Nearly 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall finally came tumbling down. If Humpty Dumpty had been foolish enough to sit on it, that's where he would have had his fatal fall. Not all the East German guards nor all the Stasi operatives who spied on everyone could have put poor Humpty together again.
It was a defining moment for mankind, exposing the ultimate failure of the brutal and goofy Marxist economic system. As John F. Kennedy noted on his visit to the Wall in 1963: "There are some who say communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin."
My daughter, who lives in East Berlin where a stretch of the Wall still stands as a symbolic reminder of freedom's loss, guides visitors to the remnants of the wall to show them how times have changed. Houses in East Berlin that were in decrepit disrepair in 1989 because nothing had been done for them from the time the Wall went up a quarter of a century earlier, with fallen balconies and crumbling paint have become fashionably gentrified. The ground, bloodied by men and women killed trying to escape through no-man's land the deadly territory between the Wall and freedom is now green with fresh growth and dappled with new construction.
There's a baby boom in the East Berlin neighborhoods of Mitte and Prenzlauerberg, where young people, students and professionals, have moved. That's the ultimate vote for the future. The young people feel optimistic for the next generation.
The city of Berlin has been compared to Faust, with two spirits in the same breast, one terrible and one wonderful, and this was certainly true for the 18 years the Wall divided the city. Some Berliners soared above the city in balloons, gliders and small planes, fleeing to freedom. Others were shot like squirrels by the East Berlin guards, taking target practice at those who tried to climb over it.
Ironically, the Wall was demolished on the same date, 51 years earlier, of Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass," that thrust the Nazis to national prominence. Synagogues were set afire and the windows of Jewish homes and businesses were smashed. Death stalked the burning buildings that were the beginning of the Holocaust.
History, as we all know, never stands still, which is why it's important that we mark the dates of tragedy and triumph challenging us all to celebrate heroes great and small who did their part to cherish life. I recently came across an obituary of Johtje Vos, who died last month at the age of 90. Mrs. Vos and her husband Aart saved 36 Jews in the Netherlands after the Nazi invasion, hiding them in their home at great danger to themselves and their four young children.
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As a young woman, Johtje had gone to Paris, a free spirit to be a free-lance writer, but returned to Holland where she wanted to have her children. She is interviewed in a book titled "Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust" by Gay Block and Malka Drucker, where she insists there was nothing heroic about what she and her husband did. All the more reason to honor them. Danger for them began when they agreed to keep a suitcase of valuables for a friend forced to relocate to a ghetto. Then they were asked to hide a child, then a couple. Parents of a girl, age 3, the same age as their youngest daughter, sent their little daughter to the Voses just before they were picked up by the Nazis and sent to their death. The Voses cherished her as their own.
"More and more people came to hide in our house," she said. "We had mattresses all over the floor, and they had to be camouflaged in case the [Nazis] came. The Germans came many times looking for Jews."
She has been reluctant to talk about what she did because it didn't seem special to her. "I don't feel righteous," she said. "If someone heard us talk today with some of those we saved, they would think we were being nostalgic, remembering a beautiful time. But there was something beautiful in it, because we were standing together, for whatever reason, totally together."
Bravery is measured in acts both small and large. "By defending Jews, you are defending everyone in a minority," President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said last week in remarks to the American Jewish Committee in Washington. "Whoever saves a single life," says the Talmud, "is as one who has saved an entire world." By recalling Kristallnacht, the fall of the Wall and the courage of those like the Voses, we identify the worst and the best of humanity. We show our enduring respect for civilization through remembrance.