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Learning That Walls Can Be in the Mind
By Virginia Stuart '75, '80G

When Hildegard Minthe says, "Just this afternoon, I noticed my wall in my head," the students in a Murkland classroom know exactly what she means. She's talking about the metaphorical wall that can persist even after a physical one, such as the Berlin Wall, is gone. The retired teacher from Hannover, West Germany, explains that she caught herself thinking, "These East Germans will never know what's democracy," even though she knows better—they not only brought down a communist regime but have been eager participants in democracy ever since.

Minthe, 64, and husband Ekhard, 74, were houseguests of UNH professor Nancy Lukens when she invited them to visit her seminar called "Walls: Mortar and Metaphor" in October. The course focuses on man-made divides—from the Great Wall of China to the "separation barrier" under construction by the Israelis in the West Bank today. It is one of the university's 60 new "inquiry seminars"—interdisciplinary, writing-intensive courses that are part of the Discovery Program.

As a professor of German Language, Literature and Culture, Lukens says one of her passions is getting students to think beyond "Germany as the communist East and the capitalist West—and 'We won the Cold War!'" When they watched the German film "Goodbye Lenin," for example, the class learned about the surprising wave of nostalgia for the East that has washed over Germany. In spite of many gains, the Minthes pointed out, East Germans have also suffered the loss of guaranteed jobs, housing and medical care—not to mention the simplicity of a life with fewer choices to make, from insurance to pickles.

The class also explored a multitude of perspectives on racism in Nazi Germany and South Africa, and Lukens could see the students moving beyond an initial idealistic belief that longstanding chasms in any society can be easily bridged. She orchestrated a public dialogue between the son of a concentration camp victim and the son of a Nazi perpetrator. "It was very powerful," recalls freshman Kathleen Markiewicz of the conversation between the two men, who are now friends. "They talked about the silences of their families."

It may not be easy, Markewiez adds, but there is hope for reconciliation when people can "acknowledge the past without staying entrenched in it." Says Eckhard Minthe, "If someone asked me in '87 if I will live when Germany is reunited, I would have said I wouldn't believe it."

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