by Emily Demuth Ishida for The Storied Past
Last year, author Jennifer A. Nielsen visited my school. Her book, A Night Divided, carried me back to my visit to Berlin in 1984, when the wall still sliced the city in two.
At that time cities were new to me. I had been raised in rural Wisconsin and then attended Valparaiso University in a small college town. During an overseas semester in Reutlingen, West Germany, our group of American students took a trip to Berlin.
At first, I saw little to like. The air was thick with the residue of coal-burning, bombed-out and bullet-pocked buildings were stark reminders of World War II, and a huge concrete wall with barbed wire, minefields, and guard towers snaked through the middle of the city.
But somehow Berlin, so steeped in history, won my heart. In fact, this visit completely altered my Weltanschauung (a philosophical worldview). It wasn’t the bustle on Ku’damm (a great boulevard of cafes, shops, and hotels) , or the memorial to the Berlin Airlift (a year-long effort that broke a Soviet blockade of the city), or the gleaming gold statue atop the Victory Column that moved me, but something in the atmosphere that charged my feelings and thoughts.
We walked through Checkpoint Charlie, showing our U.S. passports to border guards armed with machine guns, and entered East Berlin. The night before this adventure, I had written in my journal that I would not leave until I had found something beautiful in East Berlin. But the task proved challenging – this was communist “enemy” territory, more war-damaged and polluted than the west. Grayness is what I remember – gray buildings reaching to the gray March sky; the gray pillars of the Brandenburg Tor, standing forlornly in no-man’s land, right by the Wall.
Most of us went to the Pergamon Museum to admire masterpieces of sculpture and art. But this was the beauty of ancient Greece, not 1980s Berlin.
On the city map I had seen a lake, so I took a train far from the city center and the goose-stepping soldiers to find the wooded trails and sandy beaches of Müggelsee. I walked among the bare trees beside the frozen lake until I came upon a couple of boys. They had dropped their bikes along the shore to play on the ice, poking at it with sticks.
Just two kids, oblivious to the minefields, concrete wall, barbed wire, and military forces a few miles away. The scene could have taken place back home in Wisconsin, where I had often done the same thing, as the March breeze whistled through the windmill and the thawing earth beckoned me to come out and explore.
This was my moment of beauty, the moment when I truly understood that other people are just people, whether communist or capitalist, regardless of race or ethnicity or creed. And now I wanted to tear down that wall.
Earlier, at a church in Trier I had found a quote: Wir sollen nicht nur miteinander, sonder füreinander, leben. “We should not only live with one another, but rather for one another.”
Wir sollen nicht nur miteinander, sonder füreinander, leben. (“We should not only live with one another, but rather for one another.”)
Whether constructed of concrete and barbed wire, or built only of ignorance and fear, walls establish one way to live with one another without having to interact or accept a different lifestyle or religion or ideas. To live for one another requires tearing down the walls of our hearts and minds to see the humanity that exists in all people.
In 1984, back on the western side of Berlin, I gave that Wall a good kick, dug my fingers into a crack, and wrenched out a chunk of concrete. Today I know that anytime I tear a piece from the walls of my heart and mind, I am a little bit closer to breaking through to the world and living for others.
Thanks, Jennifer Nielsen, for reminding me of this adventure in my life, and for the many other books on Berlin that tell stories of our humanity, stories we must not forget. Here are some that I found:
A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen (2015)
In 1961, Gerta’s family is divided when her father and younger brother are in western Berlin the night the barbed wire wall goes up. Four years later Gerta, her mother, and her older brother are still in eastern Berlin, now divided from the rest of the family by a huge concrete wall.
Gerta maneuvers through her life and friendships carefully – whom can she trust? One day she sees her father atop a viewing platform in West Berlin. Will the family ever be reunited?
From the gray cover to the gripping story, A Night Divided captures the Berlin I remember, and a twisting turn of events exemplifies what it means to live for one another.
The Other Side of the Wall, by Simon Schwartz (2015)
This graphic novel tells the story of Schwartz’s parents, who left East Germany in 1984, when he was only a baby. As a preschooler, he doesn’t understand why other children see their grandparents so often, and he does not. Thus unfolds the story of his parents and grandparents, who are still in the East.
Translated from German, the story and black-and-white illustrations speak with the authenticity that comes from true experience. A great read.
Going Over, by Beth Kephart (2014)
In this YA novel, the narration switches from 15 year-old punker Ada in West Berlin to her boyfriend, Stefan, in East Berlin.
Not only is Ada divided from Stefan, but the cultural differences between Germans and the Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) among whom she lives and works creates added tension.
But Ada is not one to build walls in her mind; she fights for the humanity in all. Will Stefan have the courage to take flight for Ada?
The Berlin Wall: An Interactive Modern History, by Matt Doeden (2015)
A great resource for students, this book allows a reader to become an East German teenager thinking about crossing the wall, or a border guard trying to prevent such activity. The readers make decisions that change the outcome of the story.
Filled with great photos, this book shows the complexities of history and allows readers to see events from different viewpoints. Other storylines place the reader in 1989, when the wall comes down.
Candy Bomber: The story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”, by Michael O. Tunnell (2010)
Long before the Wall went up, a 1948–49 Soviet blockade that closed the land routes threatened to starve the people of West Berlin. To break the blockade, U.S., French, and British pilots flew to Berlin night and day for more than a year to supply food, coal, and other supplies to the city.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen began dropping chocolate and gum attached to small parachutes, as gifts for children. The book includes Halvorsen’s own photos and letters that he received from the children of Berlin.
Emily Demuth Ishida and her sister Hilda Demuth-Lutze are co-authors of the middle-grade historical novels, Plank Road Summer and Plank Road Winter, set in southeastern Wisconsin, and Hattie’s War, a Civil War–era novel for middle-grade readers set in Milwaukee. When not writing books with her sister Hilda, Emily works as a library and computer lab assistant in a culturally diverse elementary school. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Ishida lives in Elmhurst, Illiniois.