Narration: The Way to Overcome the Border
A Biographical East-West Rupture
It is twenty years since the Berlin Wall began to crumble in the course of a single summer, became unstable in the autumn that followed, and finally came crashing down on the night of the 9th November 1989, only a few weeks after the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic on October 7th.
Having been issued with an exit permit, the final deadline for our departure from the GDR was fixed for 7th October 1978. My mother and her four daughters, the youngest of whom was only a few months old at the time, had applied for the exit permit four times since 1974; after months and even years of processing, three of these applications were rejected. My mother was a theatre actress and her last engagement had been at the Hans-Otto Theatre in Potsdam. During these years of uncertain waiting, however, she was not allowed to tread the boards anywhere in the country. To say she was barred from practising her profession would be one way of putting it. She delivered letters and worked as a gardener in a cemetery, a place where someone who wanted to leave the Republic could not really do any ideological harm. Our neighbours and teachers at school casually asked us children excessively curious questions. To say they were spying would be one way of putting it. In order to protect our childish innocence, our mother not only told us nothing about her intention, her convictions, and her dream; nor did she tell us about her applications to the East German Interior Ministry and the reasons for the perceptible change in our environment. Silence and mistrust thus became the familiar atmosphere of both my childhood and the move from East to West, which took place on 6th October 1978.
The fictitious intention to become engaged to a man from the West whom she had never even met furthered my mother’s final application for an exit permit. To say that he was helping us escape under the guise of family reunification, offering a narrow eye-of-a-needle escape route to the West, would be one way of putting it. We spent our final days with my grandmother in Rahnsdorf. In 1938, my grandmother had been removed from the register of the master class at the Berlin University of the Arts because of her Jewish background. Two years previously, she had rejected her father’s offer to follow her brother’s example and emigrate to America; she opted instead to go to Italy to see the Italian masters. When my grandmother returned to Berlin in 1950 as a heavily pregnant, passionate Communist with two illegitimate children (race laws had prevented her from marrying their father), she wanted at all costs to avoid returning to the upper-middle-class milieu of her childhood in the Westend quarter; filled with idealism, she moved instead to the city’s Soviet Zone. Her son died there in the 1960s shortly after his eighteenth birthday; a short time later, her youngest daughter, also just turned eighteen, fled. My grandmother never really suffered under any GDR restrictions; as someone who had been ‘persecuted by the Nazi regime’, and as a member of the Artists’ Association, she enjoyed a number of privileges and had the freedom of travel that was not granted to her children. She travelled to America and Lebanon and visited her brothers in Wiesbaden and her friends and relations in Paris, Tel Aviv, and London. Her political idealism did not relate to any Christian or capitalist democracy; she believed in Communism in the spirit of social justice. It was probably a mystery to her why her children did not want to live in the GDR.
The stranger from the West collected my mother and her daughters in Rahnsdorf in his car on 6th October 1978. We drove over Bornholm Bridge and on the very same day, he brought us to the Emergency Reception Centre in Marienfelde. Although the story in my novel Lagerfeuer (Camp Fire) is certainly not autobiographical, it does contain a number of details relating to my experience of the border, this threshold between East and West, and of one of its institutions. There was no place in the four voices of my novel’s structure and the stories told by its narrators for some of the details that I vividly recall. I instinctively felt, although I knew very little at the time, that there were some things that should not be spoken about openly. Even long after we had reached the supposed safety of the West, we had to remain silent on the most important things. Half of my mother’s circle of friends had fled to the West in the early 1970s. In many cases – even in those of my aunt or of our closest friends with whom had I lived under the same roof in the free West in the second part of my childhood – I only found out how each of them had fled to the West after the Wall came down. Escape routes could not be revealed out of consideration for others and as an all-round precautionary measure; it was a matter of fear and responsibility. How did my father escape in 1975? To this day, I do not know, and I will never find out; he passed away in 1987, obviously never having spoken about it to a soul.
Emergency reception centre
When we arrived at the Emergency Reception Centre in Berlin-Marienfelde in the autumn of 1978, the West appeared to us to be anything but golden, sunny, and free. The centre was surrounded by a high security fence topped with barbed wire; the inmates were guarded around the clock (for our own protection). We had to pass a gatekeeper and a barrier every morning on our way to school; food was allocated by means of coupons. We spent our first week at the centre in quarantine until such time as it was established that we had no infectious diseases. As befitted the time of year, it rained, drizzled, and was freezing cold. We were teased at school for being ‘camp children’ and were beaten up in the playground; we were only allowed to have visitors who had been registered in advance. For months we had no friends, no children we could simply visit, who could have visited us, with whom we could have celebrated birthdays or Christmas. None of my mother’s friends who had come to live in West Berlin was in a position to take five people into their home, and so we ended up spending almost nine months at the centre. We wrote letters every day, to our friend in Berlin-Adlershof, just a few kilometres to the East as the crow flies; letters to our grandmother, just a few kilometres to the East as the crow flies; letters to the father of our elder sister, just a few kilometres to the East as the crow flies. We were ready to burst with longing – a longing to go back to the place where we had a social life, something that in the weeks, soon months, since our arrival in the West showed no sign of beginning.
Even in those first few weeks of orientation, weeks spent trying to find out what to do with herself, her four children, and the responsibility for our wellbeing, my mother decided to apply for a visitor visa. She went to Jebenstraße behind Zoo Station and applied for the pale green piece of paper that would allow her and her four daughters to spend Christmas, the entire Christmas holidays, in the GDR. She wanted to make the short suburban train ride eastwards via Friedrichstraße Station for a ten-day holiday. We received the hoped-for permit in early December. In our mind’s eye, Christmas was going to be heaven on earth. We did not as yet have any photographs in our children’s ID cards and set about making plans as to how we would swap places with our friend from Adlershof before the return journey. Adrienne would take my place and make her way with my family through the labyrinth of the ‘Palace of Tears’, as the Friedrichstraße border checkpoint was known. She would be able to see the West, without haste and in the company of my sisters, who she knew as well as her own family, before the entire family returned to the East a few weeks later, where she could go back to her family and school and I could cross the border again in her place. What a dream. There was nothing I would rather have done than to take my friend’s place and remain in my old life, to return to my old desk in the classroom, to my grandmother’s overgrown garden, to the people I loved.
A yearning to go back
But it didn’t turn out that way. On the evening before our departure, we packed our rucksacks. There were two for the family; both were made of olive green canvas and were covered with animal fur on the outside; one brown, the other spotted. We were woken at cockcrow by the sound of our mother running around and rummaging. The five of us shared a room that measured about fifteen square metres and contained three bunk beds, a table, four chairs, and a wardrobe. The other room in the tiny post-war flat (1950s demolished in the war) was inhabited by a Russian family of three. Our mother lifted up the bedclothes, repeatedly opened the wardrobe doors, searched under clothes, picked up books, leafed through the pages and dropped them open on the floor. She was looking for something. She got down on her knees and crawled under the beds, finding nothing but dust, an empty cigarette packet, and shoes. She was also very touchy, and when we asked what the matter was, she snapped. Would we kindly help her look; the visa was missing. I would not like to say that we suspected the Russian family, or the centre’s supervisor, who had a key to each flat. As a child, I never took any notice of the signs above the beds warning us not to speak to anyone because there could be spies in the centre. I didn’t need to; even without the signs, I knew that I had to mistrust everyone around me. Very soon we were all crawling around the floor of the room, lifting up the striped mattresses and shaking out the bedclothes with their blue and white checked sheets and pillowcases. We searched in the common kitchen; we searched our schoolbags. Even the suitcase on top of the wardrobe and the suitcase under the bed didn’t contain the A5-sized visa. You couldn’t say that the flat was big, nor could you say that we had very many belongings; nevertheless, the visa was not to be found. Lost (or ‘verschlumst’ as we used to say then). My mother had simply lost the most precious document of our lives so far. Was this the end of the dream of spending Christmas on the other side of the Wall just a few kilometres to the East as the crow flies?
My mother is certainly not the tidiest of people, but she has a strong will. She pulled out all the stops and phoned the Ministry of the Interior and other authorities from the only payphone in the Emergency Reception Centre to find out what our options were. As it happened, we had only one option. We would have to queue up at the border, at Friedrichstraße Station, just like any other day-trippers, and apply for a one-day visa. For one day? But Christmas would last two or three days, the entire Christmas holidays! Well, came the reply, it was up to us how often we chose to queue up during the holidays. And so it happened that on the morning of 23rd December 1978 we travelled from Marienfelde to Friedrichstraße, crossed over on a one-day visa, took suburban trains and trams to the south-eastern district of Rahnsdorf on the banks of the Müggelsee to our grandmother, and set out on the return journey sometime around midnight. Back at the Palace of Tears, tears were shed and goodbyes were said. Filled with uncertainty as to whether everything would go according to plan, we crossed our fingers and made our way through the labyrinth into the West, where we duly joined the queue on the other side – a new queue, new border guards, new mirrors, new checks, a new visa – until we found ourselves back in the East two hours later, on the other side of the station, from where we took a train back to Rahnsdorf, eventually falling into bed at about three o’clock in the morning.
Harassment at the border
We didn’t wake up in Rahnsdorf until late in the morning of Christmas Eve. We spent the day playing, cooking and chatting, until sometime that evening, having lit the candles, sung, eaten, and snacked on sweets, we could hardly keep our eyes open. Nevertheless, we put on our anoraks and set out once again for the border so that we might punctually set foot on the soil of our ‘new home’ again sometime around midnight, only to join another queue on the western side of the border for another one-day visa. We spent all the nights of our Christmas holidays in 1978/79 on the move. We would set out for the border from the south-eastern corner of the city in time to reach the checkpoint punctually at midnight, made our way through the underground labyrinth of partition walls, mirrored ceilings, microphones, panes of glass, passport control points, baggage search tables and strip-search cubicles to the western side, where we would arrive quite a while after midnight and promptly turn around and repeat the whole procedure, falling into bed in Rahnsdorf sometime in the middle of the night. My youngest sister, who was only six months old at the time, sometimes cried in my mother’s arms. Maybe she had a fever. She cried, couldn’t tolerate milk, and needed sleep and quiet more urgently than anything else. We eight-year-old twins yawned and made new plans. As soon as our friend had plucked up the courage, we would smuggle her out. After all, in view of the procedure involved, a one-day exchange suddenly seemed possible. Our older sister warned us to be quiet: if we aroused suspicion, we would only prolong our exposure to the harassment of the border guards. My mother probably just suffered the torture of it all. Happy Christmas holidays, a shortage of sleep, always on the move, and yet the innocence of our childhood seemed just within reach. I never got as close to it again, either to innocence or to childhood; the border, the Wall and its separating influence shaped the following years of my life. The needle of the compass for the word ‘over there’ no longer pointed in the right direction; it no longer pointed West; it no longer pointed in any definite direction at all. Sometimes it pointed from East to West, sometimes from West to East. As far as the term ‘over there’ was concerned, I too lacked a specific orientation; I was a divided German.
Class outing to the wild, wild East
Let me fast-forward past numerous other border crossings – between which we visited my grandmother in the holidays, skating on the frozen reservoir in Rahnsdorf in the winter, travelling to the Darß peninsula on the coast in the summer where we met our childhood friend from Adlershof, who in the end was not allowed to tell us that her family had applied for an exit visa; between which we wrote letters every day, countless letters, so as not to lose what it was that defined us: the friendships and the belief in loyalty and the endlessness of a friendship – and come to one of my last border crossings.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was in tenth grade. My class had one more class outing together to look forward to. Apart from myself, only two other pupils from parallel classes in the same year at the comprehensive I was attending intended to continue our schooling and sit our Abitur exams. I had not lived with my mother for three years. Instead, I had lived for a while with friends of the family in Berlin-Spandau (who also fled the GDR at an early stage), and was now living in a shared flat with West German dropouts in Berlin-Charlottenburg.
The school trip, announced my West Berlin teacher, would take us to the former concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. What? The East? My fellow pupils rolled their eyes, complained and moaned; some giggled and began making spontaneous jokes: ‘Hey, this means you can go back where you came from!’ one grinned at the other, guffawing. ‘Oh yeah?’ the other retorted, ‘Well who’s the one wearing the Eastern trainers?’ If anyone didn’t conform to the standard, West Berlin kids would tease each other with taunts such as ‘Are you from the East or what?’ And if someone was dressed in horrible clothes or something that was just unfashionable, it was: ‘Hey, dig the Eastern style, man!’
I had been in the class for three years and had succeeded in keeping my origins a secret. Under no circumstances did I want to be the object of ridicule. Let them make jokes about Jews, I wasn’t going to say anything about my relations; let them make jokes about East Germans, I kept my mouth shut; and even when they decided that the Holstein accent I had acquired from living between Rendsberg and Kiel in the north of the country for four years was definitely an East Frisian accent, I managed an embarrassed laugh and made every effort to ditch the telltale singsong as soon as I could.
Once, when I skipped school, the teacher called the flat I was living in. A woman with whom I shared the flat took the call. Julia? What? She didn’t come to school today? Well, her grandmother in East Berlin is sick; Julia had to go over and look after her. My flatmate fed the teacher this story and gleefully recounted how she had cleverly covered for me a couple of hours later.
Fear of discovery
I was dismayed. Had she really told my teacher that I had a grandmother in East Berlin? Had she taken leave of her senses? I spent half the day thinking up excuses to tell the teacher just in case she asked me about my grandmother in East Berlin in front of the whole class.
The teacher raised the matter during the break the next day. There were sympathetic glances. Had I really gone to see my sick grandmother? Did I really have a grandmother in East Berlin? My sixteen-year-old classmates looked at me with a mixture of astonishment, curiosity, and pure derision. Because everything about me was different and because I claimed not to have lived at home for the past three years, said that I shared a flat with others and had a job, did not join in the shopping sprees that were so popular with the girls, or attend confirmation classes, and obviously went to discos at the weekend and stayed out as late as I liked, it seemed that in my case, anything was possible. Vividly recalling my classmates’ laughter and the countless snide remarks and jokes about the East, I quickly explained that my flatmate or the teacher must have misunderstood something. Yes, I did have a grandmother, yes, she was sick and yes, I did go to see her, but not to the East, to the West.
A few weeks later, this teacher announced the excursion to Sachsenhausen. Standing in front of the blackboard she asked the class if any of us had ever been to the East, to East Berlin, or to the GDR. Hands up; let us know. One boy raised his hand. Oh, how interesting, and would he like to tell us exactly where he had been? He had a great-aunt in Saxony and had to go and visit her with his family once every couple of years. I blushed and didn’t know where to look or how I would go on breathing. I felt as if a number of classmates were watching me with curiosity. Suddenly, my hand shot up. And you, Julia, you’ve already been over there, have you? Yes, I said, I’ve taken a look around the city.
The class continued: Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp, the horror, the murders, the madness, the war, the Allies, the liberation, the division, Germany, Berlin. The teacher got us all to fill out forms; a school trip like this needed to be well prepared. Three weeks later, the dreaded and anticipated day arrived. I had put twenty-five marks in my wallet for the obligatory currency exchange. ‘Day money’, it was called. I knew how difficult it was to spend money over there and wondered whether Beethoven piano sheet music would be available at the time; such notes were particularly precious to me in my life and in the West. But it was doubtful that we would be passing a shop that sold sheet music. When I arrived at school on my bicycle, I noticed my classmates’ luggage. They had packed shoulder bags, rucksacks, and hold-alls. Had I misunderstood something? Were we going to spend the night? Was it not just a day trip? I listened carefully, but no one said anything about staying the night. It was only later on the bus that I understood why the others had laden themselves with such baggage. There was no end to the jokes. The luggage that my classmates were carrying with them for the day contained not only Walkmans to entertain us on the journey to Sachsenhausen – we listened to New German Wave music: 99 Red Balloons, Ich seh den Sternenhimmel and Düse im Sauseschritt – but also sandwiches, thickly spread with liver sausage and Nutella, Capri Sun, bottles of water, bananas, washed grapes in see-through plastic bags, and chocolate bars. But it was only when the tins of preserves appeared – corned beef and sauerkraut; several boys compared their cutlery and their pocket knives, one guy applied a can opener, and the girls with permed hair in the back seat giggled, held their noses, and pointed to their jars of sausages – that I understood how serious the situation was. My classmates, thirty sixteen-year-old kids from West Berlin, of whom only one other apart from me had ever crossed the border a few kilometres away to visit relatives, were afraid that there would be nothing to eat in the East. Back home. At that time, I couldn’t have said where ‘back home’ was. They had inflatable pillows; two girls had even brought their sleeping bags, just in case. Who could tell what would happen to you in the East. Fine, the teacher had spoken about an excursion and that the entire class would be returning to Spandau at about 6 p.m., but you never knew.
Laden down with rucksacks and sports bags – from which packets of Gummi bears and Coca-Cola emerged over the course of the afternoon between the barracks of Sachsenhausen, and from which packets of cigarettes were surreptitiously brought forth so that a Camel could be lit up behind the museum and a hand-rolled cigarette smoked – the young people in my tenth-grade class spent the entire return journey talking about the upcoming summer holidays: one girl was flying to Florida with her family and was the envy of the others, who were only going to the Riviera and Tyrol.
Barely credible euphoria
When the Wall came down three years later, I could hardly believe the euphoria of West and East Germans. For weeks and months on end, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. The people in the West had wanted to know so little about the East that despite the possibilities and opportunities that were available, only two out of thirty West Berlin families ever visited their brothers and sisters in the East. It made me sick to see how the people in the East believed so strongly in the people of the West, placed so much of their hope in the West, threw themselves so jubilantly around its neck, to say nothing of the folklore that both parts of Germany propagated with regard to the state system of the other.
One might consider my experiences of the border, which I describe here, as atypical, but my goal here is not to write about the typical, but about the individual, the subjective, the utopia, about people’s experiences of East and West in Germany. How does history develop? How are memories formed and maintained? Far beyond nostalgic revisionism, literature is able to recall those things that cannot be comprehended through statistics and which need the modern viewpoint in order to be able to claim the truth in a subjective and narrative manner. This involves asking to whom a story belongs. Is a man the only person who may be permitted to write the story of a man? Should only Jews be allowed to write about Jews? Only people from the East about the East? Only Germans about their history, their division, their border? Only a victim about victims? Only the person who experienced an era about that era? Who can, who may, who must, and who bans whom from doing what? Do we have jobs we have to do, do art and literature have moral and aesthetic tasks to fulfil? If so, where would be the defiance that defends itself against everything and asserts its right to silence above all in cases where it would like to remain most true to itself? Is it possible – and to this day I continue to ask myself this question – that there is anyone in Germany who was an adult at the time the Wall came down and yet has absolutely no experience of the border, whose lack of experience would not be reason enough for a writer to start thinking about this lack?
Literature opens up that space – the border, the border area – that was supposed to separate and to which both sides nevertheless belong. The border can be found in this area in-between, on the threshold; and the key to overcoming it and opening it up lies in the telling of the story.
was born in East Berlin in 1970 and left the GDR in 1978. She won the German Book Award in 2007 for her novel Die Mittagsfrau (translated as The Blind Side of the Heart). This text is an extract from the book Grenzübergänge. Autoren aus Ost und West erinnern sich [Border Crossings: Authors from East and West Remember], edited by Julia Franck, © S. Fischer Verlag (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) pp. 9-22.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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