When we first conceived the idea for The German Riveter we wanted to bring you snapshots of 1989 from the point of view of those who’d lived through it. The writer, translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire has collected and translated for us a selection of memories of the Wende (‘the changes, the turning point’) from eight of Germany’s best-known writers.
That summer of 1989, there was a plague of ladybirds on the Baltic beaches. No one noticed to begin with. The first ladybirds were welcomed, especially by the children, who caught them, let them crawl on their arms and counted the dots on the wings; the more there were, the more good luck they brought. But then the good luck got out of hand. An invasion of the red-and-black beetles spread in thick swarms across the beaches, perched everywhere, crept into every nook, and when the insects could no longer find enough to eat, they began to attack people with tiny painful bites. No one had ever seen so many ladybirds at once. One family after another left the beaches until only the ladybirds remained, aside from a few notorious individualists, who fled to the sea and kept their heads underwater to the point of oblivion; they wouldn’t let anyone spoil their holiday and they’d rather share the beach with biting ladybirds than with hordes of holidaymakers anyway.
A few days later there was a storm tide that washed away ten thousand beach chairs and several accommodation facilities. Many people went home after that. Even for GDR citizens, two inconveniences were one too many.
Looking back, it was said that the East German visitors to Hungary had been the last straw, crawling through the hole in the barbed wire and simply running off without looking back. No one mentioned the Baltic holidaymakers. They only played a part in the stories of that night twenty-eight years before, when they slumbered, blissfully sunburnt, in the beds of their crowded holiday accommodation while in the empty city of Berlin the sector borders were blocked with barbed wire from the eastern side, by people ordered back from their holidays or forcefully recruited. Only the absence of the masses, it was said later, gave the authorities the courage to perform this surprise act.
I didn’t think of the story with the ladybirds when I was standing on Oberbaum Bridge in the midst of hundreds of people on 10 November 1989. I had never seen the bridge from that perspective, because it was behind the first layer of the Wall, seen from the East, and formed part of the border territory. At its end was Kreuzberg, and that was where I wanted to go, as did the others beside, in front, behind and, I feared, perhaps even beneath me; I kept treading on something soft with no chance to bend down between the torsos pressing against mine. Around me stood the early shift from the Narva factory. It was a collective excursion and everyone had come along. They had just spent eight hours on the conveyor belts, making lightbulbs, and now they wanted to go to the West. Take a look and go back home, maybe party the night away and head straight back to the early shift, but pick up their welcome money first. Crazy! Cool! Ku’Damm! That was how they talked.
For the time being, we were in no man’s land. We, who had been moving at incredible speed in the weeks since the summer, were suddenly standing still. The eye of the needle through which we had to pass was a small door in the Wall, so narrow that only one person fit at a time. If they were even still letting people through. Perhaps they had shut it up again long ago.
Evening light descended slowly over the scene. If we still made it to the West today, it would be swathed in darkness. Panic gripped me. I tried to focus my eyes on a point beyond the masses.
For the first time, I looked at the red-brick colonnade on the eastern side of the bridge, formerly reserved for pedestrians, and noticed that there was a second level above it, on which something must once have travelled, perhaps an underground or overground railway. Yes, when I turned around I saw that the line continued to a station building on the eastern side, which I had never registered as a station. I had taken it for a production building in the lightbulb complex.
A few metres below me flowed the Spree, an extremely sluggish river that I would only call a river at all in this section between Oberbaum Bridge and Plänterwald, schooled as my eyes were by the mighty Elbe. Now it frightened me. Thousands of people marching in time could make a bridge collapse. There were thousands of us and most were marching on the spot to keep warm. Could the bridge even take so much weight? Hadn’t it been blown up, like most Spree crossings, in 1945 and only patched up in the middle after the war? And wasn’t I standing exactly in the middle? No cars had driven here for twenty-eight years; it was a border crossing for pedestrians. I had sometimes walked to the end of Warschauer Strasse when my acquaintances from West Berlin went back to Kreuzberg at night, usually one minute before their visas expired or five minutes too late. Every time, before they vanished through the tiny gateway to the West, we and they would say the same things, half joking, half serious: —Come with us. —Maybe another time.
I was searching for something that I sensed I wouldn’t find in the West, either. I swung back and forth between insubordination and helplessness, like many for whom the West was no alternative and the agony of the East was unbearable.
It was then that the baby came along. I had neither wanted it nor resisted it. One cold January day, he was suddenly there, two months early. Neither of us was doing well. I felt like I was now physically attached to the condition we were in, and the baby had a sore tummy. His father had married a stranger from West Germany and was waiting for permission to leave the country. In a few weeks’ time he’d be nothing but a sender on envelopes from West Berlin.
At the beginning of that summer, I was exhausted. Night after night, I had walked around my neighbourhood with the screaming baby. I knew every bump in the cobbles, every bullet hole in the facades, every lowered shutter, every broken lightbulb above the front doors. The baby screamed along Lychener, Schliemann, Duncker and back along Dimitroff, Senefelder, Raumer, Prenzlauer. Underneath the streetlamp by the church on Senefelder, he finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Even now, so many years later, whenever I pass underneath the streetlamp by the church I can’t help thinking of the baby’s contorted face in the beam of light, suddenly looking calm and peaceful as he drifted off.
In those nights I thought the baby and I were all alone in the world.
At the beginning of the summer, dead bodies were scattered across Tiananmen Square in Beijing, students executed by the People’s Army, and the East German authorities applauded: at last, something had been done to re-establish order. Their state too had long since lost its decorum. In Leipzig, people were taking to the streets, Monday after Monday. Everyone sensed something would happen, but there was a fear we might not survive it. Many on my street didn’t come back from their holidays, their old lives left behind and gathering dust until someone else took over their flats.
Then, though, the edifice simply collapsed and a breath-taking month began, during which we lived several years in one go. It lasted from 7 October to 9 November. Everything was suddenly open, apart from the Wall, but at that moment the Wall was only a marginal problem.
It was the first time I had agreed.
It’s hard to understand now why I was so angry on the night the Wall fell. I heard the same report on the radio over and over, one sentence from the press conference repeated again and again. The Council of Ministers had decided ‘today, er, to pass a regulation enabling every GDR citizen to, er, leave the GDR via border crossings … immediately, without delay’. The man who said that had been in China not long before; why should we trust him? Especially as he pretended to know nothing, to have merely read a news item someone had just handed to him. People took him at his word at that very moment. I heard the doors opening and closing in my building and people setting off, with nothing but their keys and ID papers. I listened to the rush of events, my ear pressed to the speaker. When the gateway on Bornholm Bridge opened up, the voices jumped and leaped, yelled, cried, stammered messages to the world. They had lost all words in their happiness.
I knew the time of anarchy was over at that moment. Opening the Wall was the last revenge of those whose power had long since dwindled away. And it was their most effective. No more discussions. They simply let go. Like a sphincter that gives way and lets everything out.
The man who opened the gate in the face of the huge crowd pressed against it, without express orders to do so, later ran a newspaper kiosk on my street for years. He never knew how much my Frankfurt broadsheet cost. He probably didn’t want to memorise the price. He’d stand behind his counter, eating sausage sandwiches and reading the tabloids, while he took his customers’ money on the side. He was a friendly man; at first glance, no one would notice he had been a colonel in the border troops. When you saw him every day, though, he couldn’t hide the snappy movements, despite his general sluggishness. He moved like a man who had often made abrupt forty-five-degree turns on his heel.
I was torn. I wanted to set off too, be there, watch people enjoying themselves. But should I tear my sleeping child from his warm bed just because the Wall was opening? What would he want there? He wouldn’t remember it later; at most he’d be squashed by the crowds. And perhaps a soldier might lose his nerve after all and shoot. Who could know? Or should I leave him to sleep and go on my own? But what if they closed the Wall again when I was on the other side? And the baby alone in the flat, with no one there to hear him.
In my memory, I was alone with the baby that night. My sister says she was at my place. It was her who advised me not to go, she says. Who said: Go to bed and get some sleep, they won’t close the Wall back up. If she really was with us that night – which I have to take her word for because my sister remembers everything much more precisely and in shocking detail – then she was right. The Wall was still open the next day, if only ajar. I left the baby with my sister and took a tram to Oberbaum Bridge. On the other side of Bornholm Bridge, friends who had come back told me, it looked just as bleak as on our side; even the house numbers continued uninterrupted.
The shift workers on Oberbaum Bridge fetched their sandwich boxes out of the synthetic Dederon fabric bags almost all of them were carrying around their wrists; only a few of them had briefcases with them. The sandwich boxes were made of tin and made a noise when they opened, a mixture of scratching and scraping. They took out their breakfast sandwiches, which they had saved because they were all practical people, unlike me. I smelled liverwurst, I smelled blood sausage, I smelled Harzer cheese. The only sandwiches I didn’t smell were the sliced cheese ones, because the sliced cheese was absolutely devoid of scent and flavour. The workers joked: You can buy yourself something much better with your welcome money.
I felt sick, I felt claustrophobic, couldn’t get enough air. I wanted to go back to the East. But the crowd stood like a wall of flesh. A wall that made jokes and ate blood-sausage sandwiches.
For a while I turned around and got shoved bit by bit backwards towards the West. There was no going back. The crowd was right. And that was a good thing, although I sometimes ask myself what would have been if the Wall hadn’t been taken down abruptly, but centimetre by centimetre. But that would be another story.
By Annett Gröschner
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Read The German Riveter here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Annett Gröschner was born in 1964 and studied German language and literature. She has won many awards for her fiction, including the Anna Seghers Scholarship of the Berlin Academy of Arts and the Erwin Strittmatter Prize of the state of Brandenburg. Gröschner also writes documentary literature and plays, and works as a journalist for various daily and weekly newspapers and radio. She has been teaching at the Hildesheim Institute of Literary Writing and Literature Science since 2005. 2000 saw the publication of her best-selling novel Moskauer Eis (‘Moscow Ice’).
Katy Derbyshire is a London-born, award-winning translator who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She is now also publisher at V & Q Books, and in 2020 will be the London Book Fair’s Literary Translator of the Fair.