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Berlin remembers the day the Wall went up

13 August 2021

Anli Serfontein

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, Dr Heiner Koch, in the Chapel of Reconciliation on Friday

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, Dr Heiner Koch, in the Chapel of Reconciliation on Friday

RESIDENTS of Berlin recalled the construction of the Berlin Wall on Friday, exactly 60 years since it was begun on 13 August 1961, dividing the city and the country in two.

In a midday ecumenical prayer service in the Chapel of Reconciliation at Bernauer Strasse, where the Wall was erected, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Dr Heiner Koch, said that, for Christians, the day could be compared to Good Friday.

“Today, we remember one of the Good Fridays in the history of Berlin and Germany. We have gathered at one of the many Golgotha hills in our city and our country — directly at a monument that, for many of us, was a symbol of bondage and confinement — and which reminds us today of the preciousness of freedom.”

Early on that Sunday morning in 1961, the Soviet-sector border was sealed off, as more than 10,000 East German security personnel started to tear up the pavement, and erected barricades and barbed-wire fences.

For the next 28 years, the crossing from East to West was blocked, making East Germans de facto prisoners in their own state. Between 1961 and 1989, at least140 people were killed at the Berlin Wall trying to flee to the West.

The chapel where the remembrance ceremony was held is dedicated to the memory of those who died at the Wall as they were trying to flee. It stands on the site of the former Protestant Church of Reconciliation, built in 1894. When the Wall was erected, it was in no man’s land on the Soviet sector, its cemetery and most parishioners still in the West sector of the city. In 1985, four years before the Wall fell, the church was demolished.

Prayers in memory of the Wall victims take place daily in the rebuilt Chapel of Reconciliation.

On Friday, the Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia, Dr Christian Stäblein, read from the Book of the Dead, which holds the biographies of the people who died at the Berlin Wall.

He commemorated the first fatality at the Wall: Ida Siekmann. On 22 August 1961, a day before her 59th birthday, she jumped out of the window of her nearby flat after the front door which opened on to the pavement in the West was barricaded. She was fatally injured, and died on the way to hospital. Dr Stäblein lit a candle in her memory.

Dr Koch remembered how, as a young boy, he was on holiday with his parents in Italy when the Wall was erected, and he remembered the anger and powerlessness of his parents and other adults.

“The powerlessness that they suffered was what made the adults I observed at the time so angry,” he recalled.

He compared that powerlessness with the present day. “Afghanistan, left to its own devices and to the Taliban after NATO’s withdrawal, is just as eloquent an example as the refugees floating in boats on the Mediterranean, and the corpses washed up on the shore of those who have perished in flight today.”

The pastor of the Chapel of Reconciliation, the Revd Thomas Jeutner, led the prayers, saying: “Half my life I’ve lived behind the Wall.”

Earlier on Friday, the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, led residents and VIPs in an official commemoration outside the Chapel of Reconciliation.

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