Checkpoint Charlie Memorial Threatened by Funding Shortage, Apathy

Checkpoint Charlie Memorial Threatened by Funding Shortage, Apathy

Paris ( - A memorial to people killed while trying to flee communism by escaping across the Berlin Wall will be destroyed unless the director can raise enough money by July 4 to buy the land from a bank.

The memorial, which stands at the former border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie, opened last October. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have visited the historic site.

Located on what used to be the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, it consists of a rebuilt but authentic section of the wall and 1,067 crosses, each bearing the name and a photograph of someone killed during an escape attempt.

It stands alongside a privately-owned Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which is visited daily by large numbers of tourists, and it documents the history of the wall and the Cold War.

The wall that divided Berlin for decades was symbolic of the wider "Iron Curtain" between the democratic West and the communist Warsaw Pact bloc.

The barrier was the target of President Reagan's famous 1987 challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." It eventually was opened and then demolished in late 1989.

Checkpoint Charlie became famous as the site where American and Soviet tanks confronted each other in October 1961, one of the tensest periods of the Cold War, until President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to move their tanks back.

Signs once posted on the western side of the crossing informed tourists and diplomats leaving West Berlin: "You are leaving the American sector."

Two people who tried to flee to West Berlin were executed there.

Alexandra Hildebrandt, director of the adjacent Checkpoint Charlie Museum which leased the land for the memorial, said Tuesday the city of Berlin had no interest in preserving the site because it was run by a left-wing coalition government of the SDP Socialists and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the communist party which ruled East Germany.

Before the memorial opened, she said by phone from Berlin, city officials had allowed the site to become a wasteland.

"It's been over 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and nothing was done."

No other memorials exist to the victims of communist repression in the city. Hildebrandt said that the location of the threatened one was particularly significant, because it is at the site of Checkpoint Charlie.

"It is very important that the people do not forget history," she said.

"It is very important that people do not forget that it was Americans who protected the freedom of Berlin. It is very important that people do not forget that Germans, and also other people, American and British, that so many people died for freedom."

Hildebrandt said there were three Americans among the victims who are commemorated with crosses at the memorial.

"Checkpoint Charlie is a place for remembering the victims of the German division," said Hildebrandt. "It is a place for freedom."

Developers bought the Checkpoint Charlie site after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but the project went bankrupt and the land was reclaimed by the BAG Bank.

The museum next door to the memorial, founded by Hildebrandt's late husband, leased the land from the bank but when the lease expired, the bank decided to remove the memorial.

Hildebrandt said the bank had no other plans for the land and informed her last week that it was prepared to sell it for 36 million euros ($43 million).

She hopes to be able to raise the money from private donors and foundations before demolition crews are scheduled to begin work on the morning of July 5.

DaimlerChrysler AG has expressed its support for the site and Hildebrandt said she had written to the Roosevelt Foundation and to President Bush to ask for their support and pledges, which she plans to present to the bank on Monday, July 4.

"It is very important that the people do not forget the victims because if people forget, I can imagine everything can repeat again," she said. "Without a past, we have no future."

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