The History of the Berlin Wall

By Jack Jawitz

When you talk about the Berlin Wall, everyone has heard of and/or knows something about it.

The story of the lost wall and lost Berlin Wall Art Collection, however, is known to few. The story starts after the Berlin Wall came down. Here, I will tell the story leading up to the wall being built, the wall coming down, and the known facts involving the lost wall that is now being displayed for the first time ever.

I promise that you will learn something from this story, whatever your age or world history knowledge. This story, of course, will involve politics, and geography, and history. There will be heroes and villains. The hero one minute may be the villain the next. Still, I promise you to keep it from getting so deep that you feel stuck in the mud, or too superficial that you crave for more, or too intellectual that it goes over your head, nor too linguistic that you are stuck in a dictionary. Most of all, it involves real people, real sacrifice, real suffering, real death, and real hope and perseverance. Finally, I will keep it short because attention spans seem to be dwindling. Now I’m going to tell you a story that you have never heard before and may find incredulous, but I expect you will find so interesting that you will put it on your bucket list to one day come to see while you can.

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The wall itself started as an overnight barbed wire creation in August of 1961. It resulted from the constant disputes of the “East” and “West” over the status of Allied occupied Berlin and Germany. It came to symbolize the Cold War and was the most “concrete” expression of the Iron Curtain that existed throughout the period. It evolved into a sophisticated security system of concrete walls, electric fences, guard towers, and no-man’s land.

On one side, there was the free expression of the open society of West Berlin, while on the other side was the blank walls of the repressed society that was East Berlin.

Setting the Stage

All stories have a beginning. This one begins August 13, 1961. World War II (WW2) was just 25 years ended, dozens of countries around the world were either newly born or recently ended, and John F. Kennedy was alive and well, championing democracy in the United States as our youngest elected President.

The geopolitical world was a mess. There were countries that had every flavor of leadership; from capitalism (a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit), socialism (means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods are owned by the community as a whole, but socialism was stopped by WW2 as practiced in Germany and was outlawed), and communism (society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs) to dictatorships and democracies.

In 1961, there were basically two different competing country governing styles: the East who were communists, and the West who were capitalists. The United States of America was the polar capitalistic society, and the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republic (USSR) was the polar communist society. Further, countries would align themselves with being a western country or an eastern country; for example, the western countries were Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Belgium, and Luxemburg.

Through Warsaw Pact, the Eastern Bloc countries were under the USSR’s leadership, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Albania, Ukraine, and Romania.

Then there were the Third World countries, most being neutral, having their own agenda, or choosing sides based on foreign aid gifts they could receive from one side or another, such as Switzerland, most African Countries, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and China.

So, there it was, after WW2, the world was divided East versus West; anything that would strengthen the East was opposed by the West, and vice versa. Anything the East could do, the West had also to do. If the eastern influence was expanding, the West would stop it, as already demonstrated by the Korean War, to stop the spread of communism on the East side. When Castro, a communist, won the gorilla war and turned Cuba communist, President Kennedy tried to stop it. He attempted to land Cuban Freedom Fighters, soldiers the CIA trained, in the Cuban Bay of Pigs to stop Castro in what turned out to be a miserable failure. The USA tested nuclear bombs; then, the USSR developed and tested nuclear bombs. The USSR sent a Sputnik Rocket into space, the USA developed a rocket to go to space, the USSR sent a cosmonaut to space, the USA sent an astronaut to space, the USSR did a spacewalk, and the USA did a spacewalk. Even a chess game between an American, Bobby Fischer, and a Russian, Boris Spassky grabbed the world’s attention. That was a digression. I promised a few of those. Now back to the Berlin Wall.

Life in an Eastern Bloc country was very difficult for its citizens in 1961. Jobs were few. One had to be a party member for the most part. Food was scarce, supplies were not available, money was in short supply, consumer goods were non-existent, cars were tiny, and there was barely enough space for a driver. Life, in general, was dismal. There was very little education available, and what was there was used to get the best job; more often than not, those educated people left their country because they had more freedoms to travel and never came back. The East was having a massive “Brain Drain” by 1961 because the Western Bloc countries who practiced Capitalism had an abundance of food, medicinals, automobiles, consumer goods, etc., and the Easterners were envious. Over 2 million Easterners had left their countries and fled to the West.

The Eastern countries’ borders were so tightly controlled by the USSR that travel was severely restricted, even to a neighboring Western country. An Eastern Bloc citizen who dared to emigrate to the West later found out that their families were punished, their property seized, and their reputations were slandered. It was worse if they sought political asylum.

The reality of life in 1961 was that most Easterners leaving to the West were leaving through Berlin City. Even though there were four sectors, travel within the city itself was relatively unimpeded. One could leave the Russian Sector of East Berlin and go to any western sector in West Berlin. This was the leak of the “Brain Drain,” and it was the USSR that directed the East German Government to plug the leak, hence, the Berlin Wall’s start, also known in Berlin as the August 13 Wall (1961).

Iron Curtain Dividing East and West

There was no warning, not a word. Berlin was a large city. It was divided up after WW2 in 1945 into the four sectors administered by four countries, America, Great Britain, France, and Russia, as these four countries beat Germany in the war, and to the victors go the spoils. They vowed never to let Germany start a war machine again, by keeping their sectors indefinitely. The war in Europe turned to a race to get to Berlin, the capital of Germany. The Russians got there first on April 15,1945, and for a month, they fought the Germans, claiming all the massive government buildings and bureaucratic sections they kept as the Russian Sector when the war ended on May 8, 1945.

The German people have had a difficult time with four countries administering Berlin. In 1947, just 14 years earlier, the Russians refused to let the Americans, British, and French bring supplies into Berlin, which was entirely within Germany’s Russian part. This Berlin blockade led to the famous Berlin Air Lift. Hundreds of American, British, and French airplanes were flown by thousands of aviators and ground crews working 24/7 ferrying supplies from Western Germany to Western Berlin Templeton Airport. Approximately 2 million people needed food, clothing, coal for furnaces, medicinals, and gasoline. Everything required to live had to be airlifted into Berlin, around the clock, with thousands risking their lives to get the job done. The Candy Bomber was born of this effort, dropping hundreds of candy bars by parachute to the children, giving them hope and friendship that continues to this day. After 14 months, the USSR reopened the highway for land supplies after realizing that this effort only brought the Americans, British, and French administrators closer together. This was a failed Russian experiment.

Berlin had made it through this nightmare until, without any notice or warning, August 13, 1961, found East German soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder in a 17-mile path around East Berlin, totally circling the sector and blocking the people from going out. Families were split up.

Mothers, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, and cousins suddenly found themselves on the other side of an impenetrable machine gun. Workers couldn’t get to work. Shoppers couldn’t go shopping. All without any warning, the city was divided. This wall of soldiers stretched 17 miles on day one, August 13th, and the subsequent wall was eventually known as the August 13th Wall.

Within a few days, the East German soldiers began unrolling the razor wire along the line, gradually replacing them but leaving enough to stand guard between stations. After weeks of barbed wire, bricks and building blocks started to show up. Then a buffer zone roughly 100 yards was created between two separate and distinct walls, followed by guard towers within the buffer zone. A cement wall on both sides of the buffer zone was gradually erected. Watchtowers were constructed periodically, and steel and wooden barriers were built to deter foot traffic.

Buildings along the border were either closed, torn down, or had windows and doors cemented shut. Tunnels were popular until buildings were spaced more distantly. All in all, there were at least five distinctive wall designs of a western sidewall with access to Westerners and an eastern side carefully designed to stay away, lest you be shot and killed, for fear you were going to jump over. The actual construction took many years. Hundreds of “incidents” happened along the 18[NO2] -mile barrier, documented in dozens of books written about the August 13th Wall.

On August 22, 1961, the first documented death occurred when East Berlin guards murdered Ida Siekmann as she climbed over the “Wall.” Every year, a service in the West was held remembering those who had murdered. Many people escaped in all types of disguised vehicles and costumes, fitting in hiding places that were almost inconceivable. These people were celebrated as newly free with their stories and bravery about the press and museums. In all, 146 people were known to have been murdered just for seeking the freedoms those in the West enjoyed every day and sometimes took for granted. The shoot-to-kill order given to East German guards was obviously effective, and rewards were given for killing.

Keeping the peace was insanity. There was a gate between each sector and the Russian Sector. Check Point Charlie was the most famous on Friedrichstrasse between the American and Russian sectors. Within one block of Checkpoint Charlie was the KGB (USSR secret police) building, American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) building (for American spies), and Stasi building for the East German secret police, and they were watching events at checkpoint Charlie 24/7 and watching each other’s activities of coming and going.

They all knew each was watching and who they each were. The Stasi were the most feared, most brutal, and most intrusive, watching every East German citizen. They encouraged citizens to tell the activities of other citizens and rat them out. Even a secret Stasi prison was equipped with a guillotine to take care of untold numbers of detainees. Every letter was opened and read. Music tapes sent in my family to the east were confiscated and reused to record phone taps. One cute story tells of an 8-year-old boy in East Berlin who wrote his grandmother in the West saying, “Thank you for sending me the gun. I buried it in the back yard.” The Stasi came the next day, dug up the whole backyard looking for a gun, and left when none was found. The little boy wrote his grandma next, “You can send the bulbs to plant, as they tilled the garden soil for spring.” Obedience was kept in the East through fear, and it mostly worked.

Now back to the wall story. The western wall was distinctive, vertical, 12 feet high, with a round cap on top. The Westerners would approach the wall, and it soon became an artist proving ground with all types of messages being painted thereon. Words, phrases, and events were all painted on the distinctive western wall in every color. The Eastern border wall was painted white and left untouched, unpainted, without graffiti and commentary. Approaching that Eastern wall would allow the legal shoot-to-kill order.

Regarding the Berlin Wall

It consisted of a system of electrified fences, fortifications extending 28 miles through Berlin and 75 miles around West Berlin.

About 5,000 East Germans managed to cross into West Berlin.

About 5,000 East Berliners were captured trying to cross into West Berlin.

About 191 died trying to cross, of which 141 were murdered.

The Visitors to the Wall, Who Influenced History

August 12, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, East German leader, signed a barricade order at USSR request.

August 13, 1961, Security Chief Erich Honecker ordered barricades installed.

August 15, 1961 Vice President Johnson visited to show support to Berlin citizens.

August 19, 1961, President Kennedy 5-minute speech “Ich Ein a Berliner” provided insight regarding the new wall. 

September 23, 1964, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached against walls that “divided humanity,” “symbolizes the division in mankind” in a visit to the then 3-year-old Berlin Wall.

June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Brandenberg Gate, suggesting, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.”

In April 1989, East German troops were ordered not to shoot in the buffer zone known as “No Man’s Land.”

The Wall Came Tumbling Down

On November 9, 1989, East German Politburo member answered, “Immediately, without delay” when asked when travel restrictions on East Berliners would be lifted. The correct answer was tomorrow, and East Germans were still required to have visas to visit West Berlin. This mistake and the following mistake brought the wall down!

But, with all the confusion and mixed messages, the East Berliners rallied in mass. At the Bornholmer Street entrance, the confused guards opened the gates for East Berliners’ mob to pass to the West. The wall, erected in August 13, 1961, standing for 28+ years to keep a people within was torn down on November 9th and 10th.

I have to take a moment to tell of the American, British, and French soldiers deployed to Germany in their regular Army enlistment to serve. I estimate that over 38 years. More than 5 million servicemen were deployed in Germany to keep the peace. It started with a small deployment of 100 known as the First Berlin Brigade. Soldiers, just doing their duty, sacrificing their freedoms to be the first defense line against the Russians. By maintaining this show of force, the peace was kept by mutual detergence. These soldiers, and I consider them heroes, just did their job from every armed services branch. I thank every soldier for putting their lives on the line at ground zero, the Berlin Wall, staring down the Eastern soldiers who were doing their jobs as well. Every day was a powder keg of uncertainty. Every day was a day of tension. Any day could have been the last!

That was a great chapter, as the story continues, but the Lost Berlin Wall Art Collection story hasn’t even begun yet. Now is a good time to introduce Rainer Hildebrandt. Rainer was an anti-communist activist his whole life growing up in Berlin. He was once called “the man the Russians feared the most.” When the August 13th Wall was built, Rainer protested and then went on to help East Berliners who escaped to the West become settled with a home, friends, a job, or whatever they needed for their new life in the West. Many of these escapees came hidden in suitcases across the border and came in secret car compartments, hot air balloons, powered parachutes, or even homemade scuba gear. As Rainer helped them settle in the West, they often returned the kindness by giving Rainer the gear they used to escape. Rainer had such a collection that he founded the internationally known and famous Check Point Charlie Museum on Friedrichstrasse near Checkpoint Charlie. This museum tells the story of post-WW2 Berlin, Germany, and the world throughout the Cold War.

It tells of the individual heroism and bravery of people escaping to freedom, as well as life as an East Berlin citizen. Every world leader, from Roosevelt to Reagan who was touched by WW2, the Cold War, and beyond has a story. Through his museum, Rainer’s gift to the world was to point out the failures of communism, the human drive for individual freedom, and the necessary bravery required by people to escape their situation, risking all for that individual freedom.

The wall was being torn down, hammered away by Berliners, piece by piece. November 9th was a great day for all Berlin, but now Rainer feared that with the wall being hammered and turned to dust, there would be no witness to the horrors that occurred there. The 146 murders, the 500 other deaths, and the 5,000 captured will have no voice with the wall gone. Now the story gets murky, and I ask anyone with details to contact me and fill me in.

Rainer Hildebrandt arranged with Cal Worthington from the CIA to purchase .1 mile of the East Berlin side of the double wall erected near Checkpoint Charlie and have it shipped to the United States. Yes, about 500 feet of concrete wall 10 feet tall was purchased and shipped to Bath, Maine, and placed in storage. Some 300 sections of the wall, each weighing ½ ton, or 150 tons of cement wall, were loaded on cargo planes, airlifted, flown to the United States, and offloaded to trucks for the final unloading to Bath, Maine. Why? To preserve it. They shipped the wall for safekeeping from getting hammered into dust in Berlin, and that very wall remains a permanent witness to the atrocities.   

But there’s more…. before Rainer and Cal shipped the wall, they hired three Russian artists who lived in East Berlin to paint 100 3’x3′ paintings on different pieces of the wall, and then because Rainer is a forward thinker and to allay fears about authenticity Rainer Hildebrandt signed each art piece by hand, along with the artist.

Authentic Berlin Wall Signed by Hildebrandt

These 100 Berlin Wall Art paintings and the 300 (40″ x 8′ each) cement slabs representing .1 mile of East Berlin Border wall represent the Lost Wall and Lost Art Collection.

It was lost in a sense to the world, although a handful of people knew of its existence, and even fewer knew where in storage it was. I understand that the then owner Cal Worthington gifted three sections to the City of Portland, Maine, where it is on display today! Shortly thereafter, he filed bankruptcy, and the Berlin Wall Collection was bought by its second owner Warren Johnson through bankruptcy court. Warren Johnson had great plans to commercialize and sell the collection, but he became ill and gifted it to his daughter, Elizabeth Glass, the third owner of the “Lost” Berlin Wall Collection. Elizabeth lived in Tampa Bay, and as the owner of the “Lost Berlin Wall Collection,” she sought out the advice of the Tampa Fine Arts Council, who referred her to Jason (Jay) Goulde of the Outdoor Arts Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation committed to teaching through public art projects.

Jay Goulde had a rich history in Tampa. He was best known for putting together fiberglass projects, as you see in many cities. He did a Turtle exhibit benefitting the Clearwater Aquarium. He did a Manikin project benefitting an LGBTQ fundraiser. He did an Architectural Dog House project benefitting BlueCross for Dogs in the UK. I live in Manatee County, Florida, so when I saw two dozen 6-foot-long decorated manatees on display at Tampa Airport, I had to go to the Manatee Auction. This was when I met Jay, and we quickly became friends. He knew every artist in Tampa and was energized by art.

Liz Glass, the third owner, and Jay Goulde reached an agreement that Jay would procure artists from all continents and different styles to paint on the Lost Berlin Wall, their interpretation piece in 2007, and then send it around the world on tour to the sponsoring businesses for display and then ultimately to auction. When Jay’s main sponsor withdrew, Jay came to me as a substitute purchaser, and I agreed, becoming the fourth owner. Elizabeth and I had a good business relationship. When her father, Warren Johnson, demanded that he still owned the wall, Elizabeth sided with me through an 11-year lawsuit (started in 2008) over ownership. Finally, in 2019, the judge ruled in my favor, as the handwriting expert said the gift letter on the scratchpad was a genuine and original signature of Warren Johnson. Unfortunately, during the lawsuit, Jay Goulde died of lymphoma (in 2019) one week before the final court date and judgement. It is still to Jay Goulde that I dedicate this project of displaying the Lost Berlin Wall to the world.

In 2008, just before the lawsuit, Jay distributed 20 pieces of the Berlin Wall to be painted by local Tampa Bay Artists. These locally painted works will soon be on display with The Russian works painted in 1990, 31 years ago.

Without me knowing much of the history, Rainer Hildebrandt passed in 2005, with his wife Alexandra Hildebrandt, now the President of the Board of the Check Point Charlie Museum. To memorialize her husband and his accomplishments to the world, Alexandra started a recurring annual award given to a single person doing the most for freedom in the world: the Rainer Hildebrandt Freedom Medal. To date, there have been 15 recipients of the Human Rights Medal, founded by Alexandra Hildebrant. Rainer Hildebrant’s contributions to the world are still alive today in his Freedom Medal, his many books, his museum, and the many people he saved in Berlin. This Lost Berlin Wall and Art Collection were displayed at the Freedom Pavilion at Citrus Park Mall.  

Berlin Wall Art Now

Fast Forward, the year is 2020, and the Lost Berlin Wall Art is being displayed and seen in public for the first time since 1990. This display includes many paintings done in 2008 as well as an unpainted Berlin Wall ready for painting. There are two locations to start the viewing: the Red Door No. 5 is a private event center housing several painted Russian pieces and available by private viewing and at Citrus Park Mall in Tampa, hosting Russian painted pieces, Tampa painted pieces, unpainted pieces, and souvenir gift pieces. See the lost collection for yourself, and at the mall is a whole exhibit about the Cold War 1945-1993 and beyond. The mall exhibit is known as the Freedom Pavilion and will satisfy your craving to see what has been lost for more than 30 years.

What does the future look like for the Lost Berlin Wall and Lost Art Collection? Through a generous donation to the Outdoor Arts Foundation, the Citrus Park Mall owners, Westgate Mall Inc., allow for the display in Tampa Bay of the Lost Collections. We at the Outdoor Arts Foundation are displaying it with no entrance fee for your educational experience. Only you, the people of Tampa Bay, will determine if the entire collection will remain in Tampa Bay or not, depending on your generosity and support.

The Outdoor Arts Foundation is a 501(c)(3) corporation, and all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed (ask your accountant for IRS advice). We encourage your membership and gifts to our building and operating fund to get a permanent home for the collection and keep the entrance fee minimal (or $0.0). Thank you for your support.

If you wish to donate, please contact the Freedom Pavilion – Jim Thomas at (941)725-2239.