Archbishop says Berlin Wall was Good Friday in German history

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Catholics and Protestants gathered on August 13 to remember the day in 1961 when their city was divided, becoming a symbol of the Cold War.

August 16, 2021

A remnant of the Berlin Wall is pictured near the Chapel of Reconciliation on August 13, 2021 (CNS Photo / Anli Serfontein)

By Anli Serfontein
Catholics and Protestants gathered on August 13 to remember the day in 1961 when their city was divided, becoming a symbol of the Cold War.

Catholic Archbishop Heiner Koch joined his Protestant counterpart, Bishop Christian Stäblein, for an ecumenical prayer service in the Chapel of Reconciliation, where part of the wall was built. Today, there are still some remains of walls in a garden of remembrance.

Archbishop Koch reminded those gathered in the small chapel that without Good Friday there would not have been a resurrection at Easter.

“Today we remember one of the Holy Fridays in the history of Berlin and Germany. We gathered on one of the many mounds of Golgotha ​​in our city and country, directly in front of a monument that for many of us was a symbol of bondage and confinement, and which reminds us of today the preciousness of freedom, ”he said.

Archbishop Koch recalled that as a young boy he was on vacation with his parents in Italy when the wall came up. He recalled the anger and helplessness of his parents and other adults as they watched in disbelief at the footage on television. It was her mother’s birthday, but no one was celebrating it.

Early that Sunday morning in 1961, the border to the Soviet sector was sealed off when more than 10,000 East German security forces began tearing up Berlin’s sidewalk; they erected barricades and barbed wire fences. A few days later, the concrete slabs that would become the wall began to rise. For the next 28 years, Berlin’s east-to-west passage was blocked by a heavily guarded border of nearly 96 miles, and the East Germans were de facto imprisoned in their own state. Between 1961 and 1989, when the wall was demolished, 140 people were killed at the Berlin Wall while trying to flee.

“The powerlessness that people, institutions and states cannot or will not do anything is something I also experience today – in certainly very different contexts,” said Bishop Koch. “Anyone who has looked at the footage of Afghanistan this morning, left to fend for itself and the Taliban after NATO’s withdrawal, (this is) an example just as eloquent as the refugees floating in boats on the Mediterranean and the corpses washed up on the shore of those who perished in fleeing today.

The chapel where the prayer service took place is dedicated to the memory of those who died at the wall while trying to flee. It was erected after German unification and stands on the site of the former Protestant Church of Reconciliation, built in 1894, rue Bernauer. When the wall was erected, the church was barricaded in the no man’s land of the Soviet sector (East), while the cemetery and most of the parishioners were in the French sector (West). In 1985, four years before the fall of the wall, the East Germans demolished the Church of Reconciliation.

Every day at noon, people gather in the Chapel of Reconciliation to pray and remember those who have died. Reverend Thomas Jeutner, the Protestant pastor of the chapel, said prayers take place whether there are many people or no visitors.

At the memorial, Bishop Stäblein read the Book of the Dead. which is still kept at the altar and contains the biographies of the people who died at the Berlin Wall, trying to flee.

He remembered the first death at the Berlin Wall, Ida Siekmann. In early August 22, 1961, a day before her 59th birthday, she jumped out of the window of her neighboring apartment on the East-West border, after the front door – which previously opened on the sidewalk in West Berlin – was barricaded by soldiers. She was fatally injured and died on the way to the hospital. Bishop Stäblein lit a candle in his memory.

The midday service took place after dignitaries and survivors commemorated the day in front of the chapel. Thomas Sternberg, chairman of the Central Committee of German Catholics, told German Catholic news agency KNA that August 13, 1961 was a dark day in history.

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier told those gathered: “August 13 was a fateful day for us Germans”.

The Church of Reconciliation was not the only church where parishes were affected and divided by the wall. St. Michael’s Catholic Church was on the eastern side of the wall, while many parishioners were on the western side. The parish ends up splitting in two. However, the Archdiocese of Berlin has remained unified, despite pressures and sometimes very tense circumstances.


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