On Tuesday morning, Konrad and Charlotte took the five o’clock train to Rostock as usual. They didn’t have any more luggage than usual. I was asleep and only woke up when Konrad stood over my bed. He was looking at me intently. “Carry on sleeping, Lise,” he said. A yellowish-pink ray of light was falling through the open door into the room. Charlotte was leaning against the door in a white coat. I was still so sleepy that everything seemed to be behind a tight-knit gauze that blurred sounds and images.
Konrad sat down on my bed, and in the dawn light, I saw his dark features drawing nearer. “All the best, Lise,” he said and kissed me on the mouth.
Uli walked through the door that connects to the living room, wearing just his pajama trousers. His naked, brown torso was gleaming. He started singing a song at the top of his lungs: “A miracle! A miracle has happened . . . !” Konrad stood up quickly from the edge of my bed. “Jim, you old mudslinger!” sang Uli. He’d read Elmer Gantry over Easter. When he had these fits of clownery, he drove the whole family to despair. For hours on end, he would sing passages from books and silly rhymes to his own tunes. He punched Konrad on the shoulder. “See you next Monday, old man. You can take me out to dinner again.”
Konrad said nothing. Charlotte waved to me from the doorway. The light had settled on her amber hair. Outside, my father was pottering about. He stumbled over a suitcase and swore, laughing. It was almost like it always was when we said goodbye to each other after the holidays—shouting and chaos and happy laughter. Father called out, “Come on, children! The train won’t wait for you. Don’t make a fuss. You’ll see each other again in July.” We heard him clatter down the stairs and unlock the front door.
In the door frame, Konrad turned back to me once more, but his features were hard to make out. I fell back into the pillows and closed my eyes contentedly. In the room next door, Uli was belting out a Mexican song. He’d watched The Proud and the Beautiful three times because he’d loved it so much. I lay still, my hands crossed over my chest, and heard a hushed, rapid exchange of words in the hallway between my mother and Konrad.
Someone unlatched the door in the hallway. And suddenly I heard an unfamiliar, faltering voice saying, “Goodbye, goodbye,” and it took me a few seconds to realize it was my mother’s. I went cold and rigid with shock. The door slammed, and there were hasty steps down the steps; Charlotte’s spiky, brisk heels clicked away. There was no sound or movement in the hallway, but I knew that my mother was standing there, and I could feel my heartbeat through the bed covers.
I can still hear her faltering voice today. My mother must have been the only one who had known what Konrad was planning. As it later turned out, he’d carefully been preparing his escape for a long time.
As I squatted on the shoe cabinet in the kitchen, crying and watching my tears fall onto the gray fabric of my skirt, I thought: I don’t care if people judge me. I never want to hear my mother saying goodbye to one of her sons who, a few hours later, will cross the border that divides not only town from town or countryside from countryside. I never want a brother to kiss me on the lips at dawn and whisper, “All the best, Lise,” then leave my family, my country and, as an unavoidable consequence, my life.
In the beginning, Konrad’s letters all contained the same phrases, over and over: uncertainty . . . traitor complex . . . homesickness . . . (“. . . but my friends at the shipyard have gone through the same thing—I’ll get over it too.”) My mother said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to him, honestly, but I hope he doesn’t make it over there and has to come back.” As if my elbow-man brother won’t make it, I thought. As if he would crawl back on his knees by choice, no matter what happened.
At the end of July, he and his wife were flown out to Hamburg. There, in the transit camp in Finkenwerder, they had to share a room in a barracks with two other families. They hung up woollen blankets that divided the room into three. Once they sent us a photograph: Konrad, impeccably dressed, and next to him, Charlotte, her hair silver-grey and painstakingly backcombed. They were sitting in front of a bare, whitewashed wall with a camp bed on the right and a military locker on the left piled high with suitcases and all kinds of kitchen utensils.
“That’s insane,” said Uli, half-amused, half-angry. My father ripped up the photo. He’s a man for whom some aspects of our republic are better conveyed in figures and planned targets. He’d calculated the cost of his son’s defection and had worked out to the last pfennig how many thousands of marks math student Konrad had cost us and set it off against the work he’d done, now a qualified engineer, at the Neptune Shipyard in Rostock. “He’s a crook,” Father said, “for that reason alone,” showing us the yawning gap between give and take.
From the shamefaced lines in Konrad’s letters from Hamburg we could read that they were having a tough time. The friends that my brother had made at the German Shipyard turned out to be unreliable. Charlotte started work selling subscriptions to a woman’s magazine door-to-door, and the publisher recommended she begin her pitch with the phrase, “I’m a refugee from the East Zone . . .” She managed to stomach the third-rate hotels, exhaustion, and painful feet for two weeks, after which she couldn’t bear the humiliation of half-opened doors and suspicious faces a day longer.
They returned to their room with its walls made of woollen blankets, behind which the lives of strangers were conducted loudly with embarrassingly audible details, strangers whom they regarded as common, vulgar people from their academic vantage point. But they couldn’t remain aloof or keep their distance all those months. There was no peace, not a minute of solitude. The others could smell what they fried on their stove in the evenings and could hear what they talked about: they were ever-present, invisible eavesdroppers on their nervously restrained caresses.
They complained to the camp manager. He said they should have realized that the path to the West (did he dare say “the path to freedom”?) would mean sacrifice. They became irritable and argumentative, quarreling with “that riffraff” through the woollen walls and bickering with each other over little things that, in the past, they’d dismissed with a wave of the hand or extinguished with a kiss. Once, in a fit of anger and despair, Konrad hit his wife. Life in the barracks ate into their love. They would have divorced, had separation not meant failure and capitulation.
Excerpted from Siblings by Brigitte Reimann. Copyright © Aufbau Verlage GmbH & Co, KG, Berlin 1963 & 2009. Translation copyright © Lucy Jones, 2022. By arrangement with Transit Books.