “stolen”, having been hacked off the Berlin Wall during a time of political chaos by an unknown figure with no authorization and appropriate by an American couple… yet, we all feel not only attached but possessive…

As the Mauerspechte took their souvenirs, they projected the story onto themselves and onto the pieces.

For some – such as my parents – the significance of the event of the piece that they took was exacerbated by their personal histories, which were also projected onto the object.

Over time, as their narratives have continued – and in the case of “my” stone, gained actors – the “story” is recursively written, both by the pieces and the people.

As to my father’s story, I only have my mother’s version to go by. According to my mother, he’d never been happier than at that time – my birth, the Rolling Stones shoot – as they were building a family and his career was reaching its peak.

“There we were, living the life we always wanted to live, the life that we always wanted to live, the life that we thought everyone wanted…”

I know that my father has always been passionate about his work and travel, to the point of forming self-definition around it; he has spent his life developing an ideology of internationalism and multiculturalism, becoming increasingly proud of the distance between his life and that which his parents had lived as “conservative bigots”. He’s climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro. His mother spit in his face when he went to Russia.

My guess, he felt like travel saved him. Apparently, he made a point of collecting objects while he travelled and built a display case; this stone was one of his proudest possessions – as was the story that went with it.

At first glance, it’s a rather bright reference to a horrendous period of history.

And, at my first glance, It reminds me of my father.My father and I have been estranged for most of my life. (Then there’s the echo of my mother’s estrangement from her father. Blatant parallel of the literary sort.) It’s uncomfortable, the unresolved – now unresolvable – issues it carries.

And in its third life, I’ve broadened its meaning – both deliberately, and in ways I’ve tried to resist. The meanings have layered – the new lives don’t detract from the “truth” of the “original” – they just make it hurt a bit less.

I have repainted it. To reclaim.

We all do the same – indivually, culturally… there is so much of our history with which we come into contact, so much painful, regrettable, unfortunate. We can forget, or we can grow. And we can let the uncomfortable reminders grow into something else.
The Berlin Wall is a prime example – the zeal for re-formulating, rather than memorialising, it. The fact that the colourful painted veneer – at best a late addition to the Wall, if not added entirely post-demolition – has come to be the fragments’ most valuable attribute…

Is this related to a need to create something beautiful from the painful or tragic; the demand that for attractive elegance in memorials and monuments of even the greatest atrocities or horrors. Does such aesthetic simply appeal to a sense of poignant – or is the process of beautification perhaps a part of a social catharsis? Why do we need to make beauty from the horrid?

I tried to write an essay about this stone for a university class on Material Cultures – the art/practice/what-have-you of “intellectualizing” the changing identities of objects. (Think post-modernist archaeology meets literary theory, stealing terminology from philosophy and psychology – only, less “fluffy” than you’re probably imagining.) Things have meanings. Those meanings change. The lecturer’s catchphrase: “Objects are promiscuous”.

It was a mediocre essay – not even close to what I’d consider university “quality”.

To start with, it broke all three rules of academic essays: 1) Never write about anything personal and emotional. 2) Never write about an overdone cliché topic. 3) Never, ever, write about something which is already well-covered but you don’t have access or time to research. (So much ink has been spilt over the Berlin Wall, its fragmented remains, and what they mean. Most of that ink was in German.)

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I did make an attempt at analysing it – and had I not been too distracted by dancing around and carefully phrasing the personal elements and actually started writing it more than twelve hours before the deadline, I might have made been able to make something of it. As it was, it served as a point in case, a demonstration of the promiscuity of things – and just how, despite or in spite of us, things change.

They tell many stories. And ask even more questions.

The piece was in my father’s possession. It will, in all likelihood, at some point in the future, end up being one of the only things of my father’s that I will have – and I have even less an idea of what that means – or what it means to have a “father”.

I “borrowed” it off him – as proof of my past and claim to a future exotic and adventurous. Now that I’m living that adventure (as a broke college student in Europe) it’s at my mother’s house – and I’m realizing that I have less understanding of what it means – as a historical artefact, a war relic, a piece of street art, a souvenir, or a family talisman…

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