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Berlin Wall Is Built Again, As New College Students Confront Walls, Past and Present

Kaelan Dean, a student at New College, spray paints a replica of the Berlin Wall, September 2019. Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, ending an era of Cold War division between East and West, democracy and communism. At a time when U.S. culture is increasingly divided along partisan lines, students and professors at New College of Florida decided to build a Berlin Wall again, as a way of studying the history of divisions and how they persist today.

Ever since it went up in September, every Wednesday at lunchtime has been open graffiti hour at the wall, which stands in the center of the college's Sarasota campus.

One afternoon, a student named Kaelan Dean spray-painted the words "Act Up," which were on the original wall.

"The idea is that they put up the wall blank, students can come in and add their graffiti similar to the Berlin Wall, and then in early November we are going to have a get-together and tear it down," Dean said.

Standing eight feet tall and 16 feet wide, the New College replica is dwarfed by the actual wall, which encircled West Berlin and stretched across nearly 100 miles.

Kaelan Dean spray paints graffiti on Berlin Wall replica
New College student Kaelan Dean spray paints during open graffiti hour. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

The East Germans built it in 1961 as a way of preventing people from defecting. The wall isolated West Berlin, an enclave of democracy, deep inside Soviet territory.

The idea to re-create the Berlin Wall for students came from visiting assistant professor of German, Lauren Hansen.

"Since it's something that happened before their own lifetime, I try to drive home the fact that it wasn't that long ago at all, that we had the Berlin Wall standing and when it fell," Hansen said, adding that the story of the wall is as relevant as ever.

"We are still talking about borders and keeping people out or keeping people in, who gets to come in who gets to come out. And so students are really drawing those connections between the Berlin Wall and the U.S.-Mexico border, between North and South Korea, territorial disputes and Israel versus Palestine."

Sculpture professor Ryan Buyssens helped students build the wall in early September, using wood planks and dry wall. Theatre professor Diego Villada coached the students as they prepared to re-enact historical speeches, like John F. Kennedy's famous speech from 1963, when he expressed America's solidarity with the people of Berlin.

"All free men ...wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin and therefore as a free man I take pride in the words, Ich bin Ein Berliner."

A view of the Berlin Wall replica at New College of Florida.
A view of the Berlin Wall replica at New College of Florida. Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF

Student Jay Stewart stood before the wall and delivered Kennedy's speech in early September. Afterward, he reflected on the meaning of the late president's words.

"He was making the point that separating families is a bad thing. That separating a nation is a bad thing. That not allowing for the free movement of people is a bad thing. And I think in today's political climate, that still means something," said Stewart.

The other side of the wall, the East German side, is painted a stark gray, like its predecessor in Berlin. Several black and white photos hang on it, of real people who died trying to cross to the West.

Professor Lauren Hansen stands after drawing a chalk outline around student Noah Opalsky.
Professor Lauren Hansen stands after drawing a chalk outline around student Noah Opalsky. The East German side of the wall is dedicated to people who died trying to cross to the West. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

"I had each of my students choose a victim of the wall that's available on an online archive,” said Hansen.

“So they chose one of the victims and printed out a picture of them. And then I had them handwrite on the back. The name, the age, when they died, how they died, and any other interesting information."

Angelika Overdiek, a German woman living in the Sarasota area, came to seee the wall and the re-enactment of JFK's speech, and was moved by it.

"I like it very much," she said of the project.  At age 76, she described herself as a "time witness," who lived in West Germany and remembers spending many years crossing to the East side from time to time, to visit distant relatives.

She described living under communism as "like a prison. You are always afraid that something will happen to you."

And she said it has taken Germany an enormous amount of time to heal from the division created by the Berlin Wall. 

"We have not grown together 100 percent in Germany. The people of East Germany still feel a little bit behind, neglected," said Overdiek.

Students also delve into the literature of the time, from authors like East Germany’s Christa Wolf, who spoke at the wall in 1989, days before it came down. Wolf was a major literary figure at the time.

Portraits of people who died trying to cross from East to West hang on the wall. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Student Emma Sunderman practices for her re-enactment by watching a video of Wolf's speech. Then, she recites it herself in English.

"Major social movements are growing. People in our country have never before spoken so much as in the last few weeks. Never before really spoken with each other with such passion, such anger and sadness, but also with such hope."

Wolf's words reflect a nation emerging from totalitarianism, grappling with freedom, and dialogue.

Sunderman is 20, and says she knew nothing about the Berlin Wall at the start of this year. She says studying it opened her eyes to the power -- and the fragile nature -- of democracy.

"It's very important for people to vote and speak up for what they believe in, especially because in terms of radical ideas, there are so many today," said Sunderman.

Seeing students interact with the replica at New College brings adjunct professor of German, Frank Chaich, back to when he was an exchange student in Berlin decades ago, and saw East German guards at a major train station, aiming their weapons at him.

graffiti wall
The Berlin wall replica at New College. Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF

Graffiti on a replica of the Berlin wall at New College of Florida
Graffiti changes from week to week at the wall, as students converge every Wednesday to spray paint another layer. Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF

"It was a stunning revelation to realize that this is what other people in other places of the world were enduring. And it impacts me even today. I'll never forget those soldiers with their machine guns pointed at us, on the platform back in 1974," Chaich said.

In early October, student Noah Opalsky re-enacted Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Opalsky said the project has made him and his fellow students think about how walls are damaging to people on both sides.

"I think it draws a lot of attention to borders and walls because they're confronted with it every day now. It's not like something that's far off and they just hear about it like, 'Oh, that's bad.' There's physically a wall, blocking them from getting to class. They have to go around it, it's in their face every day," he said.

And what's on his mind, is history repeating itself.

"If people don't get out there and do things to stop it from happening (it) will most definitely happen again. It's already happening. It's in like, in the baby stages of happening."

Opalsky looks forward to grabbing a sledgehammer, and joining other students as they knock the wall down on November 8th, the day before the 30th anniversary of the original's fall.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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