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The Boston Phoenix Living in Oblivion

A moving memoir of postwar Berlin from a Jewish-American who emigrated in 1947

By Susan Miron

JUNE 14, 1999: 

LOVE IN EXILE: AN AMERICAN WRITER'S MEMOIR OF LIFE IN DIVIDED BERLIN by Edith Anderson, Steerforth Press, 404 pages, $29.50.

Bronx-born Edith Anderson left America for Allied-occupied East Berlin in 1947 at age 30, with little money, stumbling school French, and no German. Her Jewish parents were aghast that she was going "to the country of the Nazis" to live with her husband, Max Schroeder, a penniless German poet and long-time antifascist 16 years her senior, whom she had met in New York. Schroeder had recently been shipped back to Berlin with a group of left-wing German exiles, "a good riddance present from the State Department" after living for 12 years in virtual anonymity. Extroverted and high-strung, he was confident enough about himself that when Anderson said she wasn't in love with him, he countered, " 'You will be,' as if stating a simple truth written across the sky." And indeed, in 1951, Anderson wrote to her close friend Christina Stead, "The ups and downs of my marriage with Max would give some epic poet material for a lifetime."

Love in Exile is a gold mine of fascinating information about postwar German political history as well as the daily life of privileged (if later punished) members of the intelligentsia in postwar East Berlin. Much of the book's power derives from its intimate tone and the often-painful knowledge gathered firsthand, including portraits of intellectual and artistic friends before, during, and after their stays in prison.

If Peter Gay's recent memoir, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (Yale University Press), helps to explain why some Jews were reluctant to leave Germany, Anderson's memoir often takes a similar stance, defending the gullibility of those who stayed on under Communist rule after watching the unmerited trials, punishments, and expulsions of friends and colleagues, some of whom committed suicide. "If anyone apart from God had whispered the truth to us then, we would not have believed it. . . . There are moments in history and in a lifetime when shocking facts are rejected out of hand because they oppose an all-engulfing need."

One friend, the American writer Richard Wright, did perceive the "truth." Five years after his final break with the Communist Party, "still outraged and bleeding," he spoke of Communism as a love affair one never gets over. She remembers the utterly disillusioned Wright as "a one-man ghetto . . . chronically isolated . . . a spiritually wounded man, lost on earth."

Anderson's striking descriptions alone make the book worth reading. Discussing her husband's aging face in 1953, she notes, "His splendid forehead might have been battlements and his eyes manned holes in the castle masonry for all I could read what was in there from my side of the moat." Her landlady, living under the aristocratic, assumed name of von Lovtzow, has a figure that "by then was a bulging, ruptured mattress" with "hair degraded to tufts like absorbent cotton glued to the pink scalp." Max avers that this landlady is an ex-madam "with the same absolute certainty as when in the Rembrandt section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York he pointed out some fakes."

Anderson's scathing observations of postwar Berliners point up their provinciality, chauvinism, and stubborn national pride. She meets members of the East German government as if they were unpretentious neighbors long before "an unbridgeable, protocol-filled chasm" separates them from everyone else. She takes note of the passengers on the S-Bahn (trains), "immovable as waxworks," who refuse to budge from the spot where they first planted their feet. "They did not seem to regard each other as fellows or human, but as insensate obstacles. . . . Ruthlessly shoved, bumped, and jabbed at every station, they seemed to prefer an elbow in the gallbladder to yielding half an inch." Anderson imagines that her presence as "a carefree foreigner with halfway decent baggage" more than likely made East Germans feel worse about their impoverished condition. "They knew the world detested them; that was written in their faces and they wanted to hear no more about it."

Throughout, Anderson deftly illustrates Germany's pervasive denial of the war years. "Of course," a grocer tells her without a hint of irony, "Berlin was more beautiful before the war." "Before the war" and "in the old days," she tells us, were popular euphemisms deployed "to veil the twelve-year hiatus during which nothing had happened in Germany. . . . The gulf between their bullying Thousand Year Reich and its complete annihilation was so appalling that they simply looked the other way. A kind of mass hallucination replaced the mass support of Hitler."

Anderson encounters wives in ration lines who "were fiercely embittered against the Soviet occupants who nabbed their men as Nazis . . . while just over the border in West Berlin 'de-Nazified' families were getting a fresh and privileged start. We, on the other hand, so disgusted with Germans who claimed they never knew of the Nazi atrocities, were ourselves unaware that at least eleven 'former' concentration camps and prisons were not former at all, but were merely operating under Soviet control."

Although Edith Anderson's remarkable memoir ends in l960 (a year before the Berlin Wall was built), the unsettling details about Anderson's friends and their trials, about her often-exasperating marriage, about her frustrations and loneliness and the unremitting anguish of exile, make this a harrowing read that's as captivating as any memoir published recently. Anderson continued to live in Berlin until her death a month ago, not long after receiving a finished copy of this amazing book.

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