As invariably happened to me whenever there was anything important afoot, on the evening the Berlin Wall fell – and with it the border with the GDR – I had come down with tonsillitis. I was in bed with a headache and a temperature, an intricate arrangement of compresses around my throat, while all my friends were on their way to the nearest part of the border to welcome people as they arrived and serve them mugfuls of mulled wine or hot punch.
We had no relatives in the other Germany, I’d never been to the GDR (at the time of the class trip to East Berlin some years before, I’d been ill with – yes, you’ve guessed it), and now I was in the mother of all bad moods because I’d realised that a major event in German history was about to pass me by. Feeling that my body had perpetrated an outrage against my spirit, I took a strong painkiller and fell asleep.
Two days later I was doing better. Although I couldn’t yet leave the house – it was, after all, November, with stormy weather and torrential rain – at least I could lounge on the sofa watching the news bulletins from the breached wall. In the evening, just after my mother had set supper out on the table, my father returned home from work. He opened the front door with noticeable care, and called out, to no one in particular, not to take fright – he’d brought a visitor with him.
‘A visitor?’ my mother asked.
I suppose I must have whispered something too.
‘Yes,’ said my father. ‘This young man wants to visit his great aunt, but I think he needs some dry clothes and supper first.’
My mother and I hurried to the door, and there he was, drenched to the bone: not much older than me – twenty, maybe. He was shivering with cold, and he smiled at us.
My father had found him walking along the road, in the dark, through the terrible weather. He was from Erfurt – a city in Thuringia, a state in the GDR – some 200 kilometres from where we lived. His great aunt was an old lady of nearly ninety; he’d only met her once, given the impenetrable walls and barbed-wire fences that separated the two Germanys, but he clearly loved her enough to make his way to her on foot once the border was open. Of course, we immediately loved him for that. He put on the dry clothes we gave him, and we had supper together.
He was tired and hungry, but he told us a bit about how it had felt when the wall suddenly fell, the sensation of freedom – and that it didn’t frighten him. He had an accent I’d never heard before, and no one in the West had had a weird haircut like his since the early eighties, but I really took a shine to him. He had, quite simply, brought the most historic moment of that time right to our kitchen table.
Once we’d eaten, my father drove the young man to the village on the other side of the forest where his great aunt lived. We’d persuaded him not to surprise the old lady, but to ring her first.
The image of him in my father’s clothes, sitting on our sofa next to the phone and carefully explaining to her that now, after a long, long time, he was about to ring at her door, still appears in my mind’s eye whenever anyone mentions those days during which so much changed.
By Simone Buchholz
Translated by Fiona Graham
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Simone Buchholz is a writer and journalist. She was awarded the German Crime Fiction Prize for Mexico Street, and the Radio Bremen Crime Fiction Award and Best Economic Crime Novel 2017 for Beton Rouge. She lives in Sankt Pauli, in the heart of Hamburg.
Fiona Graham, reviews editor at the Swedish Book Review, is the translator of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe UK), longlisted for the 2018 Warwick Women in Translation award and the 2019 JQ Wingate Prize. She is a graduate of New Books in German’s programme for emerging literary translators.