On the evening of August 12, 1961 29 year-old Werner I Juretzko, was awakened.
“There was an unbelievable noise,” he told The Bulldog. “There were heavy trucks and there were tank” treads moving about the rest of the night and into the morning. Juretzko, sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in a secret trail, was on the front lines of an event that threatened world peace and which has a tangible relic in the Ravenswood neighborhood.
In the morning Juetzko says “we saw the entire prison encircled like a wagon train encircled by Indians. There were tanks and personnel carriers. One tank had its barrel aimed at the prison and the other tank was aimed outside the prison.
“I lived in the American sector of West Berlin,” Helmut Rausch, Deputy Consul General for the Federal Republic of Germany told The Bulldog. “Before the construction of the Wall I could visit my grandparents who lived in the German Democratic Republic. I was in the GDR just days before the construction of the wall to spend my holidays with my grandparents,” he said.
“There were rumors that something was going to happen, so I shortened my holidays and returned to West Berlin,” Rausch said.
It was this night, 50 years ago, that construction began on the Berlin Wall. It would become a focus for the Cold War. It would attempt to tear apart a people.
“I lived in West Berlin from 1950 to 1960. There was no “Wall”, just barbed wire fencing,” Joan Frazier remembers. “It snaked all through the city, right through parks” she told The Bulldog in an email. “I would often have my ball roll under it. Since I was only like 4 or 5 years old I had no trouble going after the ball.”
The Wall remains in two places in Chicago. The largest piece stands in the Chicago Transit Authority Western Avenue Brown Line station. Sitting in a corner of the station, behind a Chase ATM, it is a dirty slab of concrete covered with graffiti. Once protected by armed border guards, barbed wire and anti-personnel mines, today a rail about 18 inches off the ground is all that stands between it and the public.
(The second piece is embedded into the Tribune Tower).
Sitting on CTA property, the wall is also protected by CTA policies. The CTA, in a bit of irony, wrote the Bulldog “the CTA will not/does not grant permission for anyone to cross the fence that divides the wall from the public space at the station as the fence is there for the protection of the customers as well as for the wall.” (Emphasis and underlining from original).
“The immediate effect” of the Wall “was that I couldn’t visit my grandparents any more, Rausch said. “I was cut off. Direct communication was not possible.” Rausch said the family kept in touch by mail. His grandparents, who were retired, received permission to migrate to the FRG in 1962.
However, Rausch was unable to return to the GDR for more than a decade.
It was a wall like many walls we could name:
- The Peace Wall in Northern Ireland
- The Green Line in Cyprus
- The West Bank Barrier
- The Mexican- US ‘Secure Fence’
It was created to separate. It is an idea as old as the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall.
“My mother would have a total meltdown over my attempts” to retrieve my ball Frazier said. “I never did understand what her problem was. Plus our balls were really nice, very colorful, with lines of red and yellow and a border of ducks or stars all around them. They were not something you could just replace.”
“I was released on August 18, I was released to the west,” Juretzko said.
Juretzko said the prisoners knew the GDR had constructed something. The news was passed by rumors, overhearing guards talk and a prisoner telegraph system.
It was tense. Juretzko remembered that in 1956, when Hungary had risen against Communist rule, the people had freed political prisoners. The tanks stationed outside the Brandenburg Prison were intended to stop the prisoners and the public.
The Wall, scholars now say, was constructed to keep the GDR from bleeding to death from emigration. Alan Dowty, author of Closed Borders: The Contemporary Assault on Freedom of Movement says the GDR had lost 20 percent of its population to West Germany by 1961. Figures indicate the situation was growing.
But in the GDR the wall was called antifaschistischer Schutzwall (the anti-fascist protective rampart)—protection from the West.
Juretzko, who was apprehended in 1956 while on an authorized military espionage mission behind the Iron Curtain while employed as a US Army G2 intelligence operative, had no doubts that the Stasi, the East German secret police, could execute him with little thought. Following his release he documented 46 operatives working for the Americans, British, French and Germans executed. Their deaths were listed as heart failure.
They were, he says, guillotined.
His release, he says, was unrelated to the construction of the Wall. It was part of a larger swap of prisoners.
Rausch says being divided from his grandparents was terrible. “That was personally hard. I loved my grandparents,” he said. “I was accustomed to spend my holidays there every year. It was a major experience for me personally.”
“It affects the current world still,” Rausch said. “Think about North and South Korea. It is similar to the wall. This is very similar to my personal experience.”
The segment of the wall at the Western Avenue station was part of a network that was upgraded several times during the Cold War.