Berlin, City of Untold Stories
On a recent visit to Berlin, I’m struck by the elegance, the quiet and above all, the impressive co-existence of past and present. The acknowledgment of a difficult history is everywhere but at the same time remains largely unspoken. It reminds me of a story that has gripped me for over 25 years.
The Soviet occupation of East Germany after the war meant prison labor conditions for hundreds of thousands of Germans, mostly in the uranium mines, as the Soviets raced to compete with America’s nuclear program. My father was one of those Germans. I remember as a girl, maybe around the age of 13, sitting in front of the fireplace as he told me of long hours to and from the mines in the outskirts of his hometown in Leipzig. Out of sheer exhaustion, he once slept the entire day away on the train, riding back and forth unnoticed. Still a young teenager, he had lost his father to starvation and was on the verge of it himself. The acid reflux that plagued him as an adult and an older man stemmed from years of malnutrition.
I know so few details of his story that I can only relay, in the bluntest of ways, what he said. He was part of an underground youth movement that was resistant to the occupation, and he did his part by handing out pamphlets in his few non-working hours. (As a child, I pictured him literally under the ground, tunneling around and handing out fliers.) He must not have been terribly discreet; on his way home one day, a friend stopped him and told him not to return, that the authorities were waiting there to arrest him. To my knowledge he never went back to Leipzig. He boarded a train without any money, identification or belongings. Officials on the train spotted him at one of the stops and pulled him aside for questioning. He confessed to them he was nervous and asked if he could go to the bathroom. They permitted it and he escaped the train through the bathroom window, hid and took a different train. He made it to West Berlin where, through a refugee camp, he was somehow eventually united with a distant relative who was also in the city.
Such a dramatic story and so many questions. How did he eat? What did he do once he reached Berlin? How long did he stay there and how long until he again saw his mother and younger brother? I never asked because something in his own storytelling kept me at bay – a distant look in his eye and a self-possessed body language that told me not to rupture the memory with obtrusive questions. To him, the details must have been clear as day, but also irrelevant: he had made it out, and this wasn’t his life anymore.
My own research gives credence and context to some of his story; a Life magazine article from 1950 describes the miners’ plight as such: “The daily routine for most of the miners was: up at 3am, two hours riding in the train, a half hour on foot, eight hours in the mine, then a meal, followed by a half hour’s walk back to the train and two hours riding home.” This exploitation went on for years; in fact a 1991 New York Times article reported that the last of those mines was closed only in February of that year, with a public health and environmental mess left in its wake. Of course it was the German invasion that resulted in the death of over 20 million Soviet citizens that partly explains why the Soviet Union was such a brutal and extractive occupier of what became East Germany.
With decades of time elapsed, the immediacy of the human toll is slowly dissipating. Berlin is now full of memorials to Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted segments of the population. But it gives little mercy to itself. Visitors to the city commonly seek out the traces of its dark past, including the Holocaust memorials and the dramatically named ‘Topography of Terror.’ More hopeful is the Norman Foster-designed cupola in the rebuilt Reichstag (German parliament), a symbol of transparency and progressiveness.
Even there, the history told around the circular structure is quietly devastating. Upon entering the historic parliament building, the security guard is obviously pleased when I address him in German despite presenting an American passport. ‘Where did you learn German?’ he wants to know. He is old enough to also have heard firsthand stories of suffering and loss. For a moment I sense he feels a tiny bit of delight that one of the foreigners passing through might understand and not judge. Maybe this is only my sensitivity though, and not his.
As with the details of my father’s story, I’ll never know. Silence was most often his way of coping with the past – I heard his story only on two occasions, both times told almost identically. I often wanted to hear it again, filled in, even embellished as it often was in my young imagination, but it never seemed right to ask. The facts of Berlin’s history, and more to the point, how those facts are presented, parallel the narrative so rarely spoken by my father. It was never safe for him to speak of his own – of German – suffering. Yet it was etched into his deeply creased face. Not unlike the craggy and contradictory landscape of Berlin — fully embracing and acknowledging history, against a backdrop of silence.