When I read that John Hurt had died, I recognized him as the actor who appeared in Night Crossing, a film that I showed in my German 1 classes every year. The movie presented the true story of two East German families who escaped over the fortified border between the two Germanys in a hot air balloon they had secretly sewn on a treadle machine.
Also recalling Berlin Tunnel 21 from German 2 class about a group who dug their way to freedom, I started thinking about the nature of walls.
I proceeded to do some reading about historical and modern walls – among them Jericho, China, the West Bank – and tabulated their purposes: defense, protection, immigration issues, tax collection, control over people on one side or the other.
My mind naturally settled on the structure with which I had had frequent, first-hand experience: the Berlin Wall. Consistently strengthened throughout its 28-year existence, the barrier was a concoction of concrete and barbed wire winding among barren spaces laced with land mines, all under the watchful eyes of armed guards in observation towers.
The purpose of the elaborate barricade was to prevent East Germans from leaving and also to limit the influence of the West within its communist borders. East Berliners were forbidden to speak to Westerners. Still, during my first visit there as a college student in 1968, a young girl sitting next to me at a theater production expressed surprise at my presence, informing me that a wall had been built to keep people like me out.
There were walls of other configurations during the incomprehensibly-tragic Holocaust years. The Nazi regime banished Jews as well as members of other socially-outcast groups to more than 40,000 concentration camps spread all across Europe. And there were the gas chambers, many disguised as showers, where millions of the displaced met their demise with the drop of a Zyklon B canister during the continent-wide program organized by the German government and officially known as the Final Solution.
These walls and others serve as examples of barriers used to control people. The wall in Berlin prevented residents from leaving, while Hungary is adding to its fence along the borders with Serbia and Croatia to bar immigrants from entering. And the Nazi camps ensured that undesirable populations were effectively walled off from their fellow citizens.
The world continues to be occupied by wall-builders and wall-breakers. The builders advance the concept that walls provide protection, giving at least a passing nod to Robert Frost’s statement that “good fences make good neighbors.”
On the other hand, wall-breakers object to the physical divisiveness of walls by supporting Frost’s counter argument in “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.”
We live in a confusing, unsettled era. Old global tensions considered solved in modern times seem to have re-erupted. And while many countries cooperated a quarter century ago to unite Europe into the European Union, Britain is now preparing to leave under Brexit.
The optimism depicted on the EU’s currency, the Euro, with windows and doorways symbolizing cooperation as well as bridges representing communication is ironically muted by the difficult, practical realities of refugees from the East flooding the continent in their quest for survival.
Equally paradoxical is America’s give-me-your-tired-your-poor-your-huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free tradition that developed an entire nation with immigrants and refugees, even as we currently struggle to deal with those who would cross today’s borders.
Walls establish territory and dominance by following geographical and/or political boundaries but also stand as psychological symbols of strength or foreboding power. I worry, however, much more about the walls we tend to erect in our hearts. But I am not sure whether those inner walls eventually precipitate the construction of physical walls – or if actual walls cause the hardening of our hearts.
As ambivalent as I sometimes feel about modern barriers – actual and psychological – there is one unique wall that inspires me today as profoundly as it did during a trip to Jerusalem in 1984.
During that visit, I was moved by our walking tour that highlighted sites sacred to devotees of three major world religions. Christians from around the world travel to Israel’s oldest city to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, identified as the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. Members of Islam make pilgrimages to the Dome of the Rock, a beautiful Muslim shrine built over a sacred stone. And Jews, considering it one of their faith’s holiest sites, flock to the Western Wall to pray. It was calming to witness the co-existence of these major belief systems in a region otherwise so fraught with discord.
My observation of the Western Wall was memorable: men young and old, fathers with sons, and members of various Jewish denominations prayed before the surviving segment of a larger structure and inserted petitions written on small slips of paper into its nooks and crannies. It is a wall with a purpose that transcends mere political and nationalistic concerns.
There are those who believe that the world is divided into nations with inalterable population assignments. I prefer, however, to join Robert Frost in understanding: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down” and to wholeheartedly agree with Sir Isaac Newton that “we build too many walls – and not enough bridges.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.