There is something special about listening to someone tell a story, especially if their story relates to their own experience.
Over the last five years I have spent a lot of time researching World War II from the German point of view, to try to understand my father’s experience of the war. I have read books and essays; watched documentaries and movies; and read personal accounts I have found on the internet. I have travelled to Germany a couple of times and traced my father’s footsteps, all in the name of researching the book I am currently rewriting.
But the first time I went to Germany, it was purely for pleasure and to meet my family. It was 1987 and the Berlin Wall was still standing. In order to reach Berlin, one had to cross East Germany, in my case by train. For someone who has been brought up in democracies, it was a huge culture shock to see patrols of policemen with machine guns striding through the train carriages, checking passports. What a difference the western zone of Berlin was! But forever in sight or in mind was that wall dividing the city and the country. Still, I fell in love with the city.
In 1989, together with the rest of the world, I watched the Berlin Wall being torn down.
Three years ago I revisited Berlin. This time I stayed in what had been the eastern zone. Again, I toured what remains of the Wall. Every time I see it I am reminded of the attempts so many people made to get to the West, so many lives lost, so many families destroyed. Yet, until last weekend at our family reunion, I had never realised the true impact on my own family. In fact, I never knew that some of my family had lived in the Soviet zone.
Last weekend Germany celebrated reunification. It is a big holiday, which is celebrated each year in a different German city. This year it just happened to be held in Mainz, where we also had the family reunion.
On our last night together, although many of our family had already left, the ones who were still there gathered for dinner and a last few shots of vodka. Suddenly, one of the family got up to speak. In German, and then in English, he told his story of the night the Berlin Wall came down. When he finished another family member stood up and told their story, then another and another. If they didn’t speak English, someone translated for them, so we could all share in the moment.
As I said at the beginning of this post, there is something special about listening to someone tell a story. That night, the stories we heard were extraordinary, poignant and still raw. They made real a time in history I only knew through movies, documentaries or the news. I will never forget those stories, or those who had the courage both to live them and to stand up and tell them.