October 25, 2015
Imagine waking up one morning and not being allowed to cross I-485 into the northern part of Charlotte. Imagine that just north of Ballantyne, there was a wall, guarded by policemen with powerful guns, ready and willing to shoot anyone who tried to cross to the north. Now imagine that your father and brother had been uptown overnight. They are on the other side of I-485 and you are forbidden to ever be with them again. What would you do?
That scenario really happened on August 13, 1961, in the city of Berlin in the country of Germany. Overnight a wall was put up by Soviet forces, splitting the city in half, and the country into thirds. Actual families were divided by the wall, with some members of the family in the West and some in the East. A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen is a fictional account that mirrors the actual events of those days.
In A Night Divided, Gerta, her oldest brother Fritz, and her mother are in East Berlin. Her father and middle brother, Dominic, were in West Berlin when the wall went up. They are forever separated by politics and national differences. As the years go by, life in East Berlin is marked with food shortages, apartments bugged with listening devices for the police, and the ever present threat of arrest if anyone appears to be disloyal to the state. Finally after 4 years, 12 year old Gerta has had enough. She thinks her father has sent her a message with a plan to escape. However, attempting this plan will certainly mean arrest for her entire family, and possibly death. She must make a decision.
I enjoyed this book a great deal (thank you, James). Towards the end of the book, I found myself racing to see what happened, and had to force myself to slow down my reading, so that I could absorb every detail.
I especially enjoyed this book because, having grown up with the Iron Curtain as a fact of life (I was born a few years after it went up), I was interested to see what life was like behind the Curtain. In 1985, I got the chance to spend a month at a university in East Germany. I studied German at the University of Rostock in the northern part of the country. From the first day, when my passport was confiscated by the police, to the day I was threatened with arrest for reading a science fiction novel I had brought with me, I knew I was not in a country that allowed personal freedom.
The cars that are mentioned in the book, Trabants, were rare. Most people didn’t have one, and if they did, they had waited for over 10 years for it to be delivered once they had ordered it. One night, I got to ride in one an East German friend owned. It was barely a shell of a car surrounding an engine. It got us to the sea shore for ice cream, but I wasn’t sure it was going to get us back to the dorm again.
The listening devices that are described in the book were apparently real as well, though I never actually saw one. One day the school took us on an outing to a seaside resort. I happened on an East German gentleman who taught English at one of the universities, and we enjoyed a long walk around the island. However, he continually had to warn me to stop talking freely, pointing to the trees and gesturing that they had ears.
A Night Divided brought all of these memories back to me. I’m so glad that I read it. Now I want to go back to that part of Germany and see how things have changed since the wall came down on November 9, 1989.