Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
And the Wall came tumbling down!
Old Negro Spiritual
The Wall that came tumbling down twenty years ago this week was the infamous Berlin Wall. Although I was unable to see it fall, I did see its beginnings in the summer of 1961. Touring Europe with some friends, we drove from Nuremburg, Germany along the only highway open between East and West Germany in order to reach Berlin.
As we approached the impressive Brandenburg Gate, we saw East German soldiers starting to place barbed wire along the border between the two German states. Bob, the leader of our small group had served as an officer in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific in World War II, and he commented that the East Germans had no right to erect any sort of barrier between East and West Germany and that we should just go over there and remove the wire. Not being either as courageous as Bob, the rest of us decided against that foolhardy course of action. Still, we all felt that any barrier dividing the City of Berlin was unjust and illegal.
It was not so long after our little group left Europe that the barbed wire turned into cement, becoming the physical symbol of the Communist Iron Curtain and the Cold War. A "death strip" surrounded the Berlin Wall on the East German side, with guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches, and East German police and soldiers with weapons trying to prevent any escapes of their citizens to the West. Prior to the Wall's erection, some three and a half million East Germans had escaped into West Germany and beyond. After the full Wall was in place, only some five thousand people tried to escape, some of whom were killed in the process of seeking freedom.
In 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and gave his famous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech to express solidarity with the embattled West Germans. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall." Yet the Berlin Wall persisted until Communism itself was on the way out. On November 9, 1989, after weeks of serious civil unrest, the East German government removed the restrictions on its citizens visiting West Berlin and West Germany. This led to crowds of East Germans crossing the "death strip," climbing the Wall unimpeded, and joining West Germans and other welcomers on the free side of the Wall. Over the next few weeks, parts of the Wall were chipped away; later that year, it was torn down.
In November, 1989, I was Connecticut regional director for a worldwide securities firm based in Israel. We frequently used Israeli speakers -- diplomats, generals, journalists -- to address programs we held to sell our securities and enhance Israel's image. One such speaker that December had spent considerable time in West Germany investigating the Neo-Nazi movement which was of considerable and understandable concern to Israelis.
Ari, as I will call this speaker, happened to mention, as I was driving him back to the airport to catch his plane to New York, that he knew of a group of entrepreneurs in West Germany (soon to be reunited with the East through German reunification on October 3, 1990) who were interested in doing something with the remains of the Berlin Wall. On the West German side, the Wall had been totally covered with graffiti over its years of existence, promoting freedom and democracy and other liberal Western values. Surely, Ari said, there would be interest in preserving those symbols of Western triumph over Communism and repression.
As an economist and business consultant, my mind recognized a challenge; I told Ari that I would think about this matter and call him at the Israeli Consulate in New York. The following week, I called Ari to suggest that blocks of the former Berlin Wall be acquired by whatever means was necessary, then divided into pieces in several sizes but each containing at least part of a "freedom graffiti" as I called them, and that each piece be marketed in a plastic container with a tombstone-shaped cardboard placard inserted
which would read: The Berlin Wall: 1961-1989. Rest in pieces!
Ari said that this seemed like a good idea and a viable proposal, which he would share with his fellow entrepreneurs in Germany. I did not hear anything further for some time; Ari returned to Israel, and, I later learned, again to Germany to meet with his associates.
One day in the Spring of 1990, a mysterious package came in the mail to my office. We had a procedure for dealing with suspicious packages; we took them to the local police station which then decided whether or not they required "special handling" from the bomb squad. In this case, however, I recognized the name in the return address; it was from my friend Ari and had been mailed from Jerusalem, so I considered it safe to open.
Inside the package was a very brief note from Ari, which simple stated: We took your idea. Here is a sample. Attached to the note was a small piece of the infamous Berlin Wall, complete with a black-and-white graffiti which looked a bit like a peace symbol. The cardboard enclosed with the sample was not tombstone-shaped, but had the same message as I had suggested above . I have to confess to becoming choked up upon seeing that little piece of history, and realizing that, sometimes, the good guys win after all.