The small parcel arrived in the month of December 1989. It contained a box emptied of cigarettes but not of their pungency, narrow with a hinged lid at one end and something stuffed inside – a hard object wrapped in flamboyant tissue-paper. Possibly the parcel wasn’t delivered until February. The exact date of its arrival is of little consequence. I pulled from its bright pink nest a sliver of the Berlin Wall, thickly painted green and black on one side, raw on the other – broken open to reveal small stones embedded in concrete. The remnant of a Decisive Moment rested in my hand – a celebratory shard, extracted from an instant when History had suddenly compressed itself into a legible event, a seemingly legible event.
I couldn’t remember if Gilda smoked or not. A few strands of tobacco lay in the bottom of the box. Its exterior she’d carefully covered-over with a quiet layer of Japanese hand-made paper – white, flecked with silver. She’d orchestrated the surprise of the brilliant pink tissue paper bursting from the pale calm of the box. Was it someone else who smoked? A lover or colleague had left his cigarettes behind, on her low coffee table or beside the lamp in her bedroom, where she snatched them up, delighted to find just the box she needed. As she decorated the outside, the word “fortuitous” crossed her mind; with meticulous attention she snipped and glued.
An uncertified bit of wall; its most potent promise of authenticity was the character of the person who’d sent it to me, and the fact she lived a ten minutes walk from Banhof Zoo, the Wall within easy cycling distance. I could picture Gilda wielding a hammer, striking repeatedly at the massive partition, with little result. Possibly she’d harvested my fragment from the ground, in the wake of someone’s more effective activity with a sledgehammer? Or she’d selected it from the pieces displayed on a blanket by a “mauerspechte,” a “wall-pecker,” and had bargained until she got it for a reasonable price? Her note, characteristically to the point, said only, “I thought you might like to have this. Best wishes, G.”
The daughter of a provincial postman, at sixteen Gilda’d walked out the front door of her parents’ home and moved in with her lover. Determined, graceful, down the street and around the corner she went. He was a doctoral student of history, a Marxist. Two years later, she followed Rudiga and his research to Edinburgh, where she and I met in the cafeteria of the Students Union. We were each holding a brown plastic tray, waiting in line to pay for our meal. I was a year younger than she and had come all the way from Canada, but which of us was further from home is hard to say; we were both eager to find friends. She would spend the year working as a typist, while taking English classes in the evening. As for me, I memorized the rules governing the Russian verbs of motion, examined instances of love and betrayal in the works of Stendhal, and stumbled through intricate, 19th century, Eastern European visions of nationalism.
Meaning often gathers itself into existence the way a bruise forms, broken vessels of information collecting under the skin at the point of trauma, significance made suddenly, darkly visible.
A young man of medium height and stocky build, wiry light brown hair retreating from the smooth, tight dome of his forehead – in my mental picture of him, Rudiga is scrutinizing a random Sunday afternoon we are caught inside of, as if it were an historical event. The month is October, the year 1977, and we are on our way to Edinburgh’s one vegetarian restaurant. He gestures emphatically, raising his voice so even the pigeons will concede the logic of his thinking. With one hand he reaches for his wire-framed glasses, obstructs their slide down the bridge of his nose, with the other he draws taut his net of ideas, impatient for change.
All of Rudiga and Gilda’s acts are political. Every morning, without fail, they practice Yoga and meditation. They do not eat meat. These are political decisions.
Two years after their return to Germany from Scotland, Rudiga’s thoughts and feelings will gather into a single act, which for a time will drain all his preceding words and actions of what passed for meaning.
I took the small box – a curio I’d not unwrapped in years – from its place on my bookshelf, to allow the photographer to have a closer look. The year was now 2009. We went down into my kitchen, where the photographer videotaped me seated on a stool, the box and bit of wall cradled in my hands. The photographer’s project was to trace the voyages taken by fragments of the Berlin wall in the two decades since its fall. “The monumental pieces aren’t turning out to be the most interesting,” he commented, by way of explaining his presence in my home; “the big ones in the Reagan Museum, for instance – people get scared they’ll give the wrong answer when you ask them ‘what does this mean to you?’ It’s as if they were back in school. They all come out with the same one word – ‘Freedom.’ But they can’t define what they mean by it. That’s all they have to say, just a word they’ve heard but haven’t really thought about – “Freedom.” So we’re looking for other stories, attached to smaller remnants received as personal gifts.” “Where do you want me to start?” I asked. “At the beginning,” he laughed. “Or anywhere you like.”
The year was 1978. Gilda and Rudiga returned to Germany and I went home to Canada, restless. A little over a year later I left for France. In the North of Germany, Rudiga’s parents owned a farmhouse, solid and low, built centuries ago of red brick and timbers, set amid flat fields that spread all the way to the sea. It was September, and I’d arrived in Paris too early. Lectures at the Sorbonne wouldn’t really get underway before October and until then I had no way of meeting anyone, nor any work to distract me from my abundant uncertainties. I escaped by train.
I got off in Bremen, and Gilda met me at the station. She’d baked a vegetable pie. As we walked to her car, she explained that Rudiga had work to do, but would join us for dinner. His parents had loaned us their farmhouse for the weekend. She and I would visit a museum then go for a picnic. The pie sat, steaming in its backing dish on the back seat of the car. As she drove me through the countryside, I knew I’d come to see Gilda partly in the hope she’d take care of me. She loaned me a bicycle.
We saw little of Rudiga, who was studying hard. Gilda also had lots of papers to write but had set them aside. We rode along the narrow, paved paths that ribonned between the fields, and other cyclists glided by, silhouetted against the autumn sky, ringing their bells whenever they passed each other, and we were ringing ours also and then she and I reached the Sea, where we stood shivering at the edge, the unstoppable wind making a mockery of our thick sweaters.
“I think this may be where the story ends, or should end,” I told the photographer. He turned off his video camera, filled a glass of water at the kitchen sink and drank.
“Next week,” he remarked, in the sudden silence, “I’ll be going to New York to interview Mr. Scamporelli. What a name, eh? An ordinary New Jersey businessman, who called up a friend in Berlin the moment he heard on TV about the wall, and asked his buddy to get him a piece. His friend didn’t waste any time. Mr. Scamporelli’s was the first chunk to arrive in North America, to cross the Ocean. Scamporelli had no idea until he went down to the lobby to check his mailbox; reporters were waiting for him, they were all over him. But wait, it gets even better. Next he’s approached by the East German government, who hire him to coordinate the shipping and importing of all major pieces of the Wall coming into the U.S.A. His life is transformed. He never looks back.”
Freedom. 1989. The year Communism derailed and Liberty rushed in. I couldn’t help thinking about trains, the 19th century image of coal, pistons, steam and clattering wheels, the bulky, dirty momentum and unstoppable advance of History; then countless pundits, their ear to the ground in 1989, hearing nothing, History speeding silently, on rubber wheels perhaps, electric, the necessary imagery lagging behind. I started re-wrapping my bit of Wall in its tissue paper and fitting it back into its cigarette box. “Trains,” I said aloud. The word fell into my lap and sat there.
The photographer was removing his video camera from its tripod, preparing to put it away.
I knew the sort of bridge Rudiga had jumped from. We’d passed one, the day we glided through the fields on our bicycles. And now I could see it exactly. A pedestrian overpass, metal steps, not wide, leading steeply up one side and painted green, and from up there nothing in sight but flatness for miles, thin woods, willowy scrub trees along the gravel embankment, and the raised, unbending tracks, and clouds possibly, pulling the sky low, and one bird at least, singing for a moment so that afterwards the silence felt scoured clean; the logic of his plan unimpeded by any sound until the hurtling, swaying train.
“Several months after my visit,” I commented. “I received a letter from Gilda. She told me Rudiga had thrown himself in front of a train.‘ It has been a difficult year,’ she wrote.”
The photographer stopped packing away his camera.
“Do you mind telling me that again? Would you be willing to take the piece of wall back out, and as you wrap it up again talk about what happened to your friend? If you can do it all just the way you did it before.”
– End –
Freedom Rocks, a title taken from the packaging of Berlin Wall fragments sold in Toronto in the early 1990s, is a collaborative work-in-progress produced by artists Blake Fitzpatrick and Vid Ingelevics. The project involves locating the now-atomized fragments of the Berlin Wall and documenting their present locations in North America and their histories through still photography and video.”
Artists’ Statement by Blake Fitzpatrick and Vid Ingelevics