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German Museum Memorializes the Berlin Wall

April 27, 1986|GORDON E. ROWLEY | Rowley is an Esmond, R.I., free-lance writer.

WEST BERLIN, West Germany — Just after midnight on May 5, 1963, a red Austin Healey Sprite approached the barrier on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. The top of the sports car was down, the windshield was missing, and at the wheel was Heinz Meixner, 20, an Austrian lathe operator.

He showed his passport to the East German guard, who waved him on to the customs shed. But instead of stopping for inspection, Meixner gunned the engine, skidded around the slalom course of barriers and--ducking his head--whizzed blindly under the three-foot-high steel-lift barrier and into West Berlin.

Behind the seat was his East German fiancee, Margarete Thurau, and in the trunk her 48-year-old mother.

That's only one of hundreds of stories told in a small museum less than 25 yards from where Meixner screeched to a halt in the West.

The Wall Turns 25

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall. Berliners have learned to live with the concrete-and-barbed-wire monstrosity that divides their city.

Repulsive as it is, the Wall has also become the city's No. 1 tourist attraction. But standing on a platform, looking over at East German guards in their watch towers, cannot give you a full understanding of what the Wall has wrought. For that you must go to 44 Friedrichstrasse and the House at Checkpoint Charlie.

Friedrichstrasse, once a main thoroughfare, now ends abruptly where a white stripe crosses it. Three attached huts, much like turnpike toll booths and manned by British, French and American forces, stand in the middle of the street on the west side of the line.

To the east, a gap in the Wall is manned by an East German guard who waves vehicles through after checking their papers.

T-Shirts and Sausages

You can buy a Checkpoint Charlie T-shirt across the street from the museum, or one of Berlin's famous curried sausages at the snack stand next door. But the atmosphere of the neighborhood in general is rather grim.

The museum, which occupies the first two floors of the house, tells the history of the Wall and is full of artifacts and paraphernalia used in escapes: wire clippers, false passports, homemade uniforms, suitcases, a console radio, automobiles, a mini-submarine, and more.

The walls are covered with blown-up photos, their multilingual captions telling often of savage brutality but also of courage, daring, imagination, humor.

One East Berliner escaped to the West hidden in a plastic model of a cow. Another, a photographer, arranged to have pretty girls present flowers to border guards. He moved around taking pictures of his smiling subjects. Then, when close enough to the East-West line, he dashed across.

Stemming the Flood

The Wall went up on Aug. 13, 1961, as a desperate attempt to stop the flood of refugees from communism. With rumors of new restrictions to come in East Germany, more than 75,000 people had fled from East to West Berlin between July 1 and Aug. 12.

Although it came without warning, the Wall was a colossal undertaking: 40,000 troops massed along the 28-mile boundary, working day and night to string 6,000 miles of barbed wire and pile up about 300,000 concrete blocks.

It took months to plug all the gaps, and there were still many escapes while the Wall was new. Some of the earliest to escape were laborers building the Wall and Volkspolizei ("Volpos") guarding it.

Perhaps the best-known photo here shows Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old Volpo, at the moment he jumped the barbed wire in full uniform, wearing his steel helmet and carrying his submachine gun. He was the first of 1,304 border guards to defect in the first two years of the Wall.

Tug of War for Freedom

Another early photo shows a 77-year-old woman trying to jump from her second-floor apartment on Bernauerstrasse. Three Volpos who had burst into her apartment tug on her arms trying to pull her back through the window, while a West Berlin student pulls on her legs. Eventually the Volpos lost their grip and the woman fell into a net held by West Berlin firemen.

As the Wall grew more formidable, escapes became more spectacular. One young man shot an arrow attached with string to a steel cable over the Wall. An accomplice in West Berlin secured the cable and the archer and a companion slid to freedom on a pulley.

Some tried to breach the Wall with brute force: in dump trucks, buses, a bulldozer, a crane, even a stolen 9 1/2-ton Soviet troop carrier. Some succeeded, but many failed.

Tunnels were another means of escape. Most were dug from west to east by West German university students. The longest ran 360 feet and was equipped with electric lights, telephones and a ventilation system. One of the shortest, 15 yards, had its terminus in an open grave in an East Berlin cemetery. During Christmas week of 1961, 151 "mourners" who went to the cemetery in small groups disappeared into that grave, only to "resurrect" 10 minutes later in West Berlin.

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