Thirty-four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a section of what was once part of the physical span of the Iron Curtain in Europe fell again.
This time at the University of Virginia.
After nearly a decade on display on Grounds, four panels of the wall that separated a democratic West Berlin from a Soviet-dominated East Berlin between the early 1960s until the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s came down last week.
“I feel that it offered a lot of opportunities for learning and understanding and particularly making a lot of our younger students who may be less familiar with that time in history aware of it,” Jody Kielbasa, vice provost for the arts at UVa, told The Daily Progress.
The Cold War relic, called the “Kings of Freedom” for the colorful graffiti art painted on one side, is owned by Robert and MeiLi Hefner. It was originally loaned to UVa for display in 2014, around the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, and was only meant to stand for a year.
“The Hefners generously extended the loan in subsequent years and the panels have been on display since 2014,” UVa spokeswoman Bethanie Glover told The Daily Progress.
The sides of the wall captured the two sides of the Cold War story.
On the side facing West Berlin: art.
“The evening before the wall came down, a graffiti artist, Dennis Kaun, painted these very vibrant depictions of two figures called the ‘Kings of Freedom,’” Kielbasa said. “One is clearly a happy, benevolent-looking king that celebrates the idea of freedom, and the other representation was a king that is blindfolded, clearly representing the oppression of the Eastern regime that put up the wall.”
On the side facing East Berlin: bullet holes.
“On the eastern side of the wall, there is no design or art whatsoever, but there are bullet holes which would indicate that they were shot at people trying to escape and climb over that wall to get the freedom,” Kielbasa said.
Between 1961 and 1989, at least 140 people were killed or died at the wall as a result of the socialist East German regime.
The panels were installed near the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where the university stores more than 16 million manuscripts, archival records, rare books, maps, broadsides, photographs, audio and video recordings — among them a copy of the Declaration of Independence penned by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.
“We thought there were a lot of intersections with the idea of freedom,” Kielbasa said. “So that’s also something to think about really heavily for our students, for everybody is what that price of freedom is.”
Glover echoed that sentiment.
“These reminders of freedom align with the University’s founding principles of educating tomorrow’s citizen leaders for the greater good,” Glover said.
Kielbasa said he is grateful to the Hefners for loaning the “Kings” to the university for nearly a decade.
The family, he said, have found a new, more permanent home for the relic. Though, he could not say where that is.
Last week, the university began the work to restore the earth where the panels stood.
“Work to restore the grass landscape and brick sidewalk to their pre-exhibit condition will be ongoing in the coming weeks,” Glover said.
There are no plans to occupy the space at the moment, she said.
“But it may be used again in the future for another installation,” Glover added.