Daily Review-Atlas (Monmouth, IL)7-31-98

by William Urban

 The opportunity to see the Wall again was one of the attractions of working for Eastern Michigan University this summer. I had first crossed the wall in 1964, Jackie had seen it the year before, and we both had seen the official opening of Checkpoint Charlie in 1990. All together, I had crossed the wall a dozen times or so, and my memory of those increasingly unnerving experiences was still very vivid.

The challenge would be explaining this to students too young to remember that Communism was once very real and very dangerous. They were still in grade school when the Wall came down in 1989. I started by assigning "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" as one of the two outside readings. I had hoped they would read it before they came, but to a person they started with the slimmest reading, Eli Wiesel's "Night." That book made exactly the impression I had wanted for the later visit to Dachau, but the order was wrong. It was only after we were actually in Berlin that they began to realize that they had been at all the London locations described in the first half of "The Spy Who."

It was not easy to find places in Berlin which still showed where the Wall had been or what it looked like. Berlin must have more construction sites than any other city in the world; the death zone is now a forest of construction cranes. The notorious border crossing at Friedrichstrasse has been changed beyond recognition, though I could stand there and tell the students, "We went in a door about here, everyone giving up their passport and waiting, and waiting. It took longer every time. And God help you if you were Jewish." The wall around the Brandenburg Gate, not far away, could be envisioned better. At least in my mind's eye, and I could point out how it swept around the monument. But Checkpoint Charlie was just another street now. The museum was great, but standing where the border guards had carefully inspected my passport in the summer of 1964 and taken one of my companions from the Church of the Brethren aside for a strip search, I wondered myself if I had dreamt it all, especially that we were smuggling choir music for an East Berlin church. My companion had calmly handed me his raincoat, the inside pockets stuffed with music books, and almost as calmly I had gone on through the inspection process and waited for him outside.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that I responded to the Komische Oper production of Verdi's Macbeth more than the students did. The opening scene showed the Wall, with Macbeth and McDuff coming back from their successful war through the control points. The atmosphere of murder and terror built up through the opera, not distracted by Lady Macbeth obviously impersonating Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clearly, the students were not the only ones having trouble imagining what the real appearance of totalitarianism was.

Every now and then someone tells me how they wished they had lived in the Sixties. I can only say, Nah, I was there. Some things were good: family, friends, some of the music. But for politics, take today. Nobody misses the Wall.