Monday, November 23, 2009

As walls are constructed to separate Palestinians from Israelis and keep illegal aliens from entering the Southwestern United States, the Berlin Wall remains a relic of history and a teaching tool.

Area universities are offering students and visitors opportunities to see and experience the wall.

With support from the German Embassy, more than 25 campuses across the country participated in a series of events called Freedom Without Walls during the week of Nov. 8 to commemorate the fall of the wall in 1989. Activities included public-speaking and art competitions based on replicas of the East-West divide in Berlin. More than two dozen universities - including Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University - participated.

American University has a virtual-reality exhibit called “Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall,” which will be on display through Dec. 20. The interactive computer-graphic installation allows users to experience a section of the Berlin Wall in its former complexity.

Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, has a segment of the wall that was bequeathed by the Berlin Senate in 1997.

It is important to reach a generation of youths who were not yet born when the wall, erected in August 1961, came down in November 1989, education experts said.

“The timing of the Berlin Wall took everyone by surprise. It was peaceful. There was no bloodshed in the streets. It’s in that spirit we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War,” said Norma Broadwater of the Goethe-Institut, which is in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood and was founded in 1990 to encourage intercultural dialogue.

During commemoration week, the Goethe-Institut constructed a four-segment wall on I Street Northwest, and passersby were encouraged to decorate it with their own graffiti to represent their personal interpretation of freedom. Russian, British, French and American television footage from the day the wall fell - Nov. 9, 1989 - was shown.

Other events included Goethe’s premiere of “IconoClash! Political Imagery From the Berlin Wall to German Unification,” which runs until Jan. 8. The exhibit includes defaced political posters, a section of the Berlin Wall, street signs and two busts of Vladimir Lenin.

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), busts of Lenin were omnipresent in government buildings and public institutions, such as libraries. One of the busts at Goethe is what it would have looked like in the GDR. The other was defaced with pink and blue paint during peaceful demonstrations leading up to the fall of the wall.

“Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, most East Germans did not want anything to do with visual reminders of the GDR. These historical artifacts were largely thrown out and thrown away,” says Marion F. Deshmukh, associate professor of history and art history at George Mason University, a co-curator of the exhibit.

It is the first time the artifacts have traveled outside of California.

In 2002, the Wende Museum opened in Culver City, Calif., as an archive of the Cold War. Ms. Deshmukh has a relationship with the museum and was able to aid in bringing artifacts to the nation’s capital in their first touring exhibition outside of California.

“The exhibit is worth commemorating for both people who remember the fall of the wall and for the students who weren’t born at the time,” Ms. Deshmukh said.

“There are a few things Americans know about Germany post-World War II, and the Berlin Wall is one of them,” said Ms. Broadwater. “Its fall was a pivotal point. It separated not just people, but a way of life.”

• John Muller is a writer living in Montgomery County.

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