Relics of grim era keep past in mind

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BERLIN | It’s not the “ash-heap of history,” but it’s close: Remnants of the Berlin Wall stand half-forgotten in a overgrown cemetery near the heart of this once-divided city.

Elsewhere around Berlin, paving stones dotting across wide avenues, concrete barriers lining long boulevards and huge slabs bearing years of graffiti show where the great barrier once separated East from West and communist from democrat — even in death.

A 200-yard-long intact section of the Wall runs along one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Bernauer Strasse. In a nearby cemetery, about a dozen slabs of reinforced concrete stand as an ironic monument to the lasting power of their original purpose.

When the Wall was constructed, it cut through cemeteries, it cut through apartment complexes, it cut through playgrounds, it cut through families — unstoppable — for 96 miles through the city and through the country. For those on the East side, it meant imprisonment; for those on the West, sadness.

It was a death zone — a gantlet of walls, trenches, barbed wire and guard towers manned by grim snipers with shoot-to-kill orders. Floodlights bathed the surroundings in a harsh, nightmarish glow so intense that a mouse could not hide from sight.

Today, little is left of the Wall, and motorists and pedestrians pass by, giving it little notice. The paving stones on and around Potsdamer Platz are crossed every day by tourists and residents unaware of the former dividing line, which is noted periodically by metallic markers in the pavement.

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However, some draw attention to the fallen barrier, such as a dance troupe led by German choreographer Nejla Y. Yatkin, who grew up with the Wall. In her work, she has sought to capture the danger and isolation the Wall has represented, as well as the liberation and joy of its sudden demise.

Her troupe’s “Dancing With the Berlin Wall” project in July produced a video of dancers per forming with the Wall, using it not only as a backdrop but also as a dance partner. Dressed in tan trench coats like those of East German secret service agents, dancers paraded around, leapt onto and clambered atop the remains of the barricade in a physical display of the emotions evoked by the Wall. The project was supported by the Goethe Institute of New York City and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

What’s more, fresh graffiti adorns the eastern side of the Wall’s remnants — a brightly colored, personal expression of freedom and hope at a place where proximity meant death by automatic gunfire.

Twenty years have passed since most of the Wall came down, and what’s left — less than two miles of battered and scattered concrete ramparts — bears witness to a history that many Germans say should never be forgotten, or repeated.

Sections of the Wall at Niederkirchner Strasse are fenced in to protect them from souvenir seekers. At Bernauer Strasse fresh concrete fills in gaps where mementos had been taken. And the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, where much of the Wall’s artwork is displayed, has painted over its section in an effort to preserve it.

Astrid Riecken, an award-winning photographer for The Washington Times, was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1993. Carleton Bryant assisted in the writing of this essay.

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