Articulating childhood memories is no easy feat, at least not without adding layers of retrospect. Yet Claudia Bierschenk somehow manages to regain access to the thoughts and feelings of her early life and translate them eloquently onto the page. Although some aspects of our childhoods are doomed to change and disappear, Bierschenk’ memoir, ‘Never Mind, Comrade’ takes readers on a journey to a country that cried out for profound change and then ceased to exist.
The narrative follows her early memories growing up in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or to UK-based readers, East Germany) between 1982 and 1989. The collapse of Communism in the West in 1989 and the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall that separated East and West German was a seismic historical period. Bierschenk captures what it was like to grow up as a child during that epoch, living so close to the Wall that she has family on both sides.
Some of the incidents that the author recounts in this short but beautifully-detailed and personal account give readers insights into what daily life was like on the ‘wrong’ side of the Iron Curtain. But the point is never laboured. Rather, the memoirs act as snapshots or short fragments of daily life. No moment lasts for more than a few pages. This lends ‘Never Mind, Comrade’ authenticity – it reads like memories of childhood: distant, not fully-formed, and yet some details possessing great clarity undimmed by the passage of time.
It’s apparent from Bierschenk’s school days reminiscences that Marxist indoctrination is occurring within the classroom. It’s apparent too from her desire to rebel that there is no apologism in her writing for the political ideology that has caused such untold human misery. Relatives are mentioned who live in the free and prosperous West Germany, though there is the surrounding cultural consolation that on the other side of the wall, they haven’t fully rid themselves of Nazism, unlike the ideologically pure East. But those from the West can travel more easily through the ‘scar’ of the Wall, and smuggle in clothing, fruit and other luxuries rarely available in the East. Later, there’s a visit from a cousin from America – the wickedest country in the world, or so they say…
As the fragments of memories start to weave together into a tapestry and we see a fuller picture, it becomes clear that it’s the incursions of the West upon her childhood that shatter the Marxist illusion for the young Bierschenk and prevent her from conforming. She overhears adults talking. They are careful not to say too much, but intelligent children learn from the information they retain. Mother promises the tearful child that she will have the opportunity to see the world beyond the Wall. How could she know? These moments give the author the strength to retain her individuality, but, as she describes, this comes at a cost. Any childhood memory of being singled out among your peers can be traumatic. In Bierschenk’s case, it is to know, without being able to articulate, that she does not want to join the Young Pioneers and demonstrate her fealty to the state. To be too much of a rebel would be to invite serious trouble, so much of Bierschenk’s resistance is internalised. We are invited to hear an individual’s dangerous thoughts in a paranoid country. She knows to conform when a member of the Socialist Unity Party pays a visit to check the family’s papers.
‘Never Mind, Comrade’ is a refreshing read in that it is devoid of self-pity. Rather, it presents truthful childhood memories where the surrounding political situation is channelled through the adults. There are moments of levity, too. In one poignant extract, the author’s grandmother gives her advice that is full of the old wives’ tales that form part of every civilisation. Grandfather tells her of his encounter with the devil. Imagining a child sitting on a grandparent’s lap hearing extraordinary advice and wild stories humanises the predicament of those living under Communism without romanticising it. Being obsessed with watching a television programme and feeling distraught at the prospect of missing an episode is another heart-warming and easily-identifiable youthful reminiscence.
The book moves to a conclusion that is perhaps inevitable, but it is what it has been building up to. The final pages pack an emotional punch as, for the first time, the author emerges blinking into the light. Finally, we learn where the title of the book comes from – and it leaves the reader with a satisfied laugh.
‘Never Mind, Comrade’ is introduced by Pete Lally. Running to only 88 pages, it is easily digestible in a single sitting. Though there are some rich details among the childhood memories that reward close attention, so some readers may choose to savour it, since it is written with beautiful prose style. It is printed on high-quality paper and includes photographs of the family the reader comes to know through the pages. This personal recollection of a defining period of Twentieth Century history is poignant and, unusually, told through a child’s eyes. ‘Never Mind, Comrade’ provides insights for readers curious to learn more about what a childhood spent under the shadow of the Iron Curtain in East Germany must have been like. Not least because the author is aware of the tantalising chinks in the concrete, and can sense what life on the other side must be like.
Publisher: Tangerine Press Publication date: 7th July 2022 Buy ‘Never Mind, Comrade’