Whispers in East Berlin, photo essay by Nashalina Schrape
This is the story of a house build in 1938 in East Berlin, Germany. Four generations of my family have experienced the events of World War II, the Russian invasion and occupation fortified by the Berlin Wall in this house.
These photographs attempt to break open the legacy of my families personal trauma and the dark repressed memories of violence, loss, terror, separation and suppression.
There were always ghosts in the house. Breathing, moving, slowly. Changing the shadows. Whispers of movement of articles of clothing. They were memories. Not actual spirits. They were things that happened in the house in the past and they stayed. They didn’t leave. And they were thick. They were not loud. They were the things we did not talk about.
The house was built by my maternal grandparents in 1939, right before my mother was born. In Eastern Berlin. Four generations have been in this house. And even though furniture comes and goes, my great grandmother always sits in the front dining room. Quietly, alone, she is solemn and shut down.
My grandmother is laying on the sofa in the living room. Napping, she has been addicted to sleeping pills since the end of WW2. My mother is little and cold in the small bedroom upstairs. Her room is dark, she is trembling, and she is alone.
Both of my grandfathers are in the room that I sleep in when I visit. My step-grandfather is occupied with fixing the poorly made East German made vacuum cleaner, from the plant he works at. His breathing is labored because of shrapnel he sustained during WW2. My beautiful grandfather is tinkering on the large miniature schooner he made, he has no idea that WW2 and his SS uniform will bring about massive destruction and change generations to come.
The Russian soldiers are in the same room that my grandmother is napping in. They are spitting out seeds from the cherry tree that my grandparents planted when the house was built. The cherry pits leave stains on the green rug. This becomes my mother’s first memory ever. She must have been 3. I wonder if this is where they raped my grandmother.
Wait, then in the dining room, my mother is running hysterical, screaming, pleading not to be shot by my grandmother, who was only trying hard to fulfill the duties of a German Frau and commit suicide before she and her child ended up in Russian hands, as they were invading Berlin.
In other moments, my 6-year-old mother stands in between the oven and door, in the dark, for hours, downstairs, freezing, fingers numb, waiting for her mother to come home so she could start the fire. After the war was over, wood fire was scarce.
Up in the room that I sleep in, shelved away, is the one illustrated book that my mother looked at over and over again, every night at as a child, to help her leave her world and enter one that was charming, lovely, full of color and gold.
The upstairs master bedroom window forever holds the view of the field across the street and the path that the Germans marched in mass expulsion from what was Germany, but became Poland.
The corner in the living room has a radio on, declaring the separation of my family by a gigantic concrete wall accompanied by guards with automatic weapons, attack dogs and mines. That wall was two and a half blocks from the house. One day, without notice, the East German regime came and cleared what was the location of my grandfather’s burial site. That way the border control had a clear view of anyone approaching the wall. The location of my grandfather’s body is unknown.
The backyard is full of all the fruit and nut trees my grandparents had planted. And you can almost hear the squawk as the chickens laid their blue eggs with the magnificent orange yolks. The apples trees are full of bees and apples and are happy to get craggily and craggily.
The basement bomb shelter that has become a memorial for all of my step grandfather’s tools, holds despair and terror. It’s a space where, if you closed the door and stayed inside long enough, a person could lose their mind. The old wicker basket that used to hold my grandmothers linens has cracked.
The room off to the back right holds a quarter ton of coal. My mother still holds onto it, just in case Putin decides to cut off oil to Germany.
Oddly, I realize these presences are separate, alone and locked into eternity. But just how now makes sense to me. I knew so very little of my family. So much unspoken. And the unknown becomes more frightening.
I am little and everyone is celebrating my 11th birthday. My step grandfather has made me a birthday cheesecake, as per my request. A rather large heart made of raisin sits on the top along with two lite candles. They sing me Happy Birthday in English with very thick German accents. My mother remarried an American when I was 5. They are trying to honor my America-ness. It makes it even more heart-warming.
In this moment, I am content, safe and everyone else is happy. For a while. We are sitting in the garden, the birds are singing. I feed the pet turtles strawberries. The turtles were illegally harvested by my grandmother from the Bulgarian forest where she vacationed yearly. A typical Eastern bloc vacation. She is smiling.
All of these things stay in the house and garden. They never go away. I wonder about all the other things that stay in all the other houses in Altglienicke Berlin. In Berlin. Germany. Europe. The earth. I think we would do well to listen to them and honor them.
(by Nashalina Schrape)