Recently in History Category

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Leo Borchard (b. March 31, 1899, Moscow - d. August 23, 1945, Berlin)


On this day in 1945 the conductor Leo Borchard was killed by an American sentry in occupied Berlin while the musician was being driven home after conducting a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. His British driver had misinterpreted the sentry's hand signal to stop.*

Three months earlier the artist had been appointed to replace the somewhat-compromised, and now-exiled Wilhelm Fürtwangler as musical director of the orchestra. At the time of Borchard's death he had conducted 22 hugely-welcome and greatly-acclaimed concerts, wining the affections of the traumatized population of the shattered city.

Born in Moscow to an ethnic German family in 1899, Borchard grew up in St. Petersburg, studying there before moving to Berlin, after the Russian Revolution, in 1920. In the German capital he was enjoying an increasingly important conducting career, which included promoting the music of young composers, when he was declared undesirable by the Nazi regime in 1935, for protecting Jewish musicians and for being "politically unreliable".

He remained in the city, hiding his identity, and gave music lessons in his apartment. He also became a member of the German resistance, and, along with his stunningly-beautiful partner, the author Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, formed the humanitarian resistance group, Onkel Emil ("Onkel Emil" was their warning signal), a secret network which committed sabotage, destroyed Nazi propaganda materials and broadcast their own leaflets - and those of the tragic "White Rose". They expertly created fake medical certificates which would enable the bearer to avoid military service. They rescued war resisters, political enemies of the regime and, above all, Jews, finding hiding places, procuring food, supplying false identity cards, and supporting families which would otherwise be without resources or protection..

I first heard about Borchard years ago while reading the memoirs of various members of the Widerstand, some of whom referred to him, always with love and admiration - for both the man and his art. At the time I could find very little information about either. Although even now very little has turned up, there are a precious few recordings, and at least one video.

I've also learned about the two memoirs** written by Andreas-Friedrich, one about her experience during the war, the other about Berlin in the years immediately following. I expect to read them both.


*
Borchard wasn't the only victim of American security forces in Europe that year: Anton Webern was killed three weeks later in Mittersill, near Salzburg, on September 15th. The composer had gone there from Vienna to be safe, but that night, just before the military curfew, when he stepped outside his house in order to smoke a cigar, he was shot by an American Army soldier, in circumstances which are not really clear to this day..


**
"Berlin Underground, 1938-1945", and "Battleground Berlin: Diaries 1945-1948"


[image from Discogs]

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detail of Stampflehmbauweise (rammed-earth process) wall


Berlin's Kapelle der Versöhnung (chapel of the reconciliation) was built on the exact site of the Versöhnungskirche, which had survived the Anglo-American bombings of Berlin but not the pathology of the GDR. The 1895 church was destroyed in 1985 in order to improve the security of the wall standing adjacent to it. The history is a little complex, making the story of the new chapel, and its construction, even richer than it might be otherwise.

Today the Kapelle is a part of the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse.

The image at the top shows pieces of various materials (which here or elsewhere include stone, tile glass) which came from the rubble of the original church.

This is a view of the entire chapel, the rammed-earth wall can be detected behind the vertical square-section raw wood slats:

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large detail of the seating in the anatomical theater


It was an immense privilege to visit the newly-restored 1789/90 Tieranatomische Theater in Berlin's Humboldt University today. The building, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, using Palladio's Villa Rotonda as a model, was commissioned by King Frederick William II to serve as a research centre to control and combat animal and equine diseases.

Barry and I, along with our friend Daniel, were almost alone today while we explored the outer rooms, the staircases, the vault, and especially the remarkable steeply-tiered auditorium where veterinary students learned their profession.

Horses and other large animals were dissected by their teachers on a large round platform which could neatly be raised above and lowered below the floor in the center by the wooden machinery designed by the architect. The didactic which accompanied a working model in the undercroft explained the rational for the device: The route chosen for introducing and removing the bodies to and from the elegant space was intended to minimize both the smell and the mess.

As history and architecture buffs, our own experience in the former royal veterinary faculty was less critical to world betterment, but possibly more exhilarating. And incidentally, the museum attendants could not have been more gracious.

The university will be using the building, restored between 2005 and 2012, for exhibitions and events. The artist Jodie Carey's site-specific piece, "Shroud", was installed in the auditorium in July. I wish we had seen it.


There are more pictures here.

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David Greenspan, Ugo Chukwu, Rachel Claire, Amir Darvish, Meg MacCary, & Susan Hyon ("Yiddish Theater for today's players and audience" - from the program notes)


Resembling Edith Sitwell's enormous rings, the colorful bosses were attached at the very top of raw wooden sticks tethered to each other at the ends of the outer seating sections inside the Abrons Art Center. The only thing clear was that the audience was not supposed to take those seats.

So what were those gorgeous, jewel-like ornaments all about?

I never found the answer. When the lights went up after Target Margin Theater's presentation of Peretz Hirschbein's "The ( * ) Inn", Barry and I were so affected by what we had just seen on the stage that neither of us thought to investigate. By the time we had engaged some of the production team in conversation moments later I had forgotten to ask for any enlightenment.

Thinking about it now, I may also have decided, unconsciously or not, to just go along with - can I say it? - the company's accustomed, and famously challenging obstruseness. Also, it's not impossible to imagine TMT's founder and the production's director, David Herskovits, merely wanting to keep the audience's experience intimate, by limiting its size.

The play (in English, although with some Yiddish elements), and the production, were both a revelation, but I also left the theater with a lot of questions, all of them, I think, far more interesting than why the paste jewelry?

Some of my questions relate to my passion for history and for Jewish culture, and some of them are more about how that history and culture relates to that of the ammei ha'aretzot.

I grew up in the Midwest, ignorant of Jewish anything.

I also grew up loving "The Goldbergs", first on radio, and then on TV, but I regret that I had little or no idea of the rich context of the drama of which Gertrude Berg was a part until decades later. I moved to New York in the mid-80's, but it was too late for the classic Yiddish theater scene on Second Avenue. Over the years, I sometimes overhear fragments of the little bit of Yiddish that survived the Holocaust, but it always makes me melancholy, and it made me still sadder that, even with a knowledge of German, I couldn't understand more.

Hirschbein's play was written over 100 years ago, but there are big surprises. Both in the original (as I understand from the program notes) and as adapted & directed by Herskovits for performance on the Lower East Side today it's a remarkable document of the almost-forgotten creativity of experimental Yiddish theater. The company's notes describe their collaboration:


The shtetl turns uncanny in Hirschbein's classic of Yiddish life. You might be expecting the farm life, the chicken-plucking and the arranged marriage, but not the S&M lust and the body-snatching wedding guests. The ( * ) Inn was an early touchstone for experimental theater in Yiddish, a sensation in Vilna, in London and in a 1917 New York production. This play is a perfect example of why we at TMT believe Yiddish drama is as innovative and challenging as any in the world. It's Tevye on drugs. Watch out.


"The ( * ) Inn" is a great treat as theater, as an eyeopener, and - almost uniquely - as pre-WWI expressionist drama which can be experienced live today. I can't say I know all of what Hirschbein and Herskovits mean. As with all good theater, I believe, they leave the audience wanting to know more.

And I still don't know what the ornaments strung along the aisle mean; I'll just imagine those jewels as "runway lights" for the gem being mounted on the boards off Grand Street this month, TMT's tribute to Yiddish theater and to "the Yiddish Maeterlinck".


[image is by Erik Carter, for Target Margin Theater]

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Eduardo Leandro leading members of Ensemble Pi in Kristin Nordeval's "Three Character Studies"


On Saturday Ensemble Pi [Ensemble Π] presented "What Must be Said", its 7th annual Concert for Peace at The Cell, a jewelbox non-profit theater space carved out of the bottom floors of a handsome, early-19th-century Chelsea townhouse. I was delighted to be able to record some images from the concert. By the way, I've decided that the hardest part about photographing performances may be the thing about trying hard not to annoy the rest of the audience.

The evening was one of the most extraordinary and profoundly-moving musical performance events I have ever experienced. The concert was conceived and presented with an intelligence and compassion which intensified the independent merits and beauties of the (seven?) works scheduled. The pieces included were by one writer and three composers all of whose work performed that night, as described by The Cell in its press release, "addresses some of the 'silences' enforced or suggested by governments or the media". All of the works were compelling for their historical and contemporary relevance, brilliant in their composition, and interpreted with consummate elegance by an ensemble which has adopted the most generous of missions.

The collective describes itself as "a socially conscious new music group dedicated to performing the music of living and undiscovered composers", but that description doesn't do justice to the sincerity and bravery of what the group, under its artistic director Idith Meshulam, has been doing for eleven years.

One constant in its programming, perhaps unique among both musical groups and performance venues, is its addressing of serious ideas about which there is not universal consensus even among progressives, and, just as important, the discussion of those ideas. Designed at least partly towards that end are the ensemble's regular collaborations with visual artists, writers, actors, and journalists.


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Airi Yoshioka and Idith Meshulam playing Susan Botti's "Fallen City"

On Saturday and Sunday the program began with Susan Botti's "Lament: The Fallen City", for violin and piano, which, the program describes, "reflects upon the fall of Troy as a metaphor for modern cities that have experienced natural or human-made disaster (i.e. Baghdad; New Orleans; Pisco, Peru; or Greensburg, Kansas)". I've never heard some of the kinds of sounds Airi Yoshioka (violin) and Idith Meshulam (piano) were able to produce in this affecting piece, but they were always as eloquent as they were anomalous.


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Kai Moser reading Günter Grass' "What Must be Said"

Günter Grass' controversial poem on Israel, Iran and war, "Was gesagt werden muss" [What Must Be Said], from which the evening took its title, was read in German (with an English translation projection) by Kai Moser. Grass has gotten hell for what he wrote, not least because of his earlier, late-life confession that he had been part of an SS tank division (drafted at 17) near the end of the war.


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Kristin Nordeval singing "Ask Me", from her "Three Character Studies"

The concert began a transformation into intimate musical theater with the performance of "Three Character Studies", excerpts from composer/soprano Kristin Norderval's opera in progress, "The Trials of Patricia Isasa". Both Emily Donato and Daniel Pincus sang beautifully, Donato in the role of the teenage Isasa, and Daniel Pincus as the federal judge convicted for his role in the torture and kidnapping of many Argentinians, including Isasa. Norderval herself was the superb soloist in the the third section (as the adult Patricia, now a media figure), accompanying herself with some sound processing on her laptop near the end.

This beautiful and very moving piece could be staged as a mini opera on its own right now, and I very much look forward to hearing the completed opera, which will boast a powerful libretto by playwright Naomi Wallace.


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a scene from An den kleinen Radioapparat [to the little radio]


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from Und es sind die finstern Zeiten in der fremden Stadt [the times are dark and fearful]


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the concluding, concentration camp scene, Harte Menschheit, unbewegt, lang erfror'nem Fischvolk gleich [people hard and impassive, like fishermen long at sea]


The evening continued with the premiere of "Eisler on the Go", a beautiful, animated puppet show by the New York collaborative, Great Small Works, on the life of Hanns Eisler. The composer's studiedly-accessible music, his personality and his loyalties, his proletarian activism, and his sad fate (beginning long before he was expelled from the U.S. as a communist), has been something of an obsession for me ever since I first came across his music and his story a number of years ago; I'm very happy to find lately that his fans are now becoming legion.

The tiny-theater show animated three of the most familiar of Eisler's many songs, each sung by Nordeval. They were: "Song von Angebot und Nachfrage", "An den kleinen Radioapparat", and "Und es sind die finstern Zeiten in der fremden Stadt" [the links are to three awesome videos, with three very different performers; enjoy].


After the Puppenspiel Meshulam played the first movement of the composer's "Piano Sonata No. 3" and his "Klavierstück Op. 32 no V and VI", gently bringing the chamber back from the darkness, the anger and the funk - brilliantly.


The program was repeated the following night.

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adding them up


Today marks the end of a full decade for this blog.

As I have been more than a little slow in posting over the past year (probably from having discovered more of the outside world - and of course Twitter), I felt I didn't deserve a real number on this anniversary; instead of a 10 I've gone for three numbers which add up to 10.

I can't predict what, or how much, will show up in the blog over the next year, but It's not going away. In the meantime this is a brief description of its history, in pretty much the same words I used a year ago:


The blog began when, finding myself totally frustrated with the idiocy and brutishness of my country's response to the events of September 11 and feeling almost totally isolated in my disgust, I started sending a series of emails to people I knew well, sharing my thoughts and my anger. A few months later I started jameswagner.com, intending it to be a more structured - and more widely broadcast - form for the kinds of unelicited rants with which I had been testing the patience of my friends. It was also intended to include ruminations on subjects in which I thought others might share my interest.

Almost from the start there were entries on politics, the arts, queerdom, history, New York and the world, and within a year they began to be accompanied by images and photographs. Many of the latter have been my own.


April 27 is another anniversary for me, much more precious and infinitely more important than the launch of this modest little blog: I met Barry, my perfect partner in everything (and Wunderkind webmaster) exactly twenty one-years ago today.


[the image is that of the modernist numbers above one of the entrances of the building two doors down from us, a very sturdy structure which incidentally houses the National Office of the American Communist Party USA]

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graduating Piggy Artists celebrate the breakthrough which made the Brucennial possible [from left to right: Ian Lassiter, Liz Olanoff, Joe Kay, Maria Dizzia, Matt Nasser]


Last night the earnest, tuneful sounds of the Bruce High Quality Foundation's production of Animal Farm: A Musical further enlivened the halls of an already almost-impossibly-vigorous second edition of the arts collective's Brucennial, first visited upon the unsuspecting city in 2010.

The fable, based only very loosely on Orwell's allegorical novella, describes the redemptive journey of "the graduating Piggy Artists of the class of 2012" (from the BHQF site) after their confrontation with their school's alleged penury; its chicken trustees' incompetence, cowardice, and stinginess, and their move toward charging tuition for the first time after 150 years; its greedy dog financial-advisors, and the dispersal, for a time, of the collective creative energy of the porcine members of the class itself.

While somewhere in BHQF materials there's a reference to the group's own institution of higher arts learning, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, the real story of the high-spirited lets-put-on-a-show production is that of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the handful(s) of former Cooper students which founded the collective in 2004.

Following the conclusion of the show one of the Bruce's made a very straight appeal to members of the audience, asking them to help ensure that the college on Cooper Square not betray its legacy as a pure meritocracy: It was founded by the self-made industrialist Peter Cooper to give young people the opportunity of the good education he never had, a tuition-free school whose facilities were open to anyone who applied.

We were asked to go to freecooperunion.com for more information, and to spread its words. Those of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University anthem, printed inside Sunday's handsome "Playbill", offer an inspiration:


Every Pig is an artist.
No pig flies alone.
Teaching others is our greatest work.
We can't do it on our own.


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[second image, the program cover, from GalleristNY]

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Patti Smith performing for the one percent at the Chelsea Wednesday night


UPDATE: Citing the wishes of the Chelsea's tenants, Patti Smith cancelled Thursday night's concert, to which they had been invited. Her statement appears on her web site. Score another one for the 99%.


The Chelsea Hotel seems to be attracting more tourists than ever these days; do they know that what they have come to photograph is now a shell, that it has already been destroyed, in a process begun three and a half years ago?

We live almost directly across the street from it, and I have passed by its front doors almost every day for 25 years. I also have wonderful memories of both strangers and friends, and of the provocations of both visual and performance art projects which could only have come out of this amazing community.

I can't bring myself to look inside the lobby these days. I stopped going in when the bouncers appeared, and later the new owners removed all traces of the life with which the building had been so richly endowed as they tossed out the odd furniture and the amazing collection of art, both accumulated over many decades. Adding insult to injury, the walls were then essentially - and revealingly - whitewashed.

Those of us who remember the Chelsea Hotel when it was still a vibrant cultural hive have been made both saddened and angered by the unfolding story of its demise, driven by an unfettered greed absent during the 70 years it was under the management of the Bard family.

I admit I don't understand much of what is happening inside 222 West 23rd Street, and I don't think many people do. More to the point, I can't believe that so little is known about the owners' plans for such an important landmark and once-living monument, if only because of its importance as real estate in a real estate-obsessed city. Permits have to be applied for - and granted (or not) - and I would think the media would be on top of any developments in the story, even if they turned out to be rumors.

All of this brings me to the latest development in the saga of the beautiful 127-year-old relic of brick, iron, and passion: A Patti Smith concert is to be held tonight inside the old hotel ballroom, a concert which may or may not be sponsored by the Chetrit Group, the new corporate owners. The New York Times finds the response to the announcement newsworthy, but doesn't add much light to the larger story. The newspaper neglected to mention that last night Smith was at the hotel to play what the Village Voice wrote "appears to have been a new-hotel-management-planned event to which tenants were not invited, but the architect and others were".

This is a story which wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for the fact that a number of people still live in the 12-story landmark, and obviously have a more personal stake in its future than those who merely love it; these people have paid for their attachment to the Chelsea, and they continue to do so. It is their home, but they also stewards of its heritage, on behalf of all of us. We should do them the honor of respecting their concerns and join them in asking for answers to questions apparently not being asked anywhere else.

I was moved, in coming up with a title to this post, by the indispensable in-house Chelsea Hotel blog, "Living with Legends", published by our friend Ed Hamilton. We want to see Ed, his blog, and the Chelsea thrive; our hope is for continuing living legends, not just ghosts.

"Jeremiah's Vanishing New York" and "Living with Legends" are asking friends of the real Chelsea to meet outside the hotel tonight at 8pm during the second, tenants' concert, to raise lit lighters, and recite the lyrics of Smith's song "People Have the Power":


I was dreaming in my dreaming of an aspect bright and fair

And my sleeping it was broken
but my dream it lingered near

In the form of shining valleys
where the pure air recognized

And my senses newly opened
I awakened to cry -
That the people have the power to redeem the works of fools

Upon the meek the graces shower
it's decreed
the people rule.

The people have the power
the people have the power

The people have the power
the people have the power.

Vengeful aspects became suspect and bending low as if to hear

And the armies ceased advancing because the people had their ear.
And the shepherds and the soldiers lay beneath the stars


Exchanging visions and laying arms to waste in the dust

In the form of shining valleys where the pure air recognized

And my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry -

The people have the power
the people have the power

The people have the power
the people have the power.

The power to dream
to rule
to wrestle the world from fools

It's decreed
the people rule
it's decreed
the people rule.
Listen: I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our
union

We can tun the world around
we can turn the earths revolution.
We have the power
the people have the power

The people have the power
the people have the power.
The power to dream
to rule
to wrestle us from fools

It's decreed
the people rule.
We have the power
we have the power

The people have the power
we have the power.


[image by Maydersen via the Village Voice; lyrics from STLyrics.com]

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from the Arizona side of the 21-feet-high wall on the Mexico-U.S. border



Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

[the first lines of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" from 1915]


That something is apparently not us: The message of this wall is abominable, and yet we concur with it in our affirmation or merely our daily silence.

The image is from an illustrated article in today's New York TImes, "At the Border, on the Night Watch", describing our iniquitous operations "securing" our southern perimeter from the people we conquered to obtain it.


[image by Joshua Lott for The New York Times]

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woman and child at the Wall, waving from West to East, 1961 (from a video on a stele at the Wall Memorial)


ADDENDUM: two images have been added within the original set below [on August 21, 2011]


I find myself nearly choking up as I write this. Yes, it's been a very long time since I've blogged anything on this site, but my emotion has nothing to do with having been absent so long from a "post". The reason I'm feeling a bit fragile right now is that I've been looking lately at a lot of images attached to the history of the Berlin Wall, memorialized yesterday exactly 50 years after it was installed. There are also my own memories of the Wall, and of Berlin, which begin in late spring of 1961, a few months before it even existed.

I returned to Berlin several times during the years the wall stood (but not often enough, as I still regret), and I've been back three times since it was torn down in 1989.

I suppose it's natural that at this time there should be more and more attention being paid to this piece of German and Western history, more perhaps than that currently being focused on the Nazi regime and its so much greater horror. At least two generations have been born since 1945, and Germans today are well-educated about the country's darker legacy, and fully-conscious of both the origins and the deeds of the twelve-year regime which ended in a Berlin bunker. Over 65 years later Germany is a very different country, the Germans a very different people, and almost no one survives today who could be said to have played an important role in the horrors which accompanied the first half of the last century.

The story of a divided Germany, a divided Berlin, however remains very much alive - and insufficiently known or documented. It's also the story of a divided people, and much of that division remains today. Both victims and tormentors survive, certainly in numbers sufficient to attract the curious social observer or documentarian.

Peter Schneider wrote in the Times two days ago that when he first began investigating the Wall 30 years ago his progressive friends thought his interest was weird, that the subject should be of interest to the Right: "The left held that the split was the price Germans had to pay for the crimes of the Third Reich." I can back him up: I was aware of something like that attitude among the Germans I knew decades ago.

Even today it seems there's not even the beginnings of a consensus about what happened between 1961 and 1989, or how it happened.

The Wall was one of the last remnants of a social and political struggle which began before 1933 and continued after 1945; it was a part of a much broader panorama of German history, and not just a product of an East/West Cold War (which had been germinating for several generations, not merely years). Much of the suspicion and passion of the struggle which created the wall is still with us, even if disguised and diffused.

I have been obsessed with German history all my life, and especially with the 25 years fateful years of the Weimar and National Socialist eras, but in the last decade or so I have become increasingly interested in the story of divided Germany, and especially divided Berlin (subjects my teachers would have called "current events"). Part of the reason for my fascination and hunger for information could be the fact that Barry and I have stayed, on our last two visits, in what had been East Berlin. There is nothing like affection for an adopted neighborhood - even a temporary one - and proximity to the subject to inspire interest in its history. But I'm sure I would find the subject fascinating even at a greater distance, and it offers virtually unlimited opportunities for discovery.

I took these pictures while we were in Berlin in May of this year. I'm using, welcoming, the anniversary of the Wall as the occasion and an inducement to publishing them here now. We stayed just one street away from the Berlin Wall Memorial, which begins roughly at the Nordbahnhof, on Gartenstrasse, and runs along Bernauerstrasse. The memorial service held yesterday was held one street in the other direction from our apartment. These photographs were captured in half-light, as we returned to our base on our first full day in the city.


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The S-Bahn stop, Nordbahnhof, closed between August 13,1961, the day the Berlin Wall went up, and September 1, 1990, is at the southwestern edge of the Bernauerstrasse section of the Wall Memorial; it includes an extensive, and evocative, "ghost stations" exhibit; this same building, by Richard Brademann, was constructed in 1936 and survived war (bombs, flooding), the postwar division of the city, and finally the Wall which destroyed its function


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looking not unlike a street in Pompei, the archeological remains of Bergstrasse, showing the curb, paving stones and stumps of metal fence poles which were a part of the wall system


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a section of one of the last surviving pieces of the Wall, on Bernauerstrasse, showing the small international Denkmalplakette, or monument emblem, established by the 1954 Hague Convention to identify "movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people," to be protected in the event of armed conflict.


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a view of one of a section of the concrete "Grenzmauer 75" (restored to its original condition), and in the left foreground the edge of the steel side wall designed by the memorial architects, the Stuttgart firm Kohlhoff & Kohlhoff, so that the polished surface of one of its sides would give an impression, artistically and optically, of the sheer length of the original barrier, most of which does not survive; the Gedenksttte has not yet been completed in its entirety


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two Berlin youths visiting the still-under-construction Memorial Grounds on Bernauerstrasse, at dusk; we were near them while they watched one of the video screens imbedded in a stele, and when then-Brgermeister Willy Brandt was seen speaking to the crowd at the wall, only three days after the closure (criticizing what he described as President Kennedy's empty rhetoric, asserting "Berlin expects more than words. It expects political action"), one of the two uttered respectfully - and affectionately, "Der Willy," in the way Germans often modify a friend's given name.


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an image included in the wall of memorial materials located along Ackerstrasse, about one kilometer east of where this crowd of happy, stunned(?) East Berliners crossed to the West from Eberswalderstrasse into Bernauerstrasse the morning of November 11, 1989, through the first new street opening



More on the Wall, pictures and texts, from German sites, in English:

Germany marks 50 years (Deutsche Welle)

Before and After Photos of Germany's East-West Border (Der Spiegel)

'West Berliners Felt Abandoned and Powerless' (Der Spiegel)


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