Berlin Wall

Along Once Bloody Border, a Quarter-Century Harvest of Tranquility

Two men harvesting rye in the near the Chapel of Reconcilation, located in the former death strip of the Berlin Wall. Source: DPA
Two men harvesting rye near the Chapel of Reconciliation, located in the former death strip of the Berlin Wall.

Harvest season is under way across Germany, only this is no ordinary harvest. This plot of land lies on Bernauer Strasse in the middle of Berlin’s former death strip, the once uninhabited stretch of land that ran along the Wall dividing East from West.

The 1,000-square meter plot, located next to the Chapel of Reconciliation, was being plowed on Friday by what looked like the world’s smallest combine harvester. It was kicking up plenty of dust as volunteers pulled the straw out of the harvester and placed it into small sacks.

Tourists gawked at this strange occurrence from the sidelines, no doubt thinking to themselves: “These efficient Germans, they really do use every single inch of land!”

Of course, this space is not really a large farming operation. The harvest is a highly symbolic action. The rye has been planted along the once deadly border between East and West Berlin, on either side of the chapel that also sits in the strip of land, where East German patrols once had orders to shoot anyone who tried to flee to the West. For nine years now, the rye has instead represented a new life-force growing in the space that used to bring misery to millions.

The oval chapel next to the rye field, made of wood and clay, sits on the sight of the Church of Reconciliation that was consecrated in 1894 by the Prussian Empress Augusta Victoria.

“The field of rye has transformed a place of fear and violence into something that is living. You couldn’t have a more powerful and lasting symbol in the former death strip,” said Axel Klausmeier, the director of Berlin Wall memorial.

It was the project of Manfred Fischer, who is known in Germany as the “Wall Pastor” for his role in bringing reconciliation back after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He died late last year, shortly after retiring from the parish he had served since 1977, and after having received the “Bundesverdienstkreuz,” the country’s highest civilian honor.

Pastor Fischer went a step further. He sent some of the grain from previous harvests to states in East Germany that won back their freedom in 1989. The harvests from this action are due to return to Berlin this year and will be baked as “Peace Bread” at the chapel to commemorate 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mr. Klausmeier said this kind of initiative shows that the harvested rye stands not just for life but also for peace.

The oval chapel next to the rye field, made of wood and clay, sits on the sight of the Church of Reconciliation that was consecrated in 1894 by the Prussian Empress Augusta Victoria. After World War II, it found itself located right in the middle of the French and Russian occupying zones of Berlin.


Gedenken am Jahrestag des Mauerbaus
A Christian service held to mark the anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Source: DPA


The church continued to hold mass until 1961, when the communist German Democratic Republic blocked off access by building the Berlin Wall before its front door. The church soon found itself cordoned off from both communities, stuck in the middle of no-man’s land. It was eventually demolished in 1985 because it obstructed border guards’ view of the death strip, where it had been standing abandoned for years.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Mr. Fischer campaigned for the site to be rebuilt as a “memorial, documentation center and chapel in one.” It now sits in the middle of Berlin’s primary memorial to the Wall, a 1.4-kilometer stretch of the former death strip.

The amount of rye harvested is not really important. In 2013 it was small – the weather was very humid during the sowing period. This year should be about average, the director Mr. Klausmeier said. But then, it is about symbolism. In theory, the process should be simple – easier than tending to a lawn. You sow the field at the right time, hope for good weather and harvest when it is ripe and dry.

No grain other than rye will flourish on the sandy ground in Bernauer Strasse, but it wasn’t always like this. The names of surrounding streets – Ackerstrasse (Field Street) and Gartenstrasse (Garden Street) tell the tale of a neighborhood where agriculture once played an important role.

The reconciliation parish will use the rye to bake bread and wafers. Those that would like to join in breaking bread can come to the parish’s Erntedankfest in October, a holiday to celebrate the year’s harvest, similar to the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.

Even the leftover straw is put to use – for another good cause. It is donated to the stables in a nearby neighborhood in Berlin that stands for reconciliation between France and Germany.

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