I recently visited Berlin with my family to do some research for my novel Oranges for Christmas and the first place we visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse. A large strip of the Wall has been preserved here and there is a memorial to those who died trying to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin. It is appropriate that the memorial has been set up here, because the houses in Bernauer Strasse were right on the front line in terms of the border.
Bernauer Strasse runs in a roughly south-west to north-east direction between the districts of Wedding, to the north, and Mitte, to the south. The houses on the north side of Bernauer Strasse were in Wedding and therefore in West Berlin, but the houses on the south side were in Mitte and therefore in East Berlin. The road and pavements between the houses belonged to the West. Until 13 August 1961, residents on the geographically south but politically east side of the street only had to step out of their front doors to find themselves in West Berlin. But on 13 August 1961 all that changed.
The side streets leading from Mitte to Bernauer Strasse were sealed off with barbed wire, and later with the Wall, and the houses which found themselves on the wrong side of the street had their doors guarded and lower floor windows bricked up.
People tried to make a run for it and even started jumping from upper floor windows onto firemen’s blankets in the street below.
One of the side streets to Bernauer Strasse saw a dramatic escape when an East German border guard, Conrad Schumann, jumped over the barbed wire he was supposed to be guarding.
Any remaining residents in the houses on the east side of Bernauer Strasse were given compulsory evacuation orders and the houses were demolished to make way for the death strip. The Church of Reconciliation which found itself stranded in the middle of the death strip was demolished in 1985 to improve visibility for the border guards. Today a new church has been built in its place and the bent iron cross of the old church lies on the ground.
The visitor centre and the documentation centre at the Bernauer Strasse site are moving and informative and well worth a visit. Bernauer Strasse is a powerful reminder of the brutality of communism in East Germany.