Florida Students Replicate Berlin Wall To Study Societal Divisions

Nov 9, 2019
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Today marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. To mark that moment, 5,000 miles away from Germany, students and professors at New College of Florida recently built a Berlin wall of their own. As Kerry Sheridan reports from member station WUSF, it was a way to study the history of divisions and how they persist today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAY PAINT CANS RATTLING, SPRAYING)

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: Since it went up in September, every Wednesday at lunchtime has been spray paint graffiti hour at the wall. This colorful recreation stands in the middle of the new college campus. The idea for the project came from Lauren Hansen, who teaches German studies.

LAUREN HANSEN: We are still talking about borders and keeping people out or keeping people in, who gets to come in, who gets to come out. And so students are really drawing those connections between the Berlin Wall and the U.S.-Mexico border, between North and South Korea, territorial disputes and Israel versus Palestine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES JOHN F KENNEDY: Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ich bin ein Berliner.

SHERIDAN: The history is brought to life by students like Jay Stewart. One day he stood before the wall and reenacted John F. Kennedy's famous speech from 1963, when he expressed U.S. solidarity with the people of Berlin.

JAY STEWART: All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ich bin ein Berliner.

SHERIDAN: Afterward, he reflected on the speech.

STEWART: He was making the point that separating families is a bad thing, that separating a nation is a bad thing, that not allowing for the free movement of people is a bad thing. And I think in today's political climate, that still means something.

SHERIDAN: The other side of the wall, the East German side, is painted a stark gray, like it was at the time. Several black-and-white photos hang on it of real people who died trying to cross to the west. Student Emma Sunderman reenacted a speech by East German author Christa Wolf.

EMMA SUNDERMAN: (Speaking German).

SHERIDAN: Democracy, now or never, Wolf told a huge crowd at the wall just days before it came down. Sunderman is 20 and says she knew nothing about the Berlin Wall at the start of this year. Studying it opened her eyes to the power and the fragile nature of democracy.

SUNDERMAN: It's very important for people to vote and speak up for what they believe in, especially because in terms of radical ideas, there are so many today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAY PAINT CAN SPRAYING)

SHERIDAN: Psychology major Noah Opalsky says the project has made his classmates think about how history can repeat itself.

NOAH OPALSKY: I think it draws a lot of attention to borders and walls because they're confronted with it every day now. It's not like something that's far off and they just hear about it, like, oh, that's bad. There is physically a wall blocking them from getting to class. They have to go around it. It's in their face every day.

SHERIDAN: On Friday, several dozen people took turns with sledgehammers to knock the wall down. And with that, these New College students picked up pieces of the wall and took them home, just like what happened 30 years ago in Berlin. For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Sarasota, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.