Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. If Humpty Dumpty had been sitting on top of it, not Soviet soldiers, nor Stasi spies could put Humpty together again. It wasn't the end of history, as some liked to call it, but rather like history on a pause button that showed the world in one powerful moment that some of the evil that men do can be undone.
It is a coincidence not lost on political philosophers that the Wall fell on the same date as Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazi's -- with lots of help from "otherwise decent people" -- smashed windows and storefronts of Jewish homes and businesses, set fire to synagogues, and looted and plundered Jewish property, writing Adolf Hitler's preface for the Holocaust.
On Nov. 9-10, more than 20,000 Jews were stuffed into trucks like cattle and transported to concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Dachau. Buchenwald was located in East Germany, and it is with tragic irony that during the years that Germany was a divided country, East Berliners were taught that Buchenwald was not a camp where thousands of Jews died, but where the Nazi's imprisoned "good" Communists such as Ernest Thalmann, chairman of the pre-war Communist Party. History, like politics, is local first.
The deaths of 6 million Jews have been catalogued and documented and are mourned in memorials and museums. Individual fatalities of those attempting to escape over the Wall are smaller in number and less well-known.
The Berlin Wall Memorial is now gathering documents for an outdoor exhibit called "Windows of Remembrance," which opens next year and will include pictures and profiles of the 139 men and women who died seeking freedom on the other side of the wall. Many of their names were temporarily lost to history because the East German regime labeled them fugitives and criminals, and tried to hide the ruthless way they were killed.
Nearly all were unarmed. Some were shot in the back running toward the wall. Others died from gunshots while swimming across the Spree or sneaking across train tracks in "ghost stations" sealed shut in East Berlin. Officials quickly had their bodies cremated, often before their families knew of their deaths to identify them.
I have read some of their stories from the Stasi files now open to the public, and they not only reveal a brutal regime viciously cutting off, families, friends and neighbors, but also tell poignant stories about the way the misfortunes of history affect people personally in their hearts and minds.
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