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In the wake of the wall

The two sides of the Berlin Wall segment that stands outside the Wende Museum in Culver City speak volumes. The side that once faced West Berlin is painted with colorfully interlocking cartoon faces by Thierry Noir, a French artist, but the other side, which the East would have seen, is dull gray concrete. It’s a tidy encapsulation of the polarities of the wall, which once divided communism from capitalism, dictatorship from democracy.

The 2.6-ton chunk of history is part of “Facing the Wall: Living With the Berlin Wall,” a new exhibition at the Wende (“turning point” in German), founded five years ago by Justinian Jampol. He’s an American whose studies in Europe ignited a fascination for the history of the Soviet bloc with all its pathos and contradiction. “We begin to come to terms with our own past by seeing what was going on on the other side as well,” he says. By his account, Eastern European institutions and private citizens are so eager to jettison memorabilia from that era that donations -- books, newspapers, uniforms, souvenir plates, paintings -- have been pouring in. The museum now boasts about 100,000 items, making it the world’s largest collection of Communist bloc artifacts and archival material.

“Facing the Wall,” although contained in one room, is packed with exhibits. On the benign side are IDs and passports, tourist maps and souvenirs one might buy in East Germany. More chilling is a little stack of metal interrogation equipment. Over the years Jampol has met and interviewed a number of former East German police and officials including Peter Bochman, a commander in the East German border patrol, who spent many years at Checkpoint Charlie. The exhibition features his locker stuffed with documents. Elsewhere sits a rack of eavesdropping equipment -- reel-to-reel tape recorders, monitors -- shades of the surveillance depicted in the movie “The Lives of Others.”

With a guide, visitors can tour the regular galleries, with their propaganda paintings, patriotic souvenirs and other stolid furnishings, as well as glimpse the vaulting warehouse, with its neatly arranged rows of boxes and files. Some costumes, sculpture and paintings are in the open. One especially intriguing shelf holds busts of Lenin, some with his nose smashed when communism fell. After seeing the collection, Jampol believes, “There’s no way you can come away without with a certain amount of self-reflection.”

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-- Scarlet Cheng


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