The fall of the Berlin Wall over 30 years ago left an impact on communities well beyond the borders of the city itself.
This past Nov. 9 marked 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. With its destruction, post-World War II communism in Eastern Europe was doomed. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those rare events that had an impact well beyond the borders of the city itself. It led to a rejuvenation of some significance for Jews in Eastern Europe, who had not fared well under Communist rule and the influence of the Soviet Union. Although the benefits were not immediate, everything slowly changed after the Wall crumbled.
At the end of WWII, Germany was a divided, occupied and devastated nation. The Soviet Union exerted influence over the eastern half of Germany, which became the East Democratic Republic (GDR), which surrounded the city of Berlin. The GDR was not “democratic” nor was it a “republic.” It began construction of the Wall in August 1961, the purpose of which was to keep people in East German and everyone else out. And it did, maintaining a divided city until it fell in 1989. And as it stood, then and now, the Berlin Wall became a common, universally recognized symbol of oppression.
There are 119 pages in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History that cite the Berlin Wall. The first two mentions are in the 1960s, one of which is an advertisement in the Nov. 29, 1963, issue of the JN for the movie Lilies of the Field. It states that the nuns for whom Sidney Poitier’s character works are escapees “from beyond the Berlin Wall.”
What is most interesting is that stories mentioning the Berlin Wall are not always about the Wall itself. The term is often used as a point of reference. For example, the JN covered construction of the I-696 expressway in Metro Detroit in the 1980s. There was controversy since the expressway would slice through several communities. In the Dec. 29, 1989, issue of the JN, Dr. Conrad Giles, president of the Jewish Welfare Federation, when discussing the new expressway, said: “It’s not a Berlin Wall. We have access.”
Of course, the JN covered the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, what is really compelling are the stories that focus upon the meaning of this event for Jews in Europe. The titles of these articles in the JN speak for themselves. On Nov. 29, 1989, a story states that German unity makes Elie Wiesel “fearful.” On Nov. 17, 1989, a writer asks: “A New Eastern Europe: Is it Good for the Jews?” In the same issue, another essay is titled: “Jews Have Misgivings Over Events in Berlin.” In short, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought many concerns to Jews here and in Europe.
Thirty years later, however, it is safe to say that the destruction of the Wall was — overall — a very good event for Eastern European Jews, many who have been able to reform their communities. Berlin is now a “cool” city. And, by the way, communities along I-696 have also survived and prospered.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.