Monday, January 28, 2008

Reading Across Borders #6/
Non-Fiction Monday:
After the Wall

After The Wall is a quick-reading trip into the mysterious territory of communist East Germany, in the years just before and after the end of the Berlin Wall. Your tour guide is a young German woman - who until 1989 was a typical young East German teen. When Jana Hensel was 13 years and 3 months old, her childhood ended. The Wall fell, her country was no more, and an entire nation's identity as "East Germans" disappeared overnight.

First published in Germany in 2002, Zonenkinder was a smash best-seller, on the best-seller charts first in hardback, then in paperback, for over two years. The dislocation/disorientation she describes makes me think of someone born on February 29 - the birthday was real, the child is real, but the date vanishes. Unlike Leap Day birthdays, though, the GDR won't be back.

Feeling insecure and ill-at-ease compared to their better-dressed and worldlier fellow (former West German) Germans, Hensel and her peers tried hard to pass as "regular" Germans. The ease with with other Europeans moved through the Western world made them see what had been normal and everyday in the Eastern Bloc had been, in fact, very different from the world outside.

At the ripe old age of 25, Jana Hensel writes:
Now, when I look back on those years before the Wall fell and the whole world changed around us, it seems like a far-away, fairy-tale time. . . It's not easy for people my age -- the last generation of GDR kids -- to remember the old days, because back then we wanted nothing more for them to hurry up and end . . . Nothing remains of our childhood country -- which is of course exactly what everyone wanted -- and now that we're grown up and it's almost too late, I suddenly miss all the lost memories.
In many ways, Hensel's no different from most young adults, questioning identity and allegiance, and feeling nostalgic for the pre-responsibility life. Who am I? Where did I come from? Can I go back? For years they had wanted to be just German, and the wish was granted. For everyone who was once "East German," there is nowhere back to go.

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