It was nearly 25 years ago, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and just before the failed state of East Germany officially died of shame. A contact took me to visit a small flat on the far side of the fast-disappearing wall. Someone, I was told, wanted to meet me. It all sounded excitingly cold war-ish.
There I was introduced to a woman whom I considered elderly (ie, younger than I am now). Her name was Salomea Genin, and she had one hell of a history. Born Jewish in Berlin in 1932, she got out with her family to Australia in the nick of time. Far from revelling in her escape from the Nazis, she chafed against mindless Australian blandness and an unhappy family life. She became a communist and kept pleading to be allowed to live in East Germany. In 1963, two years after the wall was built and with her German contemporaries literally dying to get out, what must have been a bewildered bureaucrat accepted her request.
Her belief survived the transition. She built a life for herself in East Berlin, teaching and translating, and was given some privileges. And every so often two men would come by for a chat, and ask her regular, inconsequential-seeming questions about what she did and who she met. This went on for many years.
It took me a while to grasp why I was here. Eventually, I asked if I could take notes. “Of course,” she said evenly. “I know what you do for a living.” Here was one of the 1990s' most hated villains, a real-life informant for the Stasi secret police, and one with perfect, Aussie-twang English. She was repenting, and had chosen me as her confessor.
She told me of the long process of disillusionment, of how she had finally rebelled against her Stasi minders when they asked her to befriend two writers suspected of having an illegal printer. But it was only six months before the wall fell that she finally returned her Communist Party card. “I didn’t know they were putting people in jail for ideas,” she explained sadly, “because they weren’t doing it to me.”
And so I wrote the story, the world moved on, and I hardly thought of Salomea Genin until last week and all the publicity over the wall’s anniversary. Quite likely she had died, but you never know. So I casually googled the name.
Not only was she alive, aged 82, but she had her own website publicising her two books—a family memoir, “Shayndl and Salomea”, and one called “Ich folgte den falschen Göttern” (“I followed false gods”), which needed no explanation. So I tracked her down: she was well and still living in the same East Berlin flat, in an area now full of artists and tourists, not secret policemen. And she remembered me, though not kindly. She claimed that I had misrepresented her, but said so without rancour, in the tone of one accustomed to being disappointed by those she trusted.
It was a bad moment to speak: she was on a trip to America (my, the world had moved on) but she agreed I could call again after she got back home. And when I did, she was more relaxed. I asked what was wrong with the article. “You said I was motivated by money and privileges,” she replied. I said I didn’t ever believe that, and that I hadn't written it. And I did have the cutting in front of me. So she retreated, and we had a long, amiable conversation. We went through her story again and of how in 1982, “I realised I was living in a police state and that I had helped to make it so.”
What I don’t remember her saying originally was that this revelation drove her close to suicide. She told me now that she had sought psychiatric help and came to realise that communism had been a surrogate for her dysfunctional family: “A traumatised child found a substitute mother in the GDR and a substitute father in the Stasi.” Now she has rediscovered both her Jewishness and her Australian-ness. By the end we were talking more about Yiddish nuance than about the secret police.
She is not without Östalgie, the distaste for modern capitalist excess that characterises many ex-East Germans. And she is very fond of quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In a country where the old still have many, many dark secrets, she has had the courage to face her own. And I think she too has found some serenity.
I asked whether she thought communism was an inherently false god or whether its principles had been corrupted. She had evidently thought long and hard about this. “Only when we learn to like ourselves can we learn to like other people. And then, only then, maybe then, this wonderful idea of socialism might come about.”