Leben in Preußen
1983, Aufbau Verlag, Berlin
This was one of four East German books selected by S. for me in a second-hand bookshop in Berlin and sent hand by hand via a chain of personal acquaintances from Germany to England to the United States and eventually finding it’s way to me to help brighten the days of literary darkness in Waco; all stemming from a chance encounter with her parents on a sidewalk in Indianapolis years earlier.
It’s a set of portraits of everyday people who were born around 1900 and their experiences growing up and living through the first and second world wars and on to the then present. At the end the author notes that while the first couple of reminisces came easily, finding enough to create a book from was a challenge as many people either couldn’t remember, didn’t want to talk about their past, or else agreed and then reconsidered as if they were afraid of reprisal.
Basically, the portraits are edited transcripts of tape recorded sessions written as an autobiographical story as opposed to an interview, so there is quite a bit of room for the author to have steered the end result despite intending not to. All of them include some reference to the communist party, either left open and vague as ins the case of one man who simply states that he didn’t really pay attention until much later, or else openly held as a light of triumph by one woman who describes her treatment by the Gestapo. Aside from that somewhat artificial feeling aspect, most of the portraits detail everyday life among the people you never hear about.
These are the stories of the “golden age” and “time of struggle” told from the youngest of seven children in a one room apartment, the door-to-door saleswoman, the wallpaper hanger. They are tales of 10 hour workdays 6 days a week and then a few hours on the way home to help make ends meet, of years of standing in job lines hoping for a day’s work, of travelling to live with relatives after becoming destitute and being told by officials that you have to go back because they don’t want you despite the relatives being willing to take you in.
These are the people who finally won in the system they were in when the portraits were written, and they deserve to be recognized. Sadly, so to do those who were not left on the podium, but who for whatever reason didn’t find it prudent to have their stories included. East German literature was so focused on maintaining the ideal of socialist realism (ref. “Tarzan am Prenzlauer Berg” by Adolf Endler) that those who didn’t fit that view had no voice left to speak with, and this book illustrates that.