berlin: the divide

Walls Here and There

It was an especially grey, winter day in Berlin, but the chill in my bones came from more than just the humidity. There I was, standing face to face with the remaining concrete barrier of the Berlin Wall. I was blown away by the realization that what I had just been studying in my class on the history of the European Union was tangible—I touched it, and thereby I touched history.

My professor in Paris had recently described living in Berlin in 1989, while on exchange from France, and excitedly running to the Wall when it fell. She shared how she had made off with a large chunk of it, taking home her own piece of history. She has proudly displayed the graffiti-covered stone in her apartment ever since. The remaining kilometer of the Wall is now known as the East Side Gallery. The concrete that was once covered with barbed wire is now covered with murals by international artists and scrawled messages marking “I Was Here” by many who have visited.

Berlin is a city heavy with history. The divide between East and West has left a visible mark. Whether it is the architectural differences or the cultures that have sprung up on one side or the other, Berlin is still seeking to reunite its two halves. Throughout the city there are also marks of something that is missing: its Jewish community. As my friend and I toured the city, we discovered the New Synagogue, with its impressive golden dome tucked in the center of a neighborhood in Berlin. As we stood there, I was struck by the feeling that the 8,000 Jews of pre-war Berlin were standing there with us. We continued exploring the city and soon found ourselves at Checkpoint Charlie, the Allies’ old crossing between East and West Berlin, reading stories about brave Germans who tried to sneak from one side to the other to see their families. Many were killed.

All day as we continued touring, I bounced back and forth between these intense stories—between the history of the Holocaust and the history of the Wall. When we returned to our hostel at the end of the day, I was absolutely drained. We joined our fellow travelers and saw yet another world of Berlin, the underground life of nocturnal Berlin, but I couldn’t shake a thought that was in the back of my mind: there are still walls like this elsewhere.

Before coming to Paris for my year abroad, I had spent the summer in Israel with my family. I hold dual American-Israeli citizenship, my entire family on my mom’s side lives there, and it is where I feel most at home. Walking around Berlin, I felt physically torn by the knowledge that a concrete wall similar to the one I was looking at, here in Berlin, has also been built there. Seven hundred kilometers of concrete, checkpoints, fences, and trenches, separate the West Bank from Israel. I asked myself, what makes that wall different from what was once the Berlin Wall?

The wall in Israel is a continuation of a universal story about separation and oppression, framed in a rhetoric of security and protection. Dividing people, dividing sides, separation barriers do not solve problems. Rather, they reinforce the differences between “us” and “the other,” they lead to more hatred and violence, and they paint a world that is stark black and white. However, the situation in Israel is anything but black and white. It is painted in shades of grey, and the nuances of narratives create a complicated conflict.

This photo, and this trip to Berlin, highlighted those shades of grey. As we see in the photo, two stories can in fact be held in the same frame. As I walked around Berlin that day, torn between the two stories I was facing about the oppression of the Jews that led to the Holocaust and the oppression of Palestinians that has been created by the wall in Israel, I finally realized that I did not have to decide that one was true and the other was false. Narratives do not have to be mutually exclusive—there can be multiple stories and multiple truths that exist at the same time. Israel can be both the sanctuary for Jews after the Holocaust, and a country that has built a wall of separation cutting across the land and isolating Palestinians. It can be both a safe-haven for some and an occupier of others. The question now is: How do you reconcile two truths? How do you tear down the wall that divides those two worlds? How do you tear down the divisions that have been built in order to build something together? Can both sides find the bravery required to forgive?

I don’t assume to have the answers to these questions, but I remain optimistic that this wall too will fall. I hope to be present for that moment and to take home a piece of the wall as a souvenir of the past, just as my professor did. Until that day, the walls around the world continue to serve as concrete reminders to seek justice and to work for tolerance.

Photo © Sophie Schor. All rights reserved.

Sophie Schor headshotSophie Schor is originally from Denver and spent her third year abroad with Smith’s JYA program in Paris. While in Paris, she attended Spéos International School of Photography where she learned to develop film and print black and white photographs. Armed with her camera, she traveled around Europe by train and captured many images along the way. Upon graduation in May, Sophie will be pursuing a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She hopes to specialize in the field of conflict-resolution.

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