Jackhammers shatter the peace of a summer morning as they bore through the Berlin Wall with loud, methodic hunger.
Soon, a groaning crane joins in, dangling slabs of concrete in its rusty jaws. A dozen onlookers add subdued cheers.
Not far away, chisels strike up a tinny chorus as tourists chip off a chunk of history before it disappears.
This spectacle has been played out again and again in the past week as East Germany tears down the last of the infamous Wall dividing the heart of Berlin. By Monday, when the two Germanys merge their economic, social and monetary systems, the center of Berlin will be free of the barricade that separated its people for nearly 29 years. The rest of the 100-mile-long Wall is expected to be gone by the new year.
Nearly eight months have passed since the Wall was opened Nov. 9 and Germans danced atop it, swigging champagne from bottles.
But little of that jubilation is evident today. Instead, the remains of communism’s most formidable symbol still seem to haunt this bewildered city.
Even as it becomes a political relic, the Wall poses a challenging emotional barrier. For as the jackhammers and cranes and chisels finish it off, something remains, something unseen, impenetrable.
To Westerners, the Wall is just the source of ghoulish trophies of the Cold War. To Easterners, it is a gravestone marking the place where their country died. And as the two sides hurtle toward full unity, the Wall is the place where they are closest together, yet furthest apart.
Even in ruins, it still divides.
The Wall butts into the apartment house where Helge Heinle, a 53-year-old teacher, lives. She gets off a bus next to the Wall that has brought her back from West Berlin with her grown daughter and 4-year-old grandson.
Before last autumn’s revolution, the boy needed special permission from the Communist authorities to visit his grandmother, whose apartment house he could see clearly from his kindergarten classroom on the Western side.
“As they put up the barbed wire in ’61, I stood there stunned,” Heinle remembered. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
In time, she said, she learned to live with it but never got really accustomed to it.
The windows facing west were cemented over. A pond where children used to play vanished into the border “death strip.” The police ordered Heinle not to leave her ladder outside anymore lest she be jailed for enticing escapees.
She remembers the secret tunnel that some would-be escapees dug to crawl out to the West. One day, border guards noticed a slight rise in the grass and discovered the tunnel.
“They shot all those inside,” she said.
On the western side of the Wall, the merchants set out their wares on a sidewalk behind the Reichstag: border guard caps, Communist Party pins, soldiers’ ribbons, a Young Pioneer handbook, a Soviet officer’s coat. Name a price. Try it on. Come look in the mirror.
“Of course, the way we get all this stuff isn’t exactly legal,” admits a Turkish peddler behind a card table laden with East German and Soviet military uniforms. “But it isn’t immoral, that I promise you.”
Children wave plastic bags containing Wall fragments at the tourists strolling through this surrealistic flea market.
The Wall is for sale in all shapes and forms: suspended in plexiglass, mounted on varnished wood, set into earrings and bracelets or represented on postcards, on videotape, on T-shirts.
Prices are much lower than in November, though the “authentic graffiti” on most pieces look suspiciously fresh.
Some of the tables are set up next to the fence where simple white crosses stand in memory of 80 people who lost their lives trying to cross the Wall.
Heinrich Buecker, a 36-year-old West Berliner, hastily scribbles an address for a West German who wants to buy an East German border guard uniform.
“It’s too risky to bring it here,” Buecker says. “It might be confiscated, and these are hard to come by. The police and soldiers sell these things to us for the hard currency, and we bring it here. On a good day, I sell 20 or 30 and stay open until 3 in the morning.
“It’s funny, but these caps are becoming all the rage. A genuine fad. You see them in the hip hangouts in Kreuzberg (a district of West Berlin). A lot of people wore them to the Stones concert here the other weekend. Give it two years and they’ll be in the pricey boutiques. I may take some to California this summer, sell them on the boardwalk in Venice.”
He nudges the curb with his sandal and says: “This is the actual border between West and East. If our tables were off the sidewalk and the East Berlin police were coming, we’d just pick them up and move them back a couple of inches. If the West Berlin cops came, we’d move our stuff off the sidewalk into the East.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t work anymore. Now the cops are working together.”
Sometimes, he says, East Germans will stop to lecture him.
“How can you sell something like this?” they want to know.
Buecker shrugs. It’s just business. It’s a living.
Helge Heinle is chilling champagne for the day the Wall is finally gone.
“A large part of the people here were so wooden-headed that they still believed that the West posed a great danger,” she says. “The old Communists defended the Wall as something positive.”
Even now, some East Germans, especially older ones, fear the demolition of the Wall. They speak of all the terrible things that could infiltrate East Germany: drugs, AIDS, violent crime.
“A lot of people here thought that with the Wall, we lived more safely,” Heinle says. “You didn’t have to lock your bicycle. You could hang your wash out to dry.”
Her grandson, Martin Rudolf, grows restless. He points to a gaping hole in the Wall and to the “death strip” beyond, where armed guards, attack dogs and land mines once made trying to escape certain death.
“Grandma, can I go over there?” he asks. “We can go there for a walk.”
Officially, bits of the Wall are for sale only through an East German import-export firm called Limex, appointed by the state. Proceeds are to go for improving East German health care services.
Limex has sold about half of the 350 sections of the Wall in its warehouse. Each slab weighs more than a ton and stands about 9 feet high. The average price is 60,000 deutschemarks, about $40,000.
Discreet auctions are held in fashionable West Berlin hotels, where bidders leaf through catalogues showing Wall sections that are available. So far, there have been few buyers. Limex hopes a planned auction in Monte Carlo will yield better results.
“We don’t sell on the phone,” says Luise Oehme, the director of Wall sales for Limex. “I try to find out why someone wants to buy a piece, and what its use will be. I invite them for a talk, and they make a written offer.”
Most inquiries, she says, come from wealthy foreigners, large corporations or museums. Japanese and Americans seem particularly fascinated by the Wall. Friends chipped in to buy a big section for former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
A farming community in Beesen, north of Berlin, got a deal on two dozen unpainted sections. They plan to make silos of them for storing fodder.
East Germans write nasty letters to Limex, saying the Wall should not become a business.
Vandals have broken into the warehouse and damaged several reserved pieces of the Wall, Oehme said. Limex has hired guards.
Vrovin Feissel, a 40-year-old nurse from West Berlin, has mixed feelings about the Wall, which runs through her neighborhood.
“The Wall gave me a certain peace,” she says. “Few people were ever around. I always saw the colorful side and regarded it as a piece of art.”
When it opened, she bicycled through East Berlin with friends.
“We were dressed very colorfully, and we got made fun of,” she recalls. “They need more tolerance.”
On a sunny weekend, Berliners stroll in the abandoned death strip. They walk their dogs, they eat ice cream, they let their children climb over a wrecked guard tower. An organ grinder flashes his passport at a nearby checkpoint, cranking out a tune as he strolls past a laughing guard.
There are far prettier places to walk in the city. There is not much to see here. But the people don’t come to look. They come just to be here, because they can.
A debate is raging over what to do with the valuable land that removal of the Wall will leave vacant. Developers want high-rises. Environmentalists want a green strip. Humanitarians want a memorial.
Forty streets once interrupted by the Wall will be linked by Monday, with another 100 to follow. Bus lines and subway and surface rail tracks will be reconnected. The cost is expected to exceed 100 million marks, about $75 million.
The mayors of the two Berlins pose for photos. The East German prime minister, Lothar de Maiziere, happily climbs into a crane tearing down the Wall.
West Berliners complain about East Berliners taking their parking places and cleaning out the shelves of their grocery stores. East Berliners complain about West Berliners flashing hard currency and lingering for hours at the best restaurants, or roaring through quiet villages with their big, fancy cars.
When asked about the pace of events, they say on both sides of the Wall, “Zu schnell "--Too fast.
Most of the Wall’s original graffiti has been chipped away. The ladders and windows and doors the Westerners used to paint--fanciful escape routes the people on the other side could not see--are all gone.
The Wall is relatively unscathed on the eastern side, and still mostly gray, though someone has put up a sign that advises, “Painting now allowed here.”
“East Germans are more restrained,” says Dieter, a 39-year-old border guard who will not give his surname. “They were brought up that way.”
Hundreds of border guards idled in the rush of events have been put to work tearing down the Wall they once defended.
In the East, where putting up graffiti used to be a federal crime punishable by a long prison term, fresh murals decorate the Wall. One shows Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev behind a huge steering wheel.
Children draw stick figures and flowers, sunny little pictures overshadowed by the awful history of their concrete canvas.
The same irony and confusion is captured in the words someone has scrawled: “Help, I am German.”
Times researcher Jeff Hurd, in Berlin, contributed to this report.