Colorado Bookshelf: Q&A with the Author of "Letters from Berlin"

January 25 2013, 12:30 PM

Much of my family comes from Eastern Europe (my father was born in Russia; my grandparents were from Russia, Poland, and Romania). Being Jewish meant that I had a duty to "never forget" what happened there during WWII. But even with all the stories I heard from my family, the books I read (The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, Night), I can't recall ever hearing about the experiences of German citizens. Yes, the Nazis persecuted myriad nationalities and races, but their own people, too?

Boulder author Kerstin Lieff (pictured, right) brings that untold narrative to light in Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship (Lyons Press, October 2012). Lieff's mother, Margarete Dos (pictured, below left), came of age in Hitler's Berlin. She rarely mentioned her experiences until Lieff convinced her to share them—through hundreds of hours of taped interviews, uncovered family archives, and trips to Germany.

Letters from Berlin is a page-turner simply for the rare perspective it offers on an infamous time. But it resonates deeply because the story is told through the eyes of a child, then a teenager, then a young woman living through daily bombings, work as a Red Cross nurse, and the horrors of a labor camp. It's a much-needed and welcome addition to the historical record. I caught up with the author in advance of her book signing and Q&A next Wednesday at the Tattered Cover Colfax(7:30 p.m.).

5820: How much time did the research take?

Kerstin Lieff: An inordinate amount of time—three years. It took me three years to sit with her and have her tell me the story, so the book took six years. I didn’t even really know where to begin. I relied really heavily on her cousin, Axel Dahlberg, to verify many things, especially eastern Germany, places I hadn’t been. He was very helpful and yet his personality sometimes came through. He experienced the war from his own side. I almost wish I had hired a professor or something to bounce things off. My next thing was just to read as much as I could. The books that spoke to me were the most were Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse; and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. 

There were moments when I caught mistakes in [my mother's] story line and made the decision to stay true to her story. She’s retelling this 60 years later. Many of these things happened when she was a child. It needed to stay her story, so as often as I could, or wherever I found mistakes, I just end-noted them.

5280: This perspective on WWII isn't one we hear about often. Why do you think that is? 

KL: My mother always said that the German side of the story wasn’t told because they lost the war. I think it’s almost a naïve answer. Yes, they lost the war, but Germany also perpetrated such an evil. I think in our minds we want to see that war in such a black-and-white way and that’s the way we've done it. Even in Germany there are many things that are blanked out and not really talked about. We want to forget about the horrors of that time. We Americans like to see only two sides of it: One is the very evil side and the other is the heroes. We are part of the heroes' side, so that’s the story we tell. Maybe, sometimes,  atrocities like that take a long time before the truth can come. We sort of have to remove ourselves from it to be able to speak about it objectively. We can now finally hear these stories and be objective and not have a bias toward it, but just listen and hear what was said and accept it.

Even for my mother, her stories would not have been heard had she told them in the '50s and the '60s. This story, her story, my whole life, it was always just sort of this secret thing. I just knew that my family had a different story and it wasn’t the story we heard in school and somehow you just didn’t tell these things. I almost feel like her story wanted to be told. I just happened to be the vehicle.

5280: How typical do you think your mother’s story is?

KL: I think she had more experiences than many people. I’ve spoken with many Germans over the years, and they experienced segments. The fact that she was in Berlin, she experienced a lot more firsthand bombings every night. I don’t think her life in the Gulag [a Soviet labor camp] was typical. If you take the collection of everything that happened to her—that her university was bombed when she was there, that she lived in Berlin and Berlin was the most bombed, and that she ended up in a Gulag after—it's possibly atypical of most Germans.

5280: Is there an anecdote or experience that stands out the most from your conversations with your mother? 

KL: It was when we were in Berlin together. My mother was so stoic. Every day we’d go, "OK, today we’re going here and I’m going to show you the school I went to and the bakery shop was that was bombed." She had her checklist of everything she wanted to show me. One day we found the boys' school that had become the Lazarett [army hospital] that’s now a boys' school again. [She'd say] "Look where the bricks are new. That’s where that Stalin's organ [nickname for a type of rocket] was shot into the side of the building." We opened the door and walked in. School was in session. She goes, "Oh my, the windows, the glass is back." It was almost like she reverted back to that time. We stood there and looked out the windows and there’s a playground out there, and she pointed to where the swing set was and she said, "That’s where we had the pit where we buried the dead bodies." She pointed to sand area: "That’s where we had another pit where we collected rain water and we used that water to wash our bandages and collected water for the teas we made." And then she pointed up to the wall: "That's where the grenade came through and killed one of the nurses." I went over and felt the wall and, sure enough, I could feel where the plaster had been repaired. I wonder if the children know what happened in this building.

5280: What did you learn from hearing your mother’s stories?

KL: Writing them was a very emotional process for me. I learned to forgive her as a mother. Like most children...having grown up in an immigrant family, she wasn’t the nicest mother. But having spent all that time telling her story from just the side of a human being with no judgment about who she was toward me really was cathartic. For all her mistakes, it was a huge forgiveness on my part toward her as a mother and accepting her as a person who did what she could to survive.

I do, often, remember things my mother said. In particular, one line, and I think about it most often when things aren't going well in my own life. I remember the story of the "half-frees," the Kulaks who lived just outside the Gulag, who could never leave. She considered herself better off, because she still had hope. I'd love to capitalize that word–Hope—it just seemed like the one thing she did have. And I think, if she could survive all that, and be in the Gulag and still think the one thing she has going for herself is Hope, surely I can do the same.

Follow assistant editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.