Between the end of the war in 1945 and 1961, when the Wall was built, more than 3 million Germans fled the Soviet occupation to the Federal Republic of Germany and the West. Those who lived on Bernauer Strasse at the base of the Wall, who had always just walked across the street to the West, couldn't believe their eyes. They soon learned that more than their view was blocked.
Today, 22 years after the wall fell, their neighborhood is the center of city life. Mothers push children in strollers to the market and shop for a variety of good things to eat that East Berliners never dreamed of. It's also home to a museum dedicated to the wall, which tells its story in film and exhibits.
With the same thoroughness the Germans employed to record atrocities committed in their name by the Third Reich, the victims of the commissars of East Germany are commemorated as new research uncovers chilling facts from the files of the Stasi, the secret police that replaced the Gestapo in East Berlin. Many were shot by guards when they tried to climb over the wall. A few tried to swim across the river Spree and were shot or drowned. One baby was smothered accidentally while hiding in a truck with his parents.
"The Victims at the Berlin Wall 1961-1989," edited by historians Hans-Hermann Hertle and Maria Nooke, tells the stories of 136 men and women (and children) who died at the wall. (Full disclosure: My daughter, Miriamne Fields, translated the stories into English.)
Siegfried Kroboth, age 5, was playing at the bank of the river Spree after his family had safely fled East Germany and fell into the water. A little friend ran for help, but the West German police couldn't save him because he was bobbing in a stretch of the river under Soviet control. The West German cops sought permission from guards to retrieve, but their pleas were ignored. The East German government said guards, "good Germans all," had acted "in accordance" with the rules.
The 50th-anniversary commemoration is a reminder of how quickly times change. John F. Kennedy was right when he went to Berlin in 1963 and sent Berliners on both sides of the wall into a frenzy with his proclamation that "Ich bin ein Berliner." He was, he said, a Berliner, too. And so we all are.