Sunday, November 2, 2014

Letters From Berlin: A Review of Sorts

I had no desire to go back to school – none.  I was done. My friend Diana, however, thought differently.  For years, I had been writing and running headlong helter-skelter down one dead-end after another. It was tiring, frustrating and depressing to exert so much time and energy only to amass a Mt. Everest sized pile of rejection letters. So this past spring, she gently nudged me to consider returning to school to study creative writing. Okay she didn’t nudge, it was more like she sweetly coaxed me to the edge of a cliff (how about we meet up for dinner) and then gently shoved (how about this low residency writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson?) me over the edge. I fell headfirst, the wind knocking my breath out of my chest so that I couldn’t even scream as I landed feet first in a campus no more than twenty miles from where I live. It all happened so fast – one minute I was camping in the Catoctin Mountains with my son, the next I was scrambling to read five books and write two essays so that I could attend my first residency program during the first week of August. I wasn’t prepared, but somehow not being prepared has always worked in my favor.

            Anyway, I admit that my biggest reason for deciding to follow through and enter this creative writing program was the hope of making contacts and eventually finding a home for one of my stories with an agent or at a publishing house. Already having two master’s degrees to grace my resume, I wasn’t as concerned with the credential as I was with the practicality of the experience. How can I make my writing better? What do I need to do to make it more marketable? As a result, the biggest question I had upon arrival was – Have any graduates of the program gotten anything published? One of the professors assured me that several students had published but hearing that it was done is completely different than seeing it done.

            And then I met Kerstin Lieff. One evening after dinner, we – the writing students at FDU – were congregating on the lawn outside the Mansion in preparation of that night’s readings. The air was warm, but a slight breeze made it comfortable. The moon was nearly full and, though it was not yet dark, it was clearly visible in the sky. I stretched out on the grass, and rested my head on my shoulder bag, closing my eyes to better concentrate on the reading. One of the professors introduced Kerstin Lieff - a recent graduate of the program - to the audience. In the introduction, I learned that Lieff had worked on her thesis with one of the professors who would be mentoring me in the upcoming semester. I listened a little closer. Her thesis, Letters From Berlin had been published in 2013, and it was from this published work that she was going to read. Bingo! It was true. There was hope. Perhaps for once, I was exactly where I needed to be.

            As Lieff began reading her voice captivated me. One point in her narrative, as she was describing the allied planes that bombed Berlin, as if on cue, planes – headed who knows where – began flying overhead (I nearly flinched expecting a bomb to fall right on top of me). The timing could not have been more perfect. When the reading finished, I rushed up to purchase a copy of the book, totally breaking my vow of not spending any money on books that I could easily borrow from the library. But I couldn’t help it. I felt possessed. It wasn’t just that wanted to read the book. I needed it as proof, a reminder that perhaps my goal was not unrealistic.  With book in hand, I then did something very uncharacteristic, something I have never done before. I approached Lieff, and with a tone of excitement that I’m certain made me sound like a teenage girl, I asked her if she would sign it. She did and later that evening I had the opportunity to chat with her about her experience writing the book.

            While I had wanted to dive into the book immediately, there were other books and essays that I had to read for class. Since I wanted to be able to enjoy Letters From Berlin without the maddening sound of a ticking clock reminding me that there were things to read and papers to write, I put it off until I could budget a fair amount of time to read it at my leisure. And that time finally came earlier this month.

            I enjoyed the memoir immensely, but I also learned a lot from it. I love history and I’ve read a fair amount about World War II but the perspective of this story was new for me. I’m used to reading books that demonize Germany, books that conflate the German people with Hitler.  As a result, it is easy to forget there were indeed innocent civilians struggling to survive on a day to day basis. 

Letters From Berlin begins with a touching introduction in which Lieff explains why she felt compelled to hear her mother’s (Margarete Dos) story and how she convinced her mother to speak of her experiences during the war. What follows is an emotional tale of one girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood in Nazi Germany. Lieff does a spectacular job of describing the misery and fear that were a persistent part of life during the war.  From hiding in the bunkers during the carpet bombing to tending to young boys – so young they were tripping over uniforms way too big for them – Lieff brings the horror alive for the reader. And when the war ended, the nightmare was only beginning. Taking a train supposedly bound for Sweden, Dos found herself deceived. Instead of tasting freedom in Scandinavia, she ended up trapped in a Russian prison camp. After experiencing the misery of life in the Gulag, Dos prayed for death until one kind doctor revived her hope and helped her get back to Germany.

I very much recommend this memoir to anyone who is interested in memoirs, historical fiction or the history of Germany and World War II. However, I do totally admit that my opinion regarding this book is biased. For me it’s not just an engrossing memoir, it is a symbol of what I hope to achieve by the time I graduate. So thank you Kerstin for giving me something to strive for over my next two years at FDU. Won’t it be wonderful if in two years I can return to the university, published memoir in hand, and do a reading from it that just might inspire some new first semester student.

If you are interested, more information regarding Letters From Berlin can be found here: