Over the Christmas period, I have been trying to continue writing my book (on the flight and expulsion of Germans as a theme in East German prose literature), but progress remains slow - the third chapter is nearly done, two to go.
One of the problems with this project was that I never anticipated the amount of stuff out there. Flight and expulsion, when I started looking for it, seemed to be everywhere in GDR prose (and I haven't looked at poetry or drama).
Why on earth do people claim this topic was taboo in GDR culture? I even wish it had been just a tad taboo (if you can say that). Then the book would have been shorter and easier to write.
Who, for instance, has ever heard of Gertrud Bradatsch? All I could find out: she was expelled from the Sudetenland, spoke Czech like a Czech (and German like the German she was), worked as a "Lektor", loved Prague (and wrote a book about it), and wrote a novel called "Sommerreise", "Summer Journey", first published in the GDR in 1976.
Familiar year? Indeed. This was the year that Christa Wolf's "Patterns of Childhood" appeared, ostensibly the first work of GDR literature to address the flight of Germans at the end of the war (in reality, I reckon it was about the 50th to have done so, although Wolf does treat the topic at some length).
Bradatsch's novel cannot be compared qualitatively to Wolf's, but it has much in common with it. The main character takes a trip to the area from which she fled/was expelled - an area now part of socialist Poland in Wolf's case, and socialist Czechoslovakia, in the case of Bradatsch. These are the first of many GDR "novels of return", as I call them, distinct from the "reconstruction novels" of the 50s and early 60s, where the old homeland was quickly overcome in commitment to the new one. The need to return, it seems, increased the further the former homeland receded.
I mention Bradatsch not just because she moved me to tears (that can happen, even when a novel is not particularly good) in evoking the spiritual effect of loss of homeland on her parents. What is also striking is her narrator's inability to recognise that this loss might also have affected her (she was only a child at the time), an inability Bradatsch clearly wanted to highlight.
Irene, the narrator, visits a psychiatrist after the war. She is suffering from "Beklemmung" (anxiety). The psychiatrist asks her to tell him whatever comes to mind. She cannot find any words. But she remembers her shock in 1938 when she found out that the local grocer's shop, run by a Jew called Kornfeld, had been Aryanised. On her second visit, she can't talk either. Instead, she sits silently and remembers the bombing war, life in the cellars, a dead child in the ruins.
The doctor listens to her silence, as it were, and then, having made some general comments about how humans are dependent on emotion, he says:
"I know your Bohemia well."
She looks at him.
"I mean by that," he continues, "that there are things that are unique, in the sense that, one day, they are lost, lost for ever. You can come to terms with that loss - through the power of the intellect."
But Irene, the narrator, dismisses the suggestion that this loss is her problem. She can feel, still, the echos of anti-Semitism, of the violence of the bombing, but, as far as expulsion is concerned, she seems numb - why? GDR literature may prove that flight and expulsion was not taboo, but it only proves it for the cultural realm of which it is a part; in fact, it thematises, often, the taboos that circumscribed it within society.
The rest of the novel proves the psychiatrist right - about the effect of loss on Irene, not the potential to overcome it.