In Berlin's heart, a little shrine speaks of peace

November 10, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The chill, damp night wind whips through the Brandenburg Gate, ripples the white flags over the poignant homemade peace shrine and rattles Guido Schollbach's tent.

Guido guards the shrine in the night. He watches over its candles and flowers, its skulls that represent dead children, its mutilated dolls.

His pop-up tent squats incongruously in the middle of a square once barred to all but Prussian nobility. His tent and the shrine he watches over are on a traffic island that marks the very beginning of Unter den Linden, the great imperial boulevard that runs through the heart of Berlin.

The tent and the small grave memorial are perhaps 75 yards from the Brandenburg Gate, the center and symbol of this city of nearly 4 million.

Planting the shrine here and erecting a tent to guard it is like setting up an anti-war booth with a guard post at the base of the Washington Monument on the Mall in the capital. But Berlin is very tolerant of idiosyncratic manifestations like this free-lance peace project.

Guido's brave little shrine sits amid the dozens of hucksters who hawk Red Army hats, old Communist flags and dubious chunks of The Wall. Conceived by a home-grown human-rights organization called "Mahnwache" -- which literally means "memorial guardians" -- the shrine survives by a kind of popular demand.

The thousands of tourists who flock daily to the Gate seem to find it compelling. They photograph it and get photographed in front of it, with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. They bring flowers and say prayers and drop coins into the donation box.

Guido is an out-of-work brewery apprentice from a little East German town called Dessow. A West German firm bought the Dessow brewery and laid him off. He's 23 years old and a little disheveled from spending his nights in a tent.

"I have no work," he says. "I was bored. They asked me to come here to help. It's for a good deed. I said 'Why not?'

"I do it because I want to. I'm against all wars. I want peace in the whole world. I hope it will come in my lifetime. I hope, but I don't know."

He guards a patched-together folk shrine that has the mismatched charm of a hand-made Christmas garden. There's a skeletal "Peace Tree." And there are many children's toys among the flowers and candles.

But many toys are broken. And the dolls have lost their limbs.

"Like children injured in war," says a woman who has come to pray. She's a Croatian from Bosnia and she prays for her family, caught in the Balkans. She says the rosary with beads the red, white and blue of the Croatian flag.

The plastic skulls in a basket stand for dead children in Bosnia, the woman says. They used to number the dead, but now there are too many.

Bosnians and Croatians come every night and pray for peace in their country. But the shrine is curiously non-religious, non- nationalist and non-political. A crudely scrawled sign says "Stop war in Bosnia, Georgia, Somalia, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Israel, Afghanistan, South Africa."

The central image of the sidewalk shrine is a porcelain copy of the head of Michelangelo's David, surrounded by candles glowing red in the night.

In the morning, Friedhelm Leonhard, the founder of Mahnwache, explains: "Peace and democracy are David. War, fascism, racism are Goliath. We are David against Goliath.

"We're against racism, hatred of foreigners, radical=right extremism here in Germany."

A skinny guy in red, white and blue leather pants and a denim vest, with a blond ponytail swinging out from under his striped skullcap, Mr. Leonhard looks like a hippie displaced in time.

He's 42 and he says he spent twelve years in a communist jail in East Germany for helping people escape across The Wall. He spent most of the 70s in prison, he says.

He was 20 when he was dragged off a train on the way to a peace conference and sent to prison. He was 33 when he was released in 1983. He's been working for peace every since.

His first Mahnwache project was a memorial for those killed trying to escape over The Wall. Mahnwache's memorial is a line of hand-made crosses implanted in the shadow of the Reichstag, the historic German parliament building, about a quarter-mile from the Brandenburg Gate.

Queen Elizabeth II placed a wreath at the Mahnwache memorial when she paused at the Reichstag during her visit to Germany two weeks ago.

"The peace movement is sleeping in Germany," Mr. Leonhard says. "We're trying to wake it up."

The Mahnwache idea has spread to 53 places in Germany. Mahnwachers have responded to radical-right attacks on refugee homes. In the ancient town of Quedlinburg, Mahnwachers made national headlines when they interposed themselves between stone-throwing neo-Nazis and an asylum-seekers refuge.

But the tent in front of the Brandenburg Gate remains headquarters: "Mahnwache Zentral No. 1."

And Guido Schollbach will watch over the shrine as long as he can. Which means until he finds a job. He still wants to become a brewer. Friedhelm Leonhard then will find someone to take his place.

The funny little shrine needs guards.

"People come for peace," Guido says. "They come pray. They also come to steal."

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