- Book: The Girl Behind the Wall
- Location: Berlin
- Author: Mandy Robotham
This is the story of identical twins – Jutta and Karin Vogt – growing up, post WW2 in the Western sector of Berlin. After the end of the war, Germany was divided between the allies and the USA, together with France and UK looked after the Western areas, whilst Russia took on the Eastern areas. Berlin was casually divided into East and West and then on 13 August 1961 the Russians, backing the East German authorities, took matters into their own hands. On that day they started construction of the Berlin Wall, which the GDR (German Democratic Republic) dubbed the Anti-Fascist Wall (which the West saw as keeping East Germans corralled), and the ensuing division was set to last until 1989. It sprang up overnight and shocked world leaders. Why did it take almost 40 years for it to come down? Simply put, the Western nations feared the might of Russia, that a confrontation would most likely have had dire consequences, as nuclear proliferation was running high. The Berliners were left to suffer.
Just a couple of days before the Wall was erected, Karin happened to be in the Eastern sector and got struck down with appendicitis and she was admitted to the Charité Hospital. Her process of recuperation took place as the Wall was being built and within no time at all (a matter of hours) no-one could cross either way unless a gap was found. These breaches, however, were closed swiftly, as soon as they were discovered, and anyone using or facilitating them was severely punished. She was stuck on the wrong side of the Wall.
Once the phones lines between the two halves were cut and postal services abrogated, there was no way the Vogt family could make contact with Karin. She was on her own. Two years later and it is clear that lives have changed – both women are in relationships and moving on with their lives.
Jutta finds an abandoned house and a window that appears unguarded, and she is brave enough to drop into the Eastern sector. She formulates a plan to make contact with her twin. It is dangerous, there are spies and Stasi members everywhere, people willing to drop others in the deepest trouble without a second thought. The GDR regime divided and ruled their people with psychological terror and people kowtowed to save their own skins. The threat of a stay at the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison (which you can visit today) hung over everyone and encouraged citizens to tow the line. Others made it their life’s work to help people over the Wall. Between 1961 and 1989 there were at least 140 fatalities of people trying to cross to the West.
The deprivation in the East, married with some degree of optimism that the social agenda was fundamentally good, is laid bare in this novel. Some of the policies in the egalitarian dogma really beggared belief – children in a family, where either/both parents were doctors, were not allowed to follow in their parents’ footsteps and had to take on menial work as a balance to their intellectual parents; bananas were not readily available to the general public but were given to the GDR Olympic team candidates on a regular basis. People scoured the city for the latest delivery of oranges. And all the while the bigwigs were feathering their own nests, whilst people grubbed around for basic essentials and food. Everyone was provided with work, job security and healthcare but that certainly came at a price. The paranoia and fear that were inculcated as soon as the Wall went up left a whole generation of people scarred and fearful.
The author captures the real sense of suspicion, paranoia and fear as she drives the story forward. She takes her characters to Cafe Sybille on Karl Marx Allée, and they spend time at the Lake in Rummelsburg, Alexanderplatz is a central meeting point and you can follow the characters as they make their way around the city. She does a very good job of evoking the footsteps of the era and has clearly done her research with a sharp and appraising eye.
A timely reminder that walls are divisive and injurious, whichever side you happen to be on. Lessons from history clearly still have not been learned.
I listened to this as an audiobook and it was well narrated by Hattie Ladbury and Charlie Norfolk.
A quick couple of notes: Germans did not use kettles (they boiled water in pans); tissue boxes were not a thing in Germany at that time; to create authenticity, it would have been useful to use Centigrade and not Fahrenheit. Kurfürstendamm is not shortened to Kuf’damm but Ku’damm. Germans don’t have markets on a Sunday (shops still close strictly on a Saturday evening at 5, until Monday morning).