Homesick for Sadness


First Person

A childhood in incompletion.

Berlin, Loch in Mauer am Reichstag

The Berlin Wall in 1990.

What was I doing the night the Wall fell?

I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn’t just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn’t need pots anymore.

There was a lot of talk of freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with this concept, which was suddenly drifting about in all sorts of different sentences. The freedom to travel. (But what if you couldn’t afford to?) Or the freedom of expression. (What if no one was interested in my opinion?) The freedom to shop. (But what comes after the shopping trip?) Freedom wasn’t just a gift, it was something you paid for, and the price of freedom turned out to have been my entire life up till then. Everyday life was no longer everyday life: it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.

My life was accompanied by the Socialist life of Leipziger Strasse, which today leads to Potsdamer Platz but at the time came to an end at the Wall. Today I know that a hundred years ago, Leipziger Strasse was a narrow, popular, and highly populated commercial street filled with tobacco shops, horse-drawn streetcars, sandstone curlicues on the buildings, and women with fancy hats. There were still Jewish-owned textile mills in the neighborhood at the beginning of the thirties. But when I was a child, none of this remained, and I didn’t know there was something, or someone, missing. Today I also know that the tall buildings, like the one I lived in, were constructed with propagandistic intentions as a response to the Springer Publishing headquarters on the West side of the Wall, but as a child, I simply enjoyed all the lights we could see on the other side from the terrace above the twenty-third floor. We read the time for our Socialist recess from an illuminated display in the city’s Western half, visible from our side of the Wall. That the building to which this display was attached also bore the illuminated letters B.Z., advertising a newspaper we’d never heard of, was of no interest to us. For our Sunday walks, my parents would bring me to the end of Leipziger Strasse, to the area right in front of the Wall, where it was as quiet as in a village. There was smooth prewar asphalt perfect for roller-skating, and the final stop on the bus line, no through traffic beyond. This was where the world came to an end. For a child, what could be better than growing up at the end of the world?

A half of the city was the whole city for me. Even today, it’s only my mind, not my feelings, that understands that the city is now functioning again as it was built and intended to. I can drive down Chauseestrasse—a street, now perfectly normal, that leads from the East Berlin district Mitte to the district Wedding in West Berlin—one hundred times, and one hundred times I will be driving through a border crossing. This growing-together-again of the city feels to me like a perfectly arbitrary addition. In the half I know so well, the functions of a capitalist metropolis have returned to the buildings that belonged to them fifty years before, and I suddenly see that these buildings knew more all along than they were able to tell me.

But something, some wholeness, that I failed to learn as a child still eludes me now. Someone like my neighbor, who always bought his breakfast rolls across the street before the war—in a place that suddenly became the inaccessible West—no doubt had a very different experience. For him the Wall can only have been a subtraction.

When I was a child, I didn’t distinguish between the ruins left behind by World War II and the vacant lots and absurdities of city planning that came about when the Wall was built. In the seventies, the buildings still bore inscriptions in the Fraktur script so beloved of the Nazis (Molkerei or Kohlehandlung) long after the dairy and the coal merchant had closed up shop. These were just as familiar a sight as the blocked-off entrances to the subway stations that had been closed when the Wall went up. The wind blew old paper and dry leaves down these stairs, which no one descended for thirty years; sometimes one could hear, through the ventilation shafts, the West Berlin subway lines that ran beneath East Berlin without stopping. Children of the East were familiar with the warm air that would waft up from those inaccessible tunnels. Just as the dairy and coal merchants could disappear forever, we learned, there were paths beneath our feet that were not meant for us, there were airplanes flying over our heads that we would never set foot in: we heard the workmen on the construction scaffolding in West Berlin hammering and drilling and we knew that an entire world that seemed so close could still be out of reach.

At the same time, though, there was a second world quite close to us, hidden in the earth and sky. For me, an empty space did not bear witness to a lack. It was a place that had been either abandoned or declared off-limits by the grown-ups and therefore, in my imagination, it was a place that belonged entirely to me.

Often I would stand at my grandmother’s side at home behind the curtains in the living room, looking at the large building that could be seen behind the Wall, over there. It might have been a school or a barracks. In the mornings the sun would shine brightly on its walls. I liked this building, and I wondered what sort of people lived or worked there. The Wall, the barbed-wire barrier in front of the Wall, even the strip of sand under the barbed wire, which probably had landmines hidden in it, and the border guard patrolling right beneath me—these were of far less interest. While my grandmother was cursing because a dust rag she’d hung over the balcony railing had blown down into the border strip, I stared at the building. In the evenings, its windows stayed illuminated for a long time, every window with the same neon light. So they probably weren’t apartments after all. An empty space is a place for questions, not answers. What we don’t know is infinite.

My aunt, who always sent me the most wonderful “West packages” from the other side of Berlin, lived on Sickingenstrasse. Sickingenstrasse: German children learn about the legend of the trumpeter of Säckingen, and for my entire childhood I thought it was the trumpeter of Sickingen. And that trumpeter could not possibly have been the same trumpeter I thought of when I sang “The Song of the Little Trumpeter”: “Among all our comrades, not one was so fine, as our little trumpeter, the Red Guard’s pride and joy, the Red Guard’s pride and joy.” It was a song that moved me to tears every time. But when you’re a child it doesn’t surprise you if a baroque, bourgeois trumpeter from Säckingen sings Erich Weinert’s communist trumpet song, even singing it in the inaccessible Sickingenstrasse of West Berlin—and so for me Sickingenstrasse was a lovely street, a lovely street in the inaccessible West, where everything was fragrant with Ariel laundry detergent and Jacobs Krönung coffee, while in the East our little trumpeter always died a heroic, melodious death, as well he must.

After the fall of the Wall, I visited my aunt, and of course the Sickingenstrasse turned out to be loud and dirty, and my aunt’s apartment was in a modest housing block from the fifties—a dark, one-bedroom flat with low ceilings, a wall unit, collectible teacups, and an L-shaped sofa. I peeked through the curtains and saw a building across the way with a sign, UNEMPLOYMENT OFFICE, and many sad-looking men standing in front of it, apparently waiting for the office to open. Even with the window closed, I could hear in my aunt’s quiet living room the din of the nearby freeway. The newly accessible West didn’t look, smell, or sound anything like the West still blossoming inside my head.

On the other side, though, the unknown was probably just as great. East Berlin was gray, said people who’d ventured over from the West. Imagine what an adventure it must have been to pay your entry fee and find yourself in the forbidden zone. When, as a teenager, I lived near the Friedrichstrasse border crossing, Westerners who hadn’t managed to spend all the money they’d been forced to exchange sometimes handed me twenty-mark bills. These Westerners looked as though they were a little ashamed to be treating me like a beggar, and they also looked as if they didn’t have a clue how things actually worked here in the East, and they looked as if they were glad to be able to go back to where they knew their way around.

East Berlin, it seems to me today, probably wasn’t much grayer than the Western part—it’s just that there were no billboards and neon signs on the bullet-pocked walls and in front of the vacant lots full of rubble. Admittedly, plaster was falling from the walls in Prenzlauer Berg, and some of the balconies were no longer safe to stand on. Our front doors were never locked because private property was not an issue, and for that reason drunks would sometimes take a leak in the entryways, I’ll be the first to admit it.

But leaving aside the question of the grayness, I remember above all a sort of small-town peacefulness that made a deep impression on me as child, a sense of being at home in a closed-off—and, for that reason, entirely safe—world. From the outside, there may well have been something exotic about our Socialist reality, but we ourselves saw our lives neither as wonder nor terror. It was just ordinary life, and in this ordinariness we felt at home. The only thing that connected us children with the so-called great wide world out there were the West packages (which not everyone received) and international solidarity, the worldwide struggle for the release of Luis Corvalan or Angela Davis, for example, which we as schoolchildren translated into readily comprehensible “sandwich bazaars” or “scrap-material collections.” My parents filled their home with Biedermeier furniture and used money that weighed no more than play money.

Having no legal autonomy didn’t hurt as long as one had not yet reached the age of maturity. As a child, you love what you know. Not what grown-ups or strangers think is beautiful; no, you simply love what you know. You’re glad to know something. And this gladness sinks into your bones, is transformed into a feeling of being at home. As for me, well, I loved this ugly, purportedly gray East Berlin that had been forgotten by all the world, this Berlin that was familiar to me and that now—at least the part where I grew up—no longer exists.

When my son and I are in the country in the summer, sometimes we roam around, crawling under fences that have been blown over and knocked full of holes to access vacant lots once used for company holidays. We open the doors of empty bungalows; they aren’t even locked. We gaze at the carefully folded wool blankets at the foot of the bunk beds, the curtains that were neatly drawn shut before some long-ago departure, and the Mitropa coffee cups that someone washed and put away in the kitchen cabinet twenty-five years ago. Without saying anything, he and I gaze at all these things that have been preserved unchanged, as if by a magic spell, ever since the last Socialist vacationers spent their holidays here—just before their companies were phased out at the beginning of the nineties, transforming an absence that was to last only two days into an absence forever.

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She is the author of several works of fiction, including The Book of Words (2007), Visitation (2010), and, most recently, The End of Days. Also an opera director, she currently lives in Berlin.

Susan Bernofsky is the translator of six books by Robert Walser, as well as novels by Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, Gregor von Rezzori, and others. She is currently working on a biography of Robert Walser and writing a novel.