Writing as Adria Townsend and J. S. Laurenz

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on Personal Freedom 25 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

It’s interesting to note how differently Germany and America approach privacy issues.  When google maps started photographing German cities for their street view, 244,000 households opted out and Google agreed to blur those properties onscreen.  It’s not hard to see where that reticence comes from, first the crackdown on personal freedoms during the Nazi Regime.  Our university just recently hosted an exhibit about the White Rose, the student group in Munich that was tried and executed in 1942 and ‘43 for composing and distributing leaflets opposing National Socialism.  The exhibit highlights the students’ bravery, and shows the atmosphere of fear and repression.  Not just speaking out was dangerous, but listening as well. 
My mother tells the story of growing up in Stuttgart, Germany during the war, and how her father would turn the radio down low, put his ear to it and listen to the BBC’s Radio Free Europe. The radio in Nazi Germany was known colloquially as Goebbelsharfe (Goebbels' harp), because it was an instrument of the Minister of Propaganda.  Many Germans relied on broadcasts from the BBC to get a more accurate view of the progress of the war.  She recalls her father’s horrified reaction when her young brother began humming Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  That was the call sign for Radio Free Europe.  And if anyone outside the home heard him humming it, it would be a dead giveaway that the family was listening to the banned program. 
That story has always stayed with me, and the stories of children denouncing their parents, knowingly or unknowingly.  I could see how easily that could happen. The erosion of personal freedom was so complete that parents couldn’t even trust their own children.  The end of the war took that fear away in West Germany, but not in the East.  There was a different regime, but the climate of fear and repression remained, in fact may have been even more pervasive with the scores of official and unofficial members of the Stasi, the East German secret police. 
As I’ve said, the East German story is not my family’s story, but the East German story unfortunately was not so far removed from the German story under Nazi control.  Ellie Meyer is the character in Home Sweet Stranger who stands in for the child who through no fault of her own couldn’t be trusted. 
Here's a link to more historical information about the BBC and Radio Free Europe:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Berlin Wall and the Universal Story of Separation

In a sense, the East German story is not my story.  We did not have any loved ones behind the Berlin Wall. But that story of lives and families interrupted is a universal story, the fallout of war that continues long after peace treaties are signed.  My mother was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1933.  Her sister married an American serviceman after World War II and moved to the U.S.  My mother followed years later, planning to work for 2 years as an au pair in New York City, and ending up staying a lifetime, falling in love first with the country and much later my father. 

My family had survived the war pretty much intact.  They were not casualties in the traditional sense, but my grandparents lost both of their daughters not to the war, but because of the war, because of the forces of change. The major players in history, the presidents and potentates get the spotlight, and the people go about quietly picking up the pieces.  And when a conflict ends, the consequences affect generations.  I have always been fascinated by questions of identity, what makes a person who they are, their language, the patch of earth they’re born on, the foods they eat, the songs they sing?  And since my very first trip to Germany as a child I’ve known that homesickness that gets passed down, of always having one foot on a different continent.  And as I’ve studied German over the years and taught it in college, it added another dimension, the conflict of loving the heritage and being horrified by the  history.  Home Sweet Stranger was a chance to delve into subjects like collective guilt, personal responsibility, justice and the lack of it.  To see how conflicts don’t end, they ripple out into other conflicts, and how they affect lives ... and loves.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Trabant and Showmanship

I was lucky enough to be living in Germany in 2009 during the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  It was celebrated by music and visits from foreign dignitaries.  The televised event was hosted by talk show host, Thomas Gottschalk, who is known as a flamboyant entertainer.  It would be a little like having Jimmy Fallon host the anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  Music and speeches were interspersed with fake replicas of pieces of the wall tumbling.  It was all showmanship and entertainment, and did not speak to the suffering and separation that went on during the division, and the conflicts, property disputes and economic difficulties that continued after reunification.  What happens after such a long separation?  Can there be a happy ending?  As a romance writer, I have to hope for one. 
Speaking of entertainment, on November 8th, the Spy Museum is hosting the 8th annual Parade of Trabants which they describe as follows:
"Despite their questionable performance and smoky two-stroke engines, these little cars are now affectionately regarded as a symbol of East Germany and the fall of Communism."

Here's the link:


The spy museum's display showing how a Trabant could be retooled to hide multiple bodies inspired the way the character in Home Sweet Stranger escapes from East Germany. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Truth, Fiction, and Hopes for a Happy End

The division of Germany was a painful divorce and in some cases the reunification was an uneasy remarriage.  Just because the Berlin Wall fell, doesn’t mean it took every barrier with it.  This is true in politics and debates about continuing inequality in the east, and the west’s financial burden.  But what about emotionally?  What happens to family and friends and to love?  Parents were separated from children through forced adoption, families were kept apart.  In many cases the parties had grown too far apart to ever come back together. 
The fall of the Wall could not automatically erase the atmosphere of distrust that had festered in East Germany, under the guidance of the Stasi—the secret police.  Simon Wiesenthal once said that the Stasi was more pervasive than the Gestapo.  The network of official members of the secret police was rounded out by countless unofficial members.  Neighbors spied on neighbors.  Spouses on spouses.  It raises the question, how could you trust anyone, even yourself?  The character that developed in this book, Home Sweet Stranger, Ellie Meyer, no longer trusted her parents after they took her with no warning from East Germany, she no longer trusted herself, wondering if she had done or said something that had put them in danger in the first place. When she is reunited with her former friend after the fall of the Wall, she no longer trusts her emotions.  What happens when your heart remain loyal despite what you’ve come to know is true?
The background in this novel is historically accurate to the best of my knowledge, based on what I’ve read, seen in documentaries and experienced living abroad. Forced adoptions were real, there were prisons that were not listed on maps, parents accidentally gave their children overdoses of sleeping pills to keep them quiet as they were smuggled over the border into West Germany. The East German car, the Trabant, could be retooled to hide multiple bodies (see The Spy Museum in Washington D.C. for a detailed and shocking display). Just like after World War II, when the allied forces employed former Nazis in administrative positions, not every former Stasi member was rooted out after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  In fact the BsTU, the Federal Commission for the Stasi Records was accused of using former Stasi members as  consultants and giving them unsupervised access to the archives.  Even a generation later, people are still coming to terms with what happened.  Those former East German towns are still losing their children who continue to migrate westward, not for freedom, but for economics. 

And the property dispute that drives the plot in Home Sweet Stranger is based on the over two million disputes and applications for restitution that arose after the fall of the wall.  Here's an interesting article about one of those disputes: 
Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall people are still coming to terms with reunification and what came before.  This book was my attempt to give the political remarriage a happy end on the personal level. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Westward migration even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

This book, Home Sweet Stranger, was inspired by a news story about small former East German towns that were losing generations of young people to the west even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  They were looking, not for freedom, but for economic opportunity, and they were mostly women.  History was repeating itself, but with an ironic twist.  Germany is the country that invented the term “wanderlust” in part to describe the migration of young men on their way to become journeymen and masters in their trades. And now the men were being left behind. I thought, what if one of the lost daughters came back?