BERLIN (Reuters) - Michelle Obama and her daughters threaded roses through the narrow slots of a Berlin Wall memorial on Wednesday, honoring those who died trying to cross the Cold War barrier at a site which holds special poignancy in the once divided city.
Accompanied by Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer, who like the German leader hails from the former East Germany, President Barack Obama’s family toured the Bernauer Strasse memorial where desperate residents of East Berlin once tried to jump from their windows into the western half of the city.
At Bernauer Strasse, the wall, erected in 1961 by East Germany’s communist rulers to prevent citizens from fleeing to the West, cut right in front of the apartment blocks.
Two years after the wall went up, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited the west of the city and delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in which he pledged not to abandon the citizens of Berlin. President Obama’s visit has been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of that speech.
“I bring with me the enduring friendship of the American people, as well as my wife Michelle and Malia and Sasha,” Obama told a wildly-cheering crowd during an address next to the Brandenburg Gate, where the wall once stood.
“You may notice they are not here. The last thing they want to do is listen to another speech from me, so they are out experiencing the beauty and the history of Berlin, and this history speaks to us today.”
Bernauer Strasse was the scene of some of the first deaths as people tried to flee.
Yet the street also recalls stories of hope - when residents managed to dig a tunnel to reach the west and where the first segments of the wall were knocked down in 1989.
In scorching sunshine, Michelle, her daughters and the president’s sister Auma mounted a viewing platform from where they could look down onto a stretch of the actual wall and the so-called death strip.
There, fugitives faced alarm-wired fences, steel spikes, wreaths of barbed wire, dog patrols, a deep ditch and finally a 12-foot high wall.
At least 136 people died at the wall between 1961 and 1989, most of them in ill-fated attempts to cross it.
Earlier on Wednesday Michelle and her daughters paid their respects at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, which commemorates the millions of Jews who perished under Nazi German rule before and during World War Two.
Writing by Alexandra Hudson, editing by Gareth Jones