New memoir brings color to Communist East Germany
● By J. Chambless
Antje Arnold has written a memoir of her childhood days in East Germany in 'The Girl Behind the Wall.'
By John Chambless
a girl on the Communist side of the Berlin Wall, Antje Arnold grew up
happily, in a loving family, but knew very little about the world of
bright lights and freedom that existed just beyond the barbed wire.
Arnold, who lives in Oxford with her husband and teen son and daughter, has written the first installment of her life story, The Girl Behind the Wall, which documents her memories of a childhood under Communist rule, and the world-altering day in 1989 that the Berlin Wall came down.
During an interview at the Oxford Library, Arnold cheerfully shared details of her childhood just outside Berlin. It was an existence, she said, that was not the grim prison that many people imagine.
“As a child, I loved reading and going to the library,” she said, smiling. “My mom would read to me every night when I was growing up, like the Grimm's Fairy Tales. I couldn't wait to finally read on my own. My mom told me that I said, 'When I'm older, I'm going to write a book one day.' When I went to first grade and learned to read, oh my gosh, it was a whole new world. I became best friends with the librarian in town, and I think I read every single book they had.”
Arnold's father was a police officer who had met his future wife when they were in an orphanage. They had both grown up under Communist rule and knew nothing else. They passed that acceptance on to Antje, who was born in 1978, as well as her brother.
“We were not allowed to travel. Radio was our go-to,” Arnold said. “The only time we turned on the TV was in the evening for the news. I'm sure it was censored. There were kids' TV shows that were about learning. We had all kinds of movies. It's not like we were deprived on that type of entertainment.
“And let's just say you can't cut off satellites,” she continued. “So if you were in the perfect spot, you could get TV channels and radio stations from Western Germany. But you didn't tell anybody if you were watching or listening. It was always in the back of your mind that Big Brother is watching. You couldn't really trust anybody. People were self-censoring themselves. Your best friend could be a spy. You just never knew. If you had a certain opinion about the government, or you felt deprived of something, you could not say that, because you didn't know who was listening.”
The Girl Behind the Wall is written from Arnold's memories, fleshed out with details from research and from talking with her mother, who filled in some of the gaps. “I have a memory of being in a restaurant on top of a TV tower at the age of 5,” she said. “It's a famous tourist spot that revolves. But I don't remember looking across the wall to the other side. I asked my mom, 'Was that side blocked off?' She said, 'No, it was all there.' But it was never discussed. My parents never made a big deal about there being two sides of the wall.”
Her family, she said, lived far enough away from the wall that it was not a daily reminder of what they might be missing.
“I have this surreal memory of when my mom had to have surgery, and she had to go a specialist in Berlin in this clinic building,” Arnold said. “She had to sign a waiver saying, 'I am not going to watch TV from the other side. I am not going to listen to any radio.' West Germany was basically across the street. I remember visiting her with my dad, and we walked down this hallway that was all windows. I walked up to this wall of windows and suddenly reality hit me. There it was – the wall. All these guards walking around with rifles, the watchtowers. I could see the other side, and I thought, 'Wow. There's a lot of cars over there, and a lot of billboards.' We didn't have advertisements. My dad was very matter-of-fact, 'Oh, that's just what it is.' But that image stuck with me.”
When she was 11 years old, Antje and her brother were sent off to school as usual on Nov. 9. “We went to school on Saturdays. When we got there, nobody was there,” she said. “There were no bicycles. We went inside and went to our classrooms. There was nobody there. I walked back out in the hallway and there were a couple of students here and there. We were all looking at each other, like, 'What's going on?'
“We saw a couple of teachers who said, 'Go home.' On the way out of the school, somebody from the office told us, 'The wall came down.' So my brother and I went home and my mother said, 'What are you guys doing here?' She was not aware of it either.”
While news of the wall coming down was a global sensation in the days leading up to the event, Arnold said it must have been blacked out of Communist news. “It was like a culture shock in your own country,” she said. “It was all craziness. We didn't go to the other side until maybe a month or so later. It was very overwhelming. We could walk across. I couldn't even take it all in. There was too much advertisement, too much going on. I remember going to the grocery store and I was like, 'You mean yogurt comes in cups, with fruit already mixed in, and there are pictures on it? What? How is this possible?'
“It was horrible, actually,” she added. “I think we spent five to 10 minutes in there. We didn't buy a single thing. We came down the escalator to the bottom of the building and we just left. It was like the Western world had thrown up on us.”
In the seventh grade, all previous school curriculum was swept away, “as if it didn't exist,” Arnold said. She had to learn English in one year to catch up to students from the western part of the country. East German currency could be traded in before a deadline. After that, all of it became worthless.
Having glimpsed freedom, Arnold said, she convinced her parents to let her travel, alone, to California for four weeks at the age of 15. “It's very scary, I know. My son just turned 16, and I told him, 'You are not going anywhere,'” she said, laughing.
She made it to California and back just fine, and returned the next year. She came to the United States long-term as an au pair, “experiencing all these American holidays,” she said. She met her future husband in America and ended up in Oxford, where he lived.
While her family remains in Europe, during family get-togethers, the stories of how the world was, pre- and post-Berlin Wall, inevitably come up. “I wanted something to give my kids an idea of what it was like for me as a child,” Arnold said. “I wanted them to get the information from me. So I started writing notes. People said, 'You should write a book.'”
Having previously only written for school, Arnold started setting her memories down, with assistance from her family members and some online research. The book took about two years to write and edit while Arnold was busy raising her children, Joshua and Kylee, and working as a medical assistant. Her husband, Gary, is a teacher at Lincoln University.
The Girl Behind the Wall was published in January. “It was very surreal,” Arnold said of holding the proof of the book in her hands for the first time. “I thought, 'Wow. This is really cool.'”
The book, which ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the first part of a planned trilogy. The next book will center on how life changed for East Germans afterward. “I think a lot of times, that's not really spoken about,” Arnold said of the transition of an entire nation. “Everything – food products, appliances, even your TV shows and radio shows – all wiped out.”
She would like to translate the book into German, because her friends and family in Germany have read The Girl Behind the Wall and enjoyed it. “They've said it was nice for them to reminisce about that time,” she said. “It's like their own childhoods.”
Arnold has done a few book signing events locally. “People come up and say, 'I was there a week after the wall came down. There was so much energy.' Some people I've talked to had relatives in the Czech Republic, or from Russia or Ukraine,” she said. “They went through a similar process. People are interested in what it was like, because there is this sort of black-and-white vision. With this book, I want to bring in the color. Sure, we had some limitations. We were not allowed to go wherever we wanted. But we still had a good time. We partied and we had holidays.”
The sudden onslaught of pop culture and history that had been blanked out by Communist rule was a lot to catch up on, Arnold said. Her knowledge of pop music, for instance, is skewed by when she first it all. “My husband will hear a song on the radio and say, 'I remember when this came out,' but I'll just say, 'Everything kind of comes from 1989 to me,'” Arnold said, laughing.
The Girl Behind the Wall is available on Amazon.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.