The wall was erected in 1961 to prevent residents of Soviet-dominated East Germany from defecting to the West — as they had been in droves. Once the concrete barrier was in place, getting caught trying to cross without authorization had life-or-death implications. Between 1961 and 1989, at least 140 people were killed by the East German police for trying to escape.
It took more than a year for the wall, which stretched for about 114 miles, to be completely demolished. Some of the matter was recycled to build roads, but capitalism also caught on quickly, and the German government began to look for buyers from all over the world to purchase and display the parts of the wall.
Thirty years later, pieces of the Berlin Wall have journeyed far outside of Germany’s borders to six continents and dozens of countries, where they now serve as memorials to a disturbing past and joyous liberation. But regardless of how far from Germany the wall segments travel, the message, said curators and historians, always hits close to home.
Ein Hod, Israel
For Raya Zommer-Tal, bringing part of the Berlin Wall to Israel wasn’t an obvious choice. The director of the Janco Dada museum outside of Tel Aviv, Zommer-Tal was in Berlin in 1991 when the director of the Checkpoint Charlie museum, which commemorates the famous checkpoint into East Berlin, asked her a question: Would she host an exhibition in Israel on the history of life in East Berlin? He said they would send her a piece of the wall to display if she agreed.
Zommer-Tal hesitated. This was not really the kind of exhibition for her museum, which primarily focused on the Dada art movement — an absurdist form of expressionism that rose in reaction to the horrors of World War I. But, as she proposed to her colleagues back in Israel, the subject matter had a connection with the antiwar ideals of the Dada movement.
The exhibition, which opened in early 1992, took up the entire museum space, displaying the work of German artists’ representations of the wall, as well as objects and contraptions people living in East Berlin used to escape. Zommer-Tal remembers wheeling in a car that had a special compartment used to smuggle people into West Berlin. The show drew so many people that they had to extend its run, she said. The piece of the wall, meanwhile, was too big to fit inside the museum, so they placed it outside, where it still stands today. (Zommer-Tal jokes it was cheaper for the Germans to leave it in Israel than pay to transport the slab back to Europe.)
“It’s very special that we did it and that we have this piece, because it’s very symbolic,” she said.
Not everyone was pleased with an exhibition about the plight of Germans.
“It wasn’t so easy to do this kind of exhibition almost 30 years ago,” Zommer-Tal notes. “There were a lot of Holocaust survivors who didn’t like it.”
That was why it was important, she said.
“It was the Germans themselves who were responsible, but they also suffered because of what happened in East Berlin at that time. It’s not just a decoration or a historical piece; it has some meaning here in Israel,” she said.
The wall segment was later dedicated to those killed during the Holocaust.
Walk into the spacious entry hall of D.C.’s Newseum, a museum dedicated to free expression and free press, and you’ll be directed to begin your tour in the basement. There, standing at 2.5 tons each, are eight 12-foot-high segments of the Berlin Wall, whitewashed and blank on what was once the side that faced East Germany, colorful and graffiti-scrawled on side that faced west. Looming over the wall segments is an authentic three-story East German guard tower.
Chris Wells, as a senior vice president at the Freedom Forum, the Newseum’s parent organization, traveled to Berlin in 1993 and purchased the eight segments for about $5,000 each (plus shipping). The tower, she said, was a gift to the Newseum, which in return donated $15,000 to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
“The wall is the most iconic and biggest symbol of what a lack of a free press is and why it’s so critical to democracy,” Wells said, in a 2014 podcast, noting that what was separating the free media from East Berlin was the wall.
The Newseum’s current space on Pennsylvania Avenue was essentially built around the wall and the tower, said Sonya Gavankar, Freedom Forum’s director of public relations.
“Half of our visitors are school kids,” Gavankar said. “So the Berlin Wall and the Cold War are ancient history to them. What it was like in the Cold War to be completely blocked from free speech — nothing says it better than those 12-foot concrete pieces.”
When the Newseum closes its doors at the end of 2019, Gavankar says the pieces will go into an archive facility until they can find a new home for them.
Cape Town, South Africa
In 1996, a piece of the Berlin Wall journeyed to South Africa as a gift for then-President Nelson Mandela. Today, it stands in Cape Town, outside the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which primarily serves as a scholarship organization for African students.
The gift came at an important time for both Germany and South Africa.
“In the early 1990s, both Germany and South Africa began to disassemble the divides created during the Cold War and apartheid, respectively,” said Judy Sikuza, CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. “The Berlin Wall physically represented those barriers and divides. It was a symbol of a lack of freedom and embracing of our common humanity.”
In Cape Town, she said the wall serves as an inspiring, though ominous, reminder:
“Having a piece of the Berlin Wall outside our offices,” Sikuza said, “is a symbol both of how far we have come — of the political and social freedoms we have achieved in South Africa — and the ways in which we continue to be divided.”
The story of how the Berlin Wall came to Fulton (population: 13,000) dates to March 5, 1946, when then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to Fulton’s Westminster College to give an address. He’d been convinced to do so by a good friend and Missouri native, former president Harry S. Truman.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” Churchill said.
The Berlin Wall came to physically embody Churchill’s metaphor, sealing East Germany off from the West with its steely gray.
When the wall fell in 1989, Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys, an artist, had the idea to build an installation in Fulton, which, she said, “seemed to be the perfect place.”
She traveled to Berlin in early 1990 and procured eight sections, which the Germans gave her, she suspects, when they realized who her grandfather was. The pieces traveled by ship to Long Island, where Sandys carved two openings in the wall in the shape of human figures. She titled the work “Breakthrough.”
“If you’re there, you have to walk through it,” Sandys said, adding she encourages people to think of their personal meditations, resolves or prisons beforehand and then “break through.”
The wall in Fulton has brought with it many illustrious guests. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former president Ronald Reagan have all given addresses there.
“In a place like Fulton, history doesn’t seem old. History is alive,” said Tim Riley, the director and chief curator at the Churchill Museum in Fulton, where “Breakthrough” stands. “As we commemorate and celebrate the demise of the barrier, we also have to remember and educate. Walls don’t always work. And this is a prime example.”