Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

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