Mary Beth Warner

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

Enlightened

Klaus sat under the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in a mental stupor. The incessant buzzing, which he heard all day, and which ringed in his ears as he tried, in vain, to fall to sleep each night, numbed him. It stopped short any attempt at pleasant thoughts, of memories of his childhood growing up on the banks of the Elbe. Of lazy summer days, hot knoedelsuppe, and the warmth of his mother’s hug.

With the buzzing in his ears, all Klaus could think about was the time when it all began, twenty-two years ago, when he first stepped into his cell. The coldness of the cement floor, the hardness of the bare cot, and the glaring fluorescent bulb, which burned all day and night.

The buzzing could drown out the sound of laughter, which came to the halls of Hohenschoenhausen about as often the sun poking through the grayness of Berlin’s November. But that day laughter came to Hohenschoenhausen, and it came with gusto. It was not a kind of polite laughter, filling an awkward silence, or a joyful belly laugh of a father remembering his son’s first attempt at riding a bike. It was a conspiratorial laugh, with two parties parroting each other, feeding off one another.

It was this particular laugh that awoke Klaus from his stupor. He sat a little straighter at the information desk where he worked, and listened carefully as it came closer. This laugh he had heard before.

In the beginning, he had thought hearing his interrogator’s laugh was a good sign. That it showed he was human. He thought maybe the stories he had heard weren’t true – that they would ask him a few questions and he could explain to them it was a mistake. A youthful indiscretion. Then he could go back to where the air smelled like sunshine and cut grass, not peeling paint, cigarettes and disinfectant.

But Klaus soon learned that laughing did not make Udo, his interrogator, any more human. If anything, it was a reason to worry. The more Klaus suffered under sleep deprivation and endless interrogations, the more Udo would laugh. Sometimes it seemed like the laughter was all Klaus could remember from the interrogations. Or maybe it was all he allowed himself to remember.

And there he sat, faced with it again. He was a free man now, and had been for nearly twenty years. Twenty years since the Wall. He wondered how the passage of time could seem so long, and yet so short. Twenty years, more than half of his lifetime, and he was still at Hohenschönhausen. Now, instead of lying on his cot, staring at the bulb in the ceiling and waiting for news of the prison he’d be transferred to next, he sat at his information desk, handing out brochures to tourists. He gave them tours of the cells he and his friends once occupied. People would shake their heads in disbelief at his story, and that always gave him the encouragement to give more details. He was one of their most effective witnesses to history.

His friends questioned him all the time. How can you work there? Why do you stay? Do you have to live in the neighborhood where they all still live? Klaus’ friends had left Berlin long ago. Most never wanted to return. They moved back to the country near his hometown, or as far away from Germany as they could get. Tokyo. Sydney. South Africa. They were able to start new lives, to let the opened border free them from their cages.

Klaus wasn’t. The fall of the Wall meant his freedom from prison. It meant seeing his family again, without fear of repercussion. But it had not brought an understanding of why he was arrested. If anything, it confused him. If the system was weak enough to come down so quickly, and peacefully, how had they been strong enough to have him arrested in the first place and to keep him in prison for those years?

Klaus had never openly challenged anything in his life before that June day in 1987. Like all of the other boys in his village, he had joined the Young Pioneers. That’s what you were expected to do. He studied hard and was rewarded with a spot at the Technical University in Dresden. He would have started there the year of his arrest.

But Klaus’ one weakness was rock and roll. He had a cousin, Christian, in East Berlin who got records from the West. Klaus never asked how. He only thanked Christian for passing the records on to him when he was through with them. Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” The Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet.” David Bowie. Pink Floyd.

He would lie on his twin bed at night, with the orange corduroy bedspread neatly tucked under his pillow, and study the album covers. At first he would play the records at a very low volume, only late at night, after his parents had gone to bed. Then Christian got him a set of headphones and it made it easier. He didn’t want his parents to worry about his rock habit. They worked at a local porcelain factory and were members of the party. What was most important to them was that Klaus succeed in school.

And that was important to him, too, because he didn’t want to let them down. Still, he couldn’t say no when Christian invited him to Berlin to hear the concert. Three days of music, Genesis, David Bowie, and the Eurythmics, near the Reichstag in West Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. Christian and his friends said they knew a place where they could listen. They wouldn’t see Bowie, but they would be able to hear him.

So Klaus put on his blue jeans and a jeans jacket Christian had given him the year before and packed a change of clothes in a backpack. His mother tousled his sun-kissed hair when they said good-bye. She thought he was simply visiting his cousin. She wouldn’t seem him again for two and a half years. His father, who was at work when Klaus left for Berlin, died of a heart attack during Klaus’ second year in prison. His mother said it came most unexpectedly when he was at the factory. It was a good thing, she said, that it came so quickly.

Klaus rarely allowed himself to remember the first moments they got to the walled-off concert. He didn’t like to think about the pulsing beat, the cheers of the crowd, how he could feel so simultaneously free and so closed off. The feeling lasted only the briefest of moments until the vans came. He hadn’t noticed that others in the East Berlin crowd were chanting “Gorbachev, Gorbachev” though he was told later dozens of times that they were. Klaus was naïve enough not to understand the meaning of the vans at first, but he could tell by the dread on Christian’s face that it wasn’t good. Within seconds they were separated, thrown into the back of the windowless white vans. The kinds of vans used by grocers. The kind of vans used by the Stasi.

They drove more than an hour to get to Hohenschönhausen, even though, he would later learn, the drive should have taken half that long. The moment he stepped out of that van, alone, surrounded by plain-clothed agents was the beginning of the rest of his life.

And here, coming down the hall in his direction, was the man at the heart of it all. Here was the interrogator who so openly mocked Klaus’ innocence and naivete, who read from the Rolling Stones lyrics and tried to tie Klaus to what he said was their subversive nature. Here was the man who threatened Klaus that if he didn’t confess, his parents would lose their jobs, that they would lose everything.

Klaus knew that some of the old Stasi officers liked to tour the prison. It was a homecoming, of sorts, for them. A colleague of his, Gerhard, had seen his former guard this way two years before. When they came face to face, Gerhard froze. His guard looked him in the eye and Gerhard quickly glanced away. A faint smile had passed the guard’s lips, and he continued down the hall, listening as a young guide gave an earnest tour. A week later Gerhard drove his car at top speed into a tree on a two-lane road in Brandenburg.

Klaus vowed to himself he would not do the same. He would not glance away. He would not give Udo the satisfaction. Now it was his turn.

He stood up at his desk, pressed his gray pants down with his hands, and tried to be ready. “Will he recognize me?” Klaus wondered. In his mind he pictured himself from 1987. Tall, thin from hours of swimming, blonde, with teeth as white as the milk he drank each day for breakfast.

He didn’t look in the mirror very often anymore, but when he did, he had trouble recognizing himself. What is left of his hair was the color of ash, with white woven through the sides. His once open and friendly blue eyes were hidden by heavy lids and webbed with red veins from years of little sleep.

His once proud shoulders were now weighed down and rolled forward.

So it should not have been surprising that Udo Lack did not recognize his former captor on first glance. He was distracted, too, by his former Stasi colleague walking by his side and laughing about a prisoner who had wet his bed each night.

“Herr Lack,” Klaus said, his voice barely escaping his lips. Udo did not hear over his friend’s laughter.

“Herr Lack!” Klaus repeated. This time he was shouting.

Udo and his colleague stopped and gazed at Klaus with equal parts curiosity and annoyance.

“Ja,” he said, looking Klaus in the eye. He could still master a stare.

Klaus did not look away, even though he could feel the sweat start to pool at the base of his neck. It unnerved him to see Udo so calm and happy, and looking so fit. He was at least 15 years older than Klaus, but had no slumped shoulders or paunch belly. His skin was evenly tanned, even thought it was early May, and his chestnut brown hair appeared free of gray.

“Don’t you remember me?” Klaus said.

“No,” Udo said, still holding his stare. “Should I?”

“You knew me 22 years ago. Before the Wall fell.”

“I knew quite a number of people then,” Udo said, and he and his friend shared a smile.

“You knew me here. At Hohenschönhausen. My name is Klaus Heilemann.”

Udo looked at him some more, clearly not remembering.

“The David Bowie concert. 1987.”

“Oh, right,” Udo said. He laughed a hearty laugh, this time working himself up into a coughing fit so strong his colleague had to thump him on the back.

When he regained his voice, he looked at his colleague and began to explain. “There were many others here from that concert,” he said. “David Bowie, and some other bands. They played at the Reichstag, so close to the Wall we could hear. Of course, they planned it that way. They thought they could taunt us.”

“I remember,” the colleague said.

Udo pointed at Klaus. “This guy and his buddies go to hear them. They were really close. I don’t know how they got that close to the Wall. They thought Bowie gave them a free ticket. All he gave them was a free ticket here!” He laughed again and his colleague joined him.

“You ruined my life,” Klaus blurted out. It was a simple statement, but one he had dreamt of saying for years.

Udo’s smile faded. “No, you ruined your own life. You knew the risks.”

“No,” said Klaus. “I didn’t.”

“Well,” Udo said. “Then you are even dumber than I thought.”

Klaus curled his toes in his shoes and clenched his teeth in anger. “Why should it have been a risk, just to hear a rock concert? Just to have fun?”

He was shouting again and a small group of tourists had stopped to hear the exchange.

“Because that’s the way it was,” Udo said. “Those were the rules.”

“Well, fuck the rules!” Klaus shouted. A vein throbbed at his left temple and he rubbed it, trying to make the pain go away.

Udo scoffed. He took a pack of Marlboro reds out of his pocket, removed a cigarette, lit it, and took a long drag. When he exhaled, he did so directly at Klaus.

“You know, I saw the Stones in concert two years ago here in Berlin,” he said. “I took my son, and bought him a t-shirt.” Looking at his colleague again, he said: “It was a good show.”

Klaus felt his mouth drying out like the desert.

Udo stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray on Klaus’ desk. He reached into his wallet, pulled out a card, and handed it to Klaus. “You really need to move on,” he said. “If you ever come to Munich, call me, I’ll find you a nice apartment.”

Klaus looked at the card. It was for a real estate company, and under Udo’s name it said: “owner.”

“He’s the most successful broker in Bavaria,” his friend added, patting Udo on the back.

The two of them continued walking down the hall, leaving Klaus alone, standing there, staring at the card with the sound of the fluorescent bulbs buzzing in his ears.

Karen S. Nowviskie

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

On Bebelplatz

On sunny days on Bebelplatz,
the burning room reflects a soft blue sky,
as tourists gape to see an empty shelf.
Ghostly volumes, dimly glimpsed amidst the rush,
reflect faces of the curious, eager to be off
to find the next Big Thing.
One man, unawares, steps hard
on echoes of the burning leaves,
while far away, under an Appalachian sky,
a child peers up through burnished leaves
that dapple tales of her dark knights, never once
in her wildest  dreams perceiving
that books may burn
or man may step on thoughts
or smoke may stain the soft blue thinker’s sky.

Alistair Noon

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

Towards the Conference

1

Bright as amphibian skin,
the lakes encircle the city.
They glint on approach,
then dull as we close.

Walking the Wannsee paths
where a speedboat passes
under the spotlight, I watch
how I sit by the water:

viral eight-leggers, bold
climbers, discern my sweat,
my hair is their handhold
for an unseen ascent.

2

My talk is on channels.
I will track those caravans
in the air, under oceans,
showing how the shows
clamber along cables, I’ll
attempt to say why

to learn from the Talkmasters
is to learn to be victorious,
remembering voice and gesture,
that seasons are schedules,
the directive written in the decor:
national in content, global in form.

Starlet, wander through glass
and liberate that six pack fast.
Search and the camera will find you.
Take a walk on Peacock Island,
where the Minister, before he departed,
put on, they say, some great parties.

3

Although such programmes last
like clay pots notched with curses,
or china smashed the night before the knot,
or in mobile sarcophagi, the surging glass –

within the walls of the New National Gallery
a dark-suited gentleman suggested
I take my hand from the glass that protected
the manifesto: All Art Is Destruction.

4

Are you at the conference too? Among these lives
millennium sextuplets have landed.
I am learning to win a million in fifty languages.
Among the four million, I head for the archives.

5

While Mercedes loitered on the white streets,
and beggars invested in the cafés,
in the queue for drafts and postures,
cold infringed my skin’s liberties.

The levels of the palace to Lenin would rise,
a Great Hall billow over the Reichstag,
communists in cellars, hands above heads,
later an adjutant depositing a device.

Land use improved as women with mugs
and buckets would sprinkle the leaves and roots
on the ground before the walls of the Reichstag
that stonemasons had hacked at while drunk.

Then came the number on the signs for penthouses,
where the grassy forecourt to parliament
had been an informal football pitch.
The ploughed earth lay behind wire fences.

The building changes, the channels switch:
sixties’ shopping centres, thirties’ semis.
The skyline rewritten, the malls redrawn,
to make buildings to live out a life with.

6

This morning, the roof tiles were transmitting the sun,
the cumulus live on glass, like a culture on film.

As the white clouds darkened and paled through the evening,
in the ground-floor windows, news grew on the screen.

Then an archive of suns opened its doors, the panes
all around still flickering with the culture on film.

The swing of a satellite against the shift of stars:
a dancer’s dash among a stageful of statues.

Paul Murphy

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

Two Poems

Who Killed Rudi?

Was it the wind in Moluccas Street
Or a giraffe in the zoo?

Was it the tell-tale stains on the back seat
Of your BMW kalamazoo?

Was it Frank, Mike or Steve?
Was it the 1960 Trabant

You owned for a day then banged
Into the boot end of 1962?

Was it anyone really, was it me or you
And what if it was?

Can he feel it now, cold, dumb, dead
Can he really come after you?

Is he dead really or merely pining?
What if he died or didn’t die?

Can he disrupt your stag night
Or interrupt your first night

Of onstage delirium, can he fly
Past your window or settle cat-like

Licking ash from your window pane?

Rudi is dead there’s no doubt
Never to come again.

There’s ice and snow tonight
And Rudi is dead. And Rudi

is dead.

Bertolt Brecht’s Bedroom

Here the poet Brecht lit a last cigar
Rolled over onto his side, expired.
Are you Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht dead?
To annotate the future, he thought,
Downstairs Helene Wiegel
Lay watching Soviet Olympiads
On her regulation plastic DDR Fernsehapparat.

She felt the failing clutch of a Trabant
She felt the last polluted raindrop fall.
Onto the bare graves of Hegel,
Fichte, Heinrich Mann.
Who lay quite dead in
The neighbouring Friedhof.
Soon to be joined by Bert and Helene.

Failing the future as the past
Bukharin’s unworked dithyramb
Compounds the morning’s cigarette-
induced hangover: Mao’s latest verses;
Your ‘Ode to Stalin’ or King Kong.

White vines disappear into the backgarden
Trellis, ashen, shivering as dawn
Find the shadow of an unworked reshaped heel.

Audrey Mei

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

Five Short Pieces for the Talking City

I.  Preto

dammit! what is
the word in Portuguese
i’m trying to explain to
this little Brazilian actress
yes they all say she is
famous very pretty and
i’m sure quite nice as well
but she didn’t know
Berlin was once split
in two
and since i cannot explain
the war communism jews
iron curtain airlifts stasi
to keep it simple i’m telling
her the east was once dirty
it was all colored
black

I.  Preto

Verdammt!
Wie war noch auf portugiesisch
das Wort das ich dieser kleinen
brasilianischen Actriz zu erklären versuche
ja alle sagen sie sei
berühmt sehr schön und
ich bin mir sicher auch recht nett
aber sie wußte nicht dass
Berlin früher in zwei
geteilt war
und da ich den Krieg Kommunismus Juden
den eisernen Vorhang Luftbrücken die Stasi
nicht erklären kann sag ich ihr
um es einfach zu halten
im Osten war alles dreckig
es war alles
schwarz

II.  Wasteland

“Unser Besiegt-Sein war tatsächlich unser Befreit-Sein”
– Prof. Dr. Karl Jaspers, Universität Heidelberg, Januar 1947

a mortared plagal is echoing
resentment’s morning fog

overlying the grey strata of desperation
sheltering minutes of ten to thousands
in sequences of cement which became
monoliths in yesterday’s meadow

dwarfed by this morning

in a breeze wafting the hymn
of the cold and esurient

and the voices of confusion
built the accidentally marred
decades of yonder

droning the strata of concrete
monoliths in the field

III.

REPORT FROM WEST-BERLIN POLICE RE: ATTEMPTED ESCAPE OF GÜNTER LITFIN, 24.8.1961

24.8.1620, NW21 HUMBOLDTHAFEN, SOUTHERN RAILWAY BRIDGE, SEVERAL SHOTS – MACHINE GUN – WERE FIRED FROM EAST GERMAN TRANSPORT AND NATIONAL POLICE AT AN APPARENT DEFECTOR IN WATER.  THE CONDUCT OF THE BORDER POST OF THE POLICE WHO LATER SEARCHED THE WATER INDICATED AS SUCH.  WHETHER A PERSON WAS PRESENT IN THE WATER AND WAS WOUNDED COULD NOT BE VERIFIED.=

 

REPORT OF EAST BERLIN NATIONAL POLICE RE: ATTEMPTED ESCAPE OF GÜNTER LITFIN 25.8.1961

On 24 Aug 1961, at approx 1615 hours at Humboldthafen, a Günther L i t f i n, born 19 January 1937, residing in Berlin-Weißensee, Heinersdorferstr 32, workplace unknown, attempted to leave democratic Berlin illegally.  L.  bypassed the post by apparently approaching from the Charité property and climbing over a wall to reach the bank of the Spree.  As he came under the bridge at Alexanderufer, he was requested to halt by Officer P., Post: Trapo-Halle, from the railway area.  L. failed to respond to this request and ran towards the riverbank 30 meters away.  The police officer fired two warning shots from his weapon.  L. however continued running and jumped into the water to reach the riverbank of West Berlin.  In response, the post issued three curtain shots; L. proceeded to ignore these warnings and continued swimming.  Officer P. then issued two shots aimed at L., one of which fatally wounded the accused. Within a short time, approx 300 spectators assembled at the western bank and remained there until the removal of the corpse at 1905 hours.  Among the spectators were several photographers who attempted to photograph.  The corpse was appropriately removed so that photographing was not possible.  L. was brought to the National Police Hospital.  On site were Dept F, Transport Police, MUK and Dept K of the VPI.  Further processing by MUK.

 

REPORT FROM WEST-BERLIN POLICE RE: ATTEMPTED ESCAPE OF GÜNTER LITFIN, 24.8.1961
ADDITION TO FS 1710 FROM 24.8.61 =

24.8., 1905, NW 21 HUMBOLDTHAFEN, NEAR THE FORMER ADMIRAL-SCHEER BRIDGE.  A MALE CORPSE WAS RECOVERED BY 3 DIVERS OF THE EAST BERLIN FIRE DEPARTMENT.  APPROX. 1915 HOURS MISSION COMPLETED.=

[Source:  Polizeihistorische Sammlung/Der Polizeipräsident in Berlin]

IV.

(something in the breath
of you next to me
so soft will hurt
come august morning;

when you again say
politics of your inner
never will change;
yet remain my heart

which bone beneath
your skin (that i loved
to kiss) knows truly ‘tis
not the separation
between me & you but
the separation of
above and below

(and missing you
behind a cratered wall
i dream not but
confess am hoping
someday
we will
be
one

 

V.

change here for Olympic Stadium
please move your dog out of the way

i agree sometimes it’s dingy in parts and
the serotonin of Neukölln is mostly low
medicate her with Frühshoppen and
sweet-apple shisha and i insist
i’m new but also proud to be here

because after all you have been through, lady
dress like sunday morning anytime you want.
23-hour jogging suit and grilled lamb stops traffic
the dangling plastic telecafe goes great
with a frosted coiffure from Savigny Platz

and polka-dotted wannabes photograph themselves
be gone every 10-minutes with the subway train.
a solitary station agent battles grafitti
one line left scribbled on the wall
Fuck of Nazi scum ! [sic]

but he in blue coveralls stops cleaning
and carries his bucket away

Edward Mackinnon

Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin

Taking Sides in Germany

It was in 72
that I became indirectly involved
in the Cold War, when I fellow-travelled
in unequally divided Germany
across the border with students
who wanted to study their strange cousins
in the eastern state,
and on the way back to the West
a quiet man in uniform asked, and no,
he was no ordinary officer or official,
for our passports and no, it wasn’t the Stasi,
this was the other side, so what a relief
when he didn’t take away mine with the others,
for mine was royal blue, and in this way I escaped
the frontline filing squad, squeezed back unnoticed
through a chink in the iron curtain
and avoided what? involvement
in the Cold War? no, later that year
I witnessed in divided Berlin
a late-night skirmish:
in Munich on TV
a ball drops through a hoop and all hell
breaks loose, through a bottomless basket,
the world’s a divided arena, battle lines
drawn in each half and a net
hangs from a ring like a gibbet.
Symbiosis rules. Pandemonium
rules as the ball with an invisible
hammer and sickle breaches the basket
of stars and stripes with a second to spare,
yes, a ball’s been hurled through a hoop
and behold there’s whooping on one side
of the divided world and wailing
on the other, while I’m watching
in divided Berlin with long-haired students
fired up on the sidelines, for one side’s
bombing Vietnam, which is why
they’re dancing a crazy conga
and doing their best to touch the ceiling
while the victors lie in a heaving heap
of limbs on the floor, it’s on TV,
and the defeated don’t know what’s hit them,
for this is war, the Cold War
in divided Germany, where one of the students
asks another, one with shorter hair,
why he’s punching air, you don’t care,
he says, for the Reds – no, the other replies,
but I like the Blacks even less,
and the first one feels a rush of blood
to the head and hits the other in the eye,
and which side that’s one in the eye for
I’m not sure, but all hell breaks loose
till the landlord pulls them apart
and the offended one delivers
to the offender’s bleeding face
his parting shot: Auf welcher Seite
stehst du denn, du Arschloch?
Yes, which side are you on?
to put it politely,
for this was the Cold War,
in Germany,
in 72

The televised event to which this poem refers is the 1972 Olympic basketball final between the USA and the USSR, which the latter won with the last throw of the match.