Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wall in my Head

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a life-changing event for me and for Germans no matter where they lived. On American TV, my compatriots were always portrayed as Nazis, deranged psychiatrist, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were either barking orders or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplatter dance. On November 11th, 1989 the image of Nazi Germans was suddenly replaced by joyous Germans infecting the world with their good will and spirit.
After enthusiasm and celebration reality set in. Two million East Germans left their homes to seek their fortune elsewhere. In many parts of the former GDR unemployment is in the double digits. East Germans earn 20% less than West Germans. The catch-up might take another twenty years. Germans are no longer surrounded by a cement wall but twenty years later the wall in the head still exists.
With the exception of hosting the World Cup in soccer in 2006, Germans have not displayed joy and enthusiasm in large numbers. But now, at the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the wall, we are allowed to feel good about ourselves once again. In New York many events —readings, films and even a dance performance —celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Columbia University hosted a conference “Freedom Without Walls.”
“Words Without Borders” organized a reading and panel discussion at Idlewood Bookstore on November 10th to launch their new anthology The Wall in My Head. The book includes writers who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who grew up in its wake [Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple.]
At Idlewood, Polish writer Dorota Maslowska, German writer Kathrin Aehnlich and Romanian writer Dan Sociu read excerpts and spoke about how they witnessed the events at age six, twelve, and thirty-two. Eliot Borenstein, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, moderated.
Dan Sociu, a younger poet of the so-called “2000 Generation,” a movement Romanian literary critics called “Miserabilism”, brought down the house with his deadpan humor. Dorota Maslowska (Snow White and Russian Red) spoke about the difference of her generation to older, more established writers. “They want to write pretty literature; we want to rape literature,” she said. Kathrin Aehnlich read a hilarious segment from her latest book Everyone Dies, Even the Paddlefish in which teacher Aunt Edeltraud ruled the children in an East German kindergarten with the iron fist of a prison warden.
Kathrin Aehnlich, a Leipzig native, was the only one old enough to not only have witnessed the fall of the wall but also to have actively participated in the Monday night demonstration that she believes prepared the fall of the wall.
The room was jam-packed. The audience asked a lot of questions. Most people stayed and engaged in lively conversation after the event. They polished off the hors d’oeuvres and drank the wine to the last drop. The mood was festive. When the bookstore closed many were not ready to go home. I joined a group of German and American journalists and writers, a Dutch restaurant owner and a Canadian real estate agent at the Old Town Bar. There we continued our discussion over greasy bar food and Paulaner beer.
The fall of the wall was one of the few positive developments in recent world history. Who knows when we'll find such a good reason to party the next time?

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