The Wall
Poupette Smith

          Look at this photo and tell me, do you recognize the little girl? See the color of my hair? Yellow like courgette flowers! Yes, I know, it's brown now with wisps of grey. And my skin isn't smooth and velvety like tulip petals and baby cheeks, but marked by years of laughter and tears and wind and sun. But inside I'm still that little girl, growing up in Belgium, listening to war stories. Funny, isn't it, how the story I remember most is the one about a boy climbing a wall after the fighting was over. I read about him in Le Soir, the very day of this photo.
          So many stories. So many wars. Yet no matter the war, they were always stories of bravery and cleverness. Oh, and there's Mia, our Flemish maid, standing beside me. She used to tell us children about hardship at such times. "You should be thankful for what you have on your plates!" she said, "During World War II our family often went without food unless my brother managed to sneak some across the border, from France. Once, when he put butter under his hat, he prayed it didn't drip down his face while the officials checked his identity! If they caught you," she said, "they shot you dead."
          And there's Mia's boyfriend, Isvan. I liked him. He was a butcher with a funny accent. He told us he escaped the Hungarian revolution when he was 16. "Forced to leave everything I knew and loved, or be killed," he said. "Sliced myself climbing barbwire fences and traveled hundreds of kilometers without food or water. Avoided capture, looking for freedom in a new country."
          My French mother, who was 14 in World War ll., had plenty of war tales too. "You should be proud," she said, "your six oncles fought with the Resistance, a group of secret soldiers." She told us the German troops, enemies of France, occupied her house. "Zey showed mama where they would machine-gun us before moving out," she said, "over by the well, so they could dump our bodies into it." But my grandmother was a devout Catholic, and when the day came to die she asked for permission to go to church for one last prayer. "By the time we got back, the Germans had left."
          Lots of war stories. I can't even count them. Yet somehow, the words Berlin Wall still send shivers down my spine. I can still see the boy. He was 18, like my brother.
          They were stories that made me despise the enemy and pity the victim, but I was always eager for more. Stories that blinded me to the horror, as if I was a caterpillar only vaguely aware of motion outside my cocoon. I have often asked myself why this is so. Is it because the tellers were silent, telling of glory but hiding the gory, so as to forget? Is it because the dead can't talk? Or is it because I was a lucky girl, privileged never to see war at my doorstep?
          The grownups said World War ll. was the war to end all wars. I was glad to know everyone preferred peace. Then, when I believed the world had come to its senses, up came that wall, the Berlin Wall.
          I remember the day clearly. I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out towards the Bois de la Cambre, eating 'goûter' -thick slices of crusty bread with chocolate spread- thinking about my homework. Madame Grenier had asked us to write a composition on any subject and to illustrate it with newspaper clippings. Long before I could read, I used to look through the papers and ask my father to explain pictures that caught my eye, like the one showing a Russian dog in a spaceship. But now that I was ten and could read, I'd seen the headlines: they were all about this Berlin Wall. And I knew what I must write.
          Le Soir called it the beginning of the Cold War. So war wasn't over after all? Why did grownups lie but teach us not to? I peered at the black and white photos, which showed hundreds of people jumping, climbing, crying, and pleading with armed guards. And there was the wall. And there was the boy.
          The Berlin Wall was built one Saturday night, in August, while East Germans lay sound asleep. Its purpose was to imprison inhabitants who hadn't done anything wrong, but who often left the east to go West because life was easier and more fun there. That night, troops put up barricades, tore up streets (not even sparing cemeteries) and completely sealed off the border, instantly separating children from parents, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers, and lovers from their sweethearts. When the East Germans awoke Sunday morning, they discovered they could no longer cross over to the West. In desperation they tried all sorts of tricks: Two families sewed scraps of cloth together and drifted over the wall in a balloon; others jumped from upper floors of nearby buildings; others dug tunnels. Some escaped, but many died in the process or were caught and punished.
          At first the Berlin Wall was little more than barbwire fencing with guard posts, but each phase of the building meant more and more reinforcement. By the final stage, when I'd turned 23, the wall was mostly concrete, stood about 12 feet high, and was nearly 100 miles long. It was protected by booby traps, floodlights, barbwire, and armed guards who didn't hesitate shooting those that dared escape.
          The boy's name was Peter, I remember. He was just one of many victims shot while seeking freedom. Le Soir said the soldiers left him to bleed to death, right there where he fell by the foot of the Berlin Wall. When the Cold War ended, and the wall finally came down after 28 years of pain and suffering, I longed for a chunk of it. But I was too far away, somewhere up a river in Africa, facing yet another war.

The End

Book cover
Boy w/ hands in the air
Men climbing the Berlin Wall
The Wall w/ barbed wire

Piece of the Wall

Thanks Eleanor for giving me
this piece of the Berlin Wall


Map of Berlin


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