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.
I marvelled at the fall of the wall on Israeli television. In 1989 I was looking after Holocaust survivors in an old people’s home in Haifa. They were originally from Poland, Romania or Hungary. Many of them were the only people in their family to survive; several bore an Auschwitz number tattooed on their lower arm. Although they had all been living in Israel for around forty years, most of them had not learned Hebrew well. The lingua franca was German.
Having freshly graduated from a West German grammar school, I was welcome in this noble home for former doctors; Mrs Rona and I yearned together for the German forest and Mrs Weinschal and I recited the ‘Easter walk’ passage from Goethe’s Faust.
To prepare as a volunteer for the peace organisation, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, I had attended a seminar at Jagdschloss Glienicke in West Berlin. The last impressions I took along with me from Germany included the Soviet soldiers with their caps, strange jodhpurs and machine guns at the ready on the nearby Glienicker Bridge,where agentswere exchanged duringthe ColdWar.
When Hungary opened its border, and when GDR refugees sought rescue in the West German Embassy in Prague, the Israeli media were afraid of reunification. So was I. On the day after the whole of Berlin had danced on the wall, I barely had the courage to go to the old people’s home. Was there not a deeply shameful ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ on the air at home? How on earth was I to face Mrs Rona and Mrs Weinschal again? When I finally crept through the door of the home, I was surrounded in a matter of seconds by a circle of congratulators. Mrs Rona patted me on the back, Mrs Weinschal hugged me; everyone was happy and clapping their hands. ‘But, but,’ I stammered in confusion, ‘isn’t the division of Germany necessary, as a monument to all the crimes committed in the country’s name?’ ‘The division of Germany was always unnatural and the division of Europe too. The war is only ending now,’ said Mrs Weinschal. ‘For us, too.’
By Angela Steidele
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Angela Steidele has written several books about LGBTQ+ lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She won the Gleim Literature Prize for In Men’s Clothes, her biography of Catharina Linck, and the Bavarian Book Prize for her novel Rosenstengel. She lives in Cologne.
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.