The following is a story from Rudolph Herzog's collection Ghosts of Berlin translated by Emma Rault. Rudolph Herzog, son of Werner Herzog, is an award-winning writer and director. His BBC/ARD documentary on humor in Hitler’s Third Reich became the basis of Dead Funny, named a book of the year by The Atlantic. His critically acclaimed Short History of Nuclear Folly, was made into a documentary. Emma Rault is a writer of nonfiction and an award-winning translator from German and Dutch.
The big decisions in life are binary—one or zero, plus or minus, kids or no kids, surgery or no surgery, to help or not to help. And often we don’t realize that we’re at a crossroads; only in retrospect does the moment become resonant with significance.
On a balmy day in April, two Ph.D. students were sitting in a garden in Steglitz preparing for a graduate course. Anne Berckenbrink and Alex Engel knew neither that one day they would be married nor that they were going to kiss in exactly three minutes’ time. If anyone had told them, they would have been utterly astonished.
“My grandma saw ball lightning once,” Alex said, looking pensively at a tuft of cloud drifting past in the sky.
“Does that even exist?” Anne asked skeptically.
“My grandmother was a chemist. She was very rational. I’m sure she didn’t imagine it.”
“What did it look like?”
“A crackling sphere, about the size of a handball. It came in through the open window.”
“That’s pretty scary.”
“The thing shot all around the room. My grandmother pressed herself up against the wall because she knew intuitively that it was dangerous.”
“And then what happened?”
“I don’t know. Probably the lightning just fizzled out.”
Alex wanted to tell her more about his grandmother, but a mild spring drizzle began to fall. Then the two young people were taken by surprise as billions of fat drops came pelting down out of the sky. Giggling and shrieking, they hurriedly gathered up their papers and fled to the living room. With flushed cheeks, they gazed back out through the open terrace door at the beech trees whose leaves were now buckling under the barrage of raindrops. Around them the world was filled with new sounds—the distant bark of the dog next door, the gurgling of the water in the gutters, a car tire plowing through a fresh puddle.
Anne noticed that Alex was standing a little closer to her than usual. They breathed in and out, their faces close together, at the mercy of the weather and their hormones.
Anne’s mother, Maria Berckenbrink, was standing in the doorway. “This place is haunted!” she shouted.
Anne’s long eyelashes, almost imperceptibly, fluttered.
She was waiting for a decision: yes or no.
Cautiously Alex drew her to him and kissed her. She let it happen.
Only after a small eternity did they break apart.
When the rain stopped, they stood motionless in the doorway, not speaking. A garbage truck came rumbling past outside. Beyond the invisible circle that enclosed Anne and Alex—the two of them in its center, gazing into each other’s widened pupils—everyday life in the Berlin suburbs continued as usual.
The first decision made, the couple now made a second—moving from the living room into Anne’s bedroom. As neither of them had anticipated this course of events, a succession of mishaps ensued: there were blinds that wouldn’t close, a bra that wouldn’t open, and the excitement had turned Anne’s hands ice-cold, which she felt terribly embarrassed about. She needn’t have worried, however, since Alex was completely preoccupied with the rest of her body.
In the midst of this intimate moment the door to Anne’s bedroom was flung open. The brass door handle hit the wall so hard that an oval piece of plaster fell clean off. Anne and Alex were jolted out of their trance; instantly they were transformed back into the self-conscious, cerebral people that they had been just moments before.
Anne’s mother, Maria Berckenbrink, was standing in the doorway.
“This place is haunted!” she shouted, her voice quavering.
Alex seemed paralyzed by the sudden shock; Anne felt him shrivel up inside her. She could have sunk through the floor in shame. What was her mother even thinking—how dare she? Anne wanted to yell something unspeakable at her, which would have been completely out of character, but Maria had already disappeared again.
“I’m so sorry,” Anne whispered to her brand-new boyfriend, who was rummaging through the sheets in search of his boxer shorts.
“I should go,” he mumbled.
“No, no, please stay.”
Even before Anne had had the chance to change his mind, footsteps could be heard outside the door. Just like in the circus, where the clown whose antics weren’t even funny the first time around pokes his head through the curtains for an encore, Maria stumbled back into the bedroom and turned on the light. In the glare of the four halogen spots, the couple’s nakedness was illuminated down to the last detail. In a reflex, Alex pulled the sheet over his hips, while Anne got up and covered her modesty with a bathrobe.
“What the fuck,” Alex mumbled.
“What’s taking so long?” Maria slurred at her daughter.
Anne could smell the alcohol on her mother’s breath all the way from the bed.
“Mama, have you lost your mind?”
“This is not a drill, this is the real thing!” Maria shouted, her voice cracking.
Her heavily powdered face seemed grotesquely contorted, like a Japanese Kabuki mask. She was a small, portly woman with dyed-blonde curls and raggedy fingernails painted red. A long time ago, people had found her to be a pleasant, sweet woman, but fate had dealt her a bad hand, and little by little the pleasant aspects of her character had receded and less likeable ones had risen to the surface.
If there was anything that drove Anne berserk, it was Maria’s penchant for theatricality.
Anne was already familiar with her mother’s moods when she was in this drunken state, and so she knew that kicking up a fuss would only make things much worse. Desperate to avoid that kind of escalation in front of her new boyfriend, she acquiesced to her fate, seething with anger.
“Okay, five minutes—not a second longer.”
Maria nodded; her smug satisfaction at the fact that her daughter was humoring her request was clearly visible. Anne turned back to face Alex, held up the five fingers of her right hand, and breathed a barely audible “wait!”
Barefoot, she followed her mother up to the second floor.
In contrast to Anne’s clean and tidy realm, utter chaos ruled here: books were stacked up in front of an overflowing bookshelf, a pile of dirty laundry beside them; in the kitchen, dirty dishes spilled out of the sink.
“Over there!” Maria said, pointing an accusing finger at the wall above her trashed desk. Two prints of photos she had taken on a cruise to the North Cape were hanging there. One showed a glacier slowly disgorging into a lake; the other showed the city of Bergen in the dawn light.
“What?” Anne asked, annoyed.
“Don’t you see? The pictures have been switched around.”
“Mama, cut it out, they’ve always been that way.”
“No, the one with the houses was on the left. Look closer.”
Anne’s eyes followed Maria’s outstretched index finger. Above the city panorama, which had been taken in landscape format, it was indeed possible to make out a pale spot on the wall which, with some imagination, could be from the portrait-format picture of the glacier.
“Maybe you switched them around yourself?” Anne offered spitefully.
Her mother’s eyes blazed with anger.
“Why would I have done that? That’s bullshit!” she said.
Anne shrugged her shoulders.
“Mama, I can’t help you.”
She turned abruptly on her heels and left Maria standing in the study, so plastered that she was having a hard time maintaining her balance and had to hold onto the back of a chair for support.
Alex came towards her in the hallway. He was fully dressed and had thrown his coat around his shoulders.
“Alex . . .”
“Next time, let’s meet at my place, okay?” he said gently.
The suited man leaned back in his armchair. A slight breeze blew through the tilted-open window and stirred the lace curtains. He turned his attention to Alex, who was sitting on the opposite side of the table.
“Herr Engel, allow me to ask you a question first.”
“Sure, go ahead, Herr Lorentz.”
“There’s a psychology exercise—I’m sure you’ve heard of it—in which the patient is given words that he has to spontaneously associate with other words—like duck/beak, or house/roof.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of that.”
“I’d like to play a round of this association game with you. The word that I’ve picked out for you is: Stasi.”
Alex kept an expressionless face.
“Well? What was it that came to mind?”
The two men—one old, one young—looked at each other wordlessly.
“Well, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, of course.”
“Yes, that’s what the Stasi is objectively. But what does Stasi bring to your mind subjectively? Big Brother? Betrayal? Snitches? You surely associate the Stasi with ugly images.”
“I look at it from an academic point of view, as a historian,” Alex replied neutrally.
“But you must have a personal opinion.”
“I’m writing a Ph.D. history thesis, not a bill of indictment. I’ve asked for this meeting because I’d like to learn firsthand what it was like to work for the Stasi.”
“Whatever you say. Alright, then, pay attention. I’ll tell you everything, but I won’t repeat myself.”
Alex looked at Lorentz expectantly.
I wasn’t recruited to the Stasi so much as following in my father’s footsteps.
“I signed up with the Stasi because of my father. He was in the GDR’s secret police himself. He’d been a Nazi, you know. Not by choice—he was first and foremost a socialist. But he was a surveying technician, one with a good reputation, so the Nazis, the Gestapo, took him to their headquarters. He was given a choice: join the party or lose his job. They wouldn’t release him until he made his choice either. Can you imagine how afraid my mother must have been?”
Alex shook his head lightly.
“The moment my father was a free man again, he began systematically to plan their escape. That’s how my parents ended up arriving in Moscow in 1935.”
“Why did your family come back?”
“That’s a fair question—after all, I suppose we could just have stayed in the Soviet Union, where my father was welcome to stay and had a job. But the war had left Germany a destroyed and morally bankrupt state. In the Western occupation zones the Nazis were able to seamlessly resume their pre-party careers. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, people were working toward a more just and honest system. Of course, this is the opposite of how history now remembers the GDR—as a place whose citizens were oppressed and penned in behind the Wall.”
Lorentz was now looking closely at Alex to see if he agreed.
“Go on,” Alex replied calmly.
“Anyway, my family returned to Berlin in 1946, and my father signed up with a construction brigade—basically a clean-up crew for the pile of rubble that Berlin had become—volunteering to do back-breaking work for a pittance. The job did allow him into every conceivable corner of the Russian sector, where he’d hear what people thought about socialism and the occupation. My father passed some of these things on. He wasn’t interested in spying on his countrymen, but did want to protect the young, fragile republic from a resurgence of Nazism. Eventually, the Ministry for State Security recruited him because they needed proven antifascists like him.
“As one of the very first students to attend the universities of the new nation I, too, wanted to help the GDR to flourish. I graduated with a degree in biology, but my real talent lay elsewhere—I had inherited my father’s knack for obtaining information. It was an ability that he encouraged me to put to use working for the Ministry for State Security. I wasn’t recruited to the Stasi so much as following in my father’s footsteps, for the same reasons he had joined himself: a sense of pride and a need to protect this fledgling new state.”
After the embarrassing disaster in Anne’s mother’s house, the two lovers decided to meet again on neutral territory. Alex chose the most innocuous place he could think of: the Mango Tango ice-cream parlor on Lilienthalstrasse. The walls of the newly opened store were clad in pastel-green tiles that came shoulder high. In the background, a guy who looked vaguely like Mark Zuckerberg was fiddling with a chrome espresso machine, foaming up one latte after the other for a clientele that seemed to consist largely of pregnant education majors.
Anne bent over to check that she was breathing. Her mother smelled like cheap whiskey.
Alex ordered one scoop of chocolate in a cup out of habit. Anne was feeling more adventurous and opted for one scoop of pistachio and one scoop of plantain.
“Is that good?” Alex asked suspiciously.
They went over to a high table in the corner.
“So, um,” Alex began carefully, resting his hand lightly on Anne’s arm—a feather-light touch. “Why are you living with your mother?”
The question embarrassed her.
“It’s hard, having to live at home again at 28. I want to finish my thesis without having to juggle a part-time job to make rent. It’s just temporary.”
“You don’t need to justify it, I was just curious.”
“And it kind of lets me keep an eye on her. She’s drinking more than ever. I’m afraid that . . .”
Anne faltered. She felt forlorn, suddenly overwhelmed by the problems that she was carrying around with her. Alex drew her to him. His girlfriend leaned into the warmth of the embrace.
“It’s okay,” he whispered gently.
After they’d been standing like that for a while, and their ice cream had melted in their cups, Anne’s mood lifted.
“My mom’s had a shitty life.”
“Because your stepfather walked out on her, you mean?”
“No, not just because of that. It started much earlier, when she was still back East. She was a dissident, and they made her life a living hell. When none of that had any effect, finally they stripped her of her citizenship. She didn’t want to leave at all—she had to leave all her friends behind, and then she was stuck by herself out here with a small child . . .”
“That sounds pretty rough.”
Anne put on a brave smile.
“She’s always been a rebel, my mom.”
“Good for her—only very few people had that kind of courage.”
“But now . . .” Anne swallowed. “She’s letting herself go too much.”
The next morning around 11, Anne unlocked the door of the small rowhouse and went inside. She had spent the night at Alex’s—a wonderful night. Now, the sharp scent of high-proof alcohol greeted her the second she stepped into the hallway. In these moments she felt a white-hot anger rise up in her. Why couldn’t her mother be like other mothers?
She tiptoed into the living room. Maria was lying on the sofa in a dressing gown, out cold. Her lipstick was smudged, her hair a tangled mess. It was hard to tell how long she’d been lying there like that—all night, at least. Maria herself wouldn’t be able to say, because she tended to black out after her binges. Anne bent over to check that she was breathing. Her mother smelled like cheap whiskey. Anne was repulsed by the whole picture. She despised this person, this wreck of a human being.
She decided right there and then to do a raid—a thorough one. She knew full well that Maria hid her bottles. She also knew where the largest depository was, because she had recently watched her mother open the grandfather clock and put something inside it. Sure enough, she found six whiskey flasks stacked up in there. She emptied the contents into the toilet and threw the bottles in the glass recycling container, where they shattered with a loud crash.
She knew there had to be other hiding places—there was nothing in the world that her mother feared more than the moment when her stash ran out. There was sure to be an emergency supply in her bedroom.
The first place Anne looked was under the bed, but that was too obvious. The wardrobe was in a state of utter chaos, but there was nothing in there either. She almost overlooked the orange plastic bottle on the bedside table. There was no reason for her mother to keep shampoo here, and so Anne had a sudden flash of inspiration. She unscrewed the top and sniffed the mouth of the bottle—this wasn’t hair-care product, it was Stroh rum, at least 100 proof. She walked over to the washbasin and poured the brown liquid down the sink. So what if her mother had to suffer, go through withdrawal? She had to suffer too, every day, every moment, every blink of an eye she spent in this house.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Anne shrank. Maria was standing right behind her, a mug in her right hand. She fixed her daughter with the glittering, wrathful gaze of a vengeance goddess from antiquity.
If there was anything that drove Anne—normally the epitome of gentleness—berserk, it was Maria’s penchant for theatricality. She snatched the mug out of her mother’s hand.
“What are you drinking?” she snapped.
“There’s maybe a teaspoon of coffee in there, the rest is whiskey.”
“Let me have my Irish coffee!” Maria said indignantly. She made a grab for her mug, which resulted in a minor tussle. Amid the push and pull, most of the contents spilled onto the carpet. When Anne refused to let go, her mother finally gave up.
“This is still my house, you know!” she yelled, her voice tipping into an affected falsetto.
“Mama, you’ll end up killing yourself with this shit!”
Maria pointed at the door, her eyes afire.
Anne left her mother standing in the bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her.
“Are we recording?”
“Just a moment, Herr Lorentz.”
“Seems like it was a whole lot easier back when we still used tapes . . .”
Alex placed the digital recorder between them.
“There! All set.”
In every society, there are citizens who staunchly refuse to comply with the rules.
With a nod, Alex indicated that Lorentz should proceed.
“Before we get started, there’s something I’d like to say.”
Lorentz cleared his throat and watched the corresponding spike in the sound wave on the recorder’s display.
“I don’t assume that people are by nature bad. When I say that I—like my father—worked for the GDR’s secret police because I wanted to protect our country from internal and external enemies, that doesn’t mean that I saw every upstanding citizen as a potential saboteur. You saw different things at different levels. Most people who enter the Stasi begin as an informal collaborator or IM. In this capacity, I considered it my primary responsibility to see to it that people who had wrongly ended up in the crosshairs of the authorities were exonerated.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Well, one time my handler at the ministry asked me to keep an eye on a fellow student who was suspected of disseminating prohibited literature. I knew this young man and liked him, and I was soon able to disprove the suspicions against him. The proceedings were dropped.”
“And how often did things like that happen?” asked Alex.
“Often enough that my conscience is clear. I’m even friendly today with a number of people I helped keep out of trouble. It wasn’t until my trial period as a rookie Blauer or ‘blue carder’ had ended, and I switched to a permanent position with the ministry, that I began to encounter people who were undeniably engaged in subversive activities. But just because the Stasi went after such people didn’t make us monsters. In every society, there are citizens who staunchly refuse to comply with the rules. The West focused on punishment, throwing people in jail after they broke the law. In the East, we were more interested in prevention, apprehending people who were likely to commit crime. We had our finger on the pulse of the population—we knew who to keep an eye on. It may not have been fair in the conventional sense, I freely admit that, but I don’t feel guilty about it.”
“At what point would you stop monitoring and take action?”
“If an IM reported a new member of a seditious group, we would summon the person to the local station ‘to clarify an issue.’ We’d make insinuations in the conversation, no more, without ever becoming explicit. In most cases that was enough to intimidate them into terminating their activities.”
“And what if it wasn’t?”
“In those cases, we would conduct house searches where we’d seize incriminating material. Not while the person was home, mind you. We operated very sensitively, always making sure to cover our tracks. Sometimes we would install surveillance equipment—bugs—so that we’d know in good time if there was danger on the horizon.
“Even when there was an overwhelming amount of evidence, there were still ways to avoid bringing in the judiciary. Rather than banging a gavel, we preferred to employ a rapier. If small interventions didn’t work, we cranked the dial, so to speak. The tame ones we frightened; the wild ones we broke.”
“When you wanted to take more . . . severe action, what did that mean in concrete terms?”
“You mean when we had to take more severe action. Usually we would try to isolate the person with targeted measures—not just in a physical sense, but also mentally, emotionally. You could totally incapacitate someone, erode their sense of self-worth. There was no fail-safe recipe for how you did that; we had to be creative. I came to see myself as something of an artist.”
“How do you mean?”
“There was one target subject who was deeply neurotic and paranoid. While she was away at work, we let ourselves into her apartment and moved things around: a chair to a different room, a different book on the bedside table, clean clothes in the laundry basket, and so on. The person in question ended up doubting her own sanity and finally had herself committed. We had neutralized her without ever becoming visible. I’m still proud of how elegantly we solved that case.”
Anne didn’t see her mother again until two days later. She’d been staying with Alex in the meantime, who lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Tempelhof. There was nothing she wanted less than to go back to the house in Steglitz, but that was where her books were, along with her clothes and some other things that she couldn’t do without in her day-to-day life.
She wanted to avoid running into her mother at all costs. Ideally she would like to disappear from her life altogether. Anne felt certain at this point that she wouldn’t be able to solve Maria’s problems. She couldn’t manage to pull her mother out of the morass; if anything, her mother was dragging her down with her. The situation was unsustainable.
Anne carefully unlocked the door and crept into the hallway like a burglar. There had been a change in the weather over the weekend and it was making everything seem even gloomier than it already was. In the living room the old grandfather clock struck two-thirty. Anne went down to her room and began packing underwear, paperwork, and makeup into a backpack. She went about it calmly and systematically. As she was pulling open the dresser to take out pants, socks, and her crimson cashmere pullover, there was a knock on the door. Anne flinched inwardly.
Clearly her mother had excellent ears.
When Anne opened the door, Maria was standing in front of her, her face streaked with tears. She looked pale, her cheeks sunken. Nothing was left of the imperious manner that made her so unbearable when she was drunk.
“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” she sobbed, by now completely hysterical.
The disdain that Anne had been feeling for her mother dissolved into thin air. Instead she was suddenly overcome by a terrible pity for her. Her heart contracted.
“Mama, I had to do it,” Anne said guiltily.
Maria threw her arms around her daughter’s neck, hanging there like a wet sack. Her shoulders were shaking. She smelled of stale sweat. Anne held her for a moment, and then carefully disentangled herself.
“You have to stop drinking this much. It’s killing you.”
“At least try.”
Maria pulled a crumpled handkerchief from her sleeve and began to elaborately wipe her nose. While she was doing this, her gaze suddenly fell upon an object that attracted her attention. She put the handkerchief down and smiled sadly, a large teardrop running down from her left eye and clinging to the tip of her nose.
“Look, I didn’t imagine it after all,” she choked out.
“What, mama?” asked Anne, perplexed.
“That there are ghosts here.”
Maria pointed at the framed butterflies that she’d brought back for her daughter from her first big trip. The iridescent creatures were pinned to black velvet.
“What do you mean? That’s just that old thing from Peru.”
“Pumpkin, look, they’re the wrong way around.”
Anne took a closer look at the rectangular glass box. Her mother was right—the little legs of the insects were pointing upward; their heads and antennae down. But so what?
Her mother had already lost so many brain cells to alcohol. Did Anne really have to indulge her every absurd whim?
“Someone probably just took them down to look at them and then hung them back wrong,” Anne said coldly.
“You mean that new boyfriend of yours? I don’t trust him anyway, with that research he’s up to—why is he doing that? Why dig around in the dirt?”
“Leave Alex out of it.”
“If it wasn’t him, it was the ghosts.” Maria wiped the tears from her face.
“Mama, there are bigger things to worry about.”
“Does your mother really believe in ghosts?” Alex asked, putting a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth.
“When she’s drunk she gets all kinds of crazy-ass ideas. But this one isn’t completely new. She told me once that her apartment in East Berlin was haunted—things disappeared and turned up again in the wrong places.”
“That reminds me of something I heard recently.”
“Just that not all ghosts are imagined. Sometimes there are tangible phenomena.”
“Like your grandmother and her ball of lightning, you mean.”
“Something like that. But lightning that also strikes.”
“You’re being cryptic.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Just forget I said anything.”
Mother and daughter are sitting on the sofa. The mother looks bleary-eyed, her face blotchy from crying.
“Why are you drinking so much?” the daughter wants to know.
“Because the ghosts are back.”
“There are no ghosts.”
“Then call it the past.”
“The past is over.”
“No. It’s just like it was back then.”
“What happened back then?”
“First the ghosts came, and then they threatened to take you away from me.”
The mother sobs.
“You were so small and helpless. How could they even say something like that?”
“They said either I packed my things and disappeared or they’d put you in a home.”
“I gave up my passport the next day.”
The daughter takes the mother’s hand.
They breathe deeply, in and out.
“Mama, it’s all such a long time ago.”
The daughter gives the mother a pleading look.
“Yes, but I still feel so lost sometimes. Please, please stay with me!”
“Alex doesn’t want to take me away from you.”
“He’s not the Stasi.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to lose you either.”
Mother and daughter hold on to each other and cry. After some time, the mother, exhausted, puts her legs up and falls asleep with the daughter gently stroking her hair.
Excerpted from Ghosts of Berlin by Rudolph Herzog, translated from the German by Emma Rault. Used with the permission of the publisher, Melville House. Copyright © 2019 by Rudolph Herzog. English translation copyright © 2019 by Emma Rault.