Mina’s hands trembled visibly as she gave the letter to Willie and took a seat opposite him on the sofa.
“Here,” she said. “You open it. I’m too nervous.”
“Don’t be nervous,” he reassured her. “Everything’s going to be fine. I just know it.”
Willie took the envelope and extracted the contents – a single neatly typed sheet. He cleared his throat and read:
“Dear Fraulein Schneider, on behalf of the 1961 Berlin Fashion Expo Committee, it gives me great pleasure to inform you that your designs will be among those included in this year’s exhibit.”
Before he could finish, Mina snatched the letter from his hands and read the remainder herself. Willie couldn’t help but laugh as her eyes darted wildly back and forth across the page.
“I told you there was no reason for alarm,” he said at last.
“Willie, I can’t believe it. It’s finally happening. They liked my designs.”
“Why wouldn’t they? Haven’t I always told you how talented you are?”
Mina let the letter fall onto the sofa as she sprang up from her seat and threw her arms around him. Willie embraced her and kissed her tenderly.
“I’m so proud of you, my dear. Your career is about to take off. This calls for a celebration. Grab your coat. Come on, we’re going out.”
They stepped into the hallway and Willie locked the door behind him. The familiar odor combination of heating oil and boiled vegetables permeated the air. In the dim, drab light these smells were strangely comforting to Mina. It was the home she and Willie had shared for several years and she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
They left the building and stepped into the cool night. Before long it would be summer but the evening breeze felt invigorating. The streets of Berlin teemed with people and Willie was aware of a palpable tension. He could see it in the faces of passersby. The city was rapidly changing and not for the better. Everyone seemed on edge lately. There was so much talk of Ost und West, of us versus them. For tonight, Willie was determined to focus on Mina. They rounded the corner and the neon lights of the local beer garden beckoned them.
“We’re in luck,” he said. “I see two seats at the bar.”
Willie ushered Mina inside. They took their seats, and a friendly bartender greeted them. “What can I get you?”
“Two beers, please,” Mina said.
The bartender quickly wiped the bar surface with a damp cloth before placing down the drinks.
“We’re celebrating,” Willie said loud enough for other patrons to hear. “My girlfriend has just learned that her work will be featured in this year’s Fashion Expo.”
Several people congratulated Mina, but the sudden attention made her blush. She was confident in her abilities, but the idea of celebrity was somewhat uncomfortable.
They lingered over their first pints for nearly an hour, musing about what the future held in store for her. Willie finished his beer first and ordered a second round for them to enjoy in relative quiet, despite the small confines. As the night wore on, more people crowded into the cramped establishment. Willie turned to Mina.
“Let’s finish our drinks and get out of here,” he said.
She set her glass down on the bar. “Yes, let’s.”
They gathered their coats and pushed their way toward the door. Willie slipped his hand around Mina’s waist. As they headed down the street, a familiar voice called out.
“I didn’t expect to see the two of you tonight.”
Mina and Willie looked up to find their friends, Paul and Luisa, headed in their direction. The two couples met up and exchanged greetings.
“What are you doing so far from home?” Mina asked.
Paul smiled at Mina. “Luisa convinced me to get out of the apartment, so we decided to take the bus across town and visit the old neighborhood.”
“How is life in the French sector?” Willie asked. “It must be quite a change from our humble surroundings.”
Luisa answered for both of them. “We were lucky to find a beautiful apartment in the heart of everything. Although I’m not sure how long we can afford it. But, enough about us, what brings the two of you out on a week night?”
“We’re celebrating.” Willie’s chest puffed with pride as he drew Mina closer to him. “We just learned today that her designs will be part of the Berlin Fashion Expo.”
“That’s wonderful news,” Luisa said. “Mina, I’m so happy for you.”
“Thanks, Luisa. I appreciate your vote of confidence. It’s getting chilly. Say, why don’t we go back to our apartment? I can put on some coffee and we can catch up.”
“I’d like that,” Paul said.
Luisa nodded in agreement.
After a brief walk, the four of them entered the industrial-looking building and climbed the stairs to the tiny flat.
“Give me your coats,” Mina said. “I’ll put on some coffee, and see if we have any apple cake left.”
She stepped into the kitchen to put on the coffee while Willie led their guests to the small table that served double duty as a place to work and to eat.
As Willie and Paul began talking, Luisa picked up a large book, held it in her lap, and began slowly turning the pages.
“Is this your sketchbook?”
Mina looked over her shoulder. “It’s just one of them.”
Luisa studied the work closely. Each page contained a detailed pencil or ink drawing next to which small fabric swatches were taped. Mina brought the coffee and cake to the table and Luisa set the book carefully aside.
“I’m always sketching,” Mina said. “Once I finish a design, I look for small swatches and pair them with the outfits I think they should be made of. It helps me to visualize the final piece.”
“Mina doesn’t look at things the way most people do,” Willie said smiling.
Paul took a sip of coffee and gave Willie a friendly slap on the back.
“What’s new with you, old man? I guess you’re living the highlife now that you’re a big wig working for the government.”
“Believe me, it’s not nearly as privileged or exciting as you make it sound, but yes, I am putting my engineering skills to good use. Not to mention the steady paycheck is one less thing to worry about.”
“You really landed a good gig. That’s part of the reason Luisa and I moved across town. There are more opportunities for us among the French. I’m surprised you couldn’t find a flat near us, where Mina would have more access to the arts.”
Mina was quick to interject as she refilled the coffee cups. “I can do my work anywhere. My sketchbooks are portable. Besides, Willie’s office is just several blocks away so he doesn’t need a car. He can walk to work in no time if the weather cooperates.”
Paul recognized her logic. “Excellent point as always, Mina. Just the same, don’t you see what the SED has done since they’ve come to power? They’re destroying the city and poisoning the minds of young people with their foolish Soviet ideology. With each passing year, they tighten their grip. Art and culture are disappearing from Berlin, especially here in the eastern sector.”
“Do you really think it’s that dire? I mean, don’t politicians come and go, good and bad alike?”
“I’m afraid Paul is right,” Luisa said. “The western sectors have always been more receptive to cultural pursuits than the east. Things will only get worse here before they get better.”
“But they will get better.” Mina countered. “They will, right?”
Paul looked to Willie. “What’s your take on the situation?”
“It’s hard to say. Truthfully, I understand your position, Paul, but I tend to agree with Mina. Things will eventually revert to normal.”
“I wish I shared your optimism.”
The Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Deutchlands, the SED, was a political party established in 1946. At first, it appeared similar to any other political party. With time, it began to displace smaller groups, and before long, was a full-fledged communist party not too unlike other parties in Russia. The SED promoted Marxist-Leninist leanings, rejected liberalism of any kind, and even mandated Russian language courses in the local schools. After recent elections, the party continued to impose further sanctions on the country. Paul bristled anytime someone mentioned the party’s name.
Willie did his best to steer the conversation away from current events, and the friends spent the remainder of the evening talking about less pressing matters. In the end, Willie and Paul paired off to discuss local sporting events, while Mina and Luisa moved to the sofa and sat together with one of the sketchbooks between them, speculating about the latest fashion trends. Mina reached for the coffee pot but it was empty.
“It’s getting late,” Luisa said at last, bringing the conversation to an end. “We’d better grab our coats if we want to get the last bus home.”
Everyone brought their cups and plates to the kitchen and deposited them in the sink.
“Leave them, and I’ll wash up in the morning,” Mina said.
She and Willie walked their guests to the door and said goodnight.
“It was good to see you both,” Paul said. “I hope I didn’t put a damper on things earlier.”
“Not at all,” Willie replied. “Let’s not wait so long until we see each other again. Good night and get home safely.”
With a final wave, Mina closed the door behind her friends and walked back into the kitchen.
“Paul certainly has a bleak outlook on the future. I didn’t realize he disliked the SED so much.”
“That’s just Paul being Paul,” Willie said. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. It’s late; I’m going to bed. You coming?”
“I’ll be in shortly,” Mina said before kissing him goodnight.
It was still dark when Willie awoke, and he was careful not to disturb Mina. Reluctantly, he set a bare foot on the floor. The cold linoleum sent an icy shock through his body as he made his way into the bathroom and prepared for the day. He emerged and found Mina sitting upright in bed.
“I tried to be quiet,” he whispered apologetically. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I was already mostly awake.”
“Mostly awake?” Willie chuckled. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“I’ll make you some coffee,” Mina said as she started to get out of bed.
“No. Stay there. I’ll grab something at work.”
“In that case, I’m going back to sleep,” she said, nestling back under the covers.
Willie let her snuggle under the duvet and quietly crept out of the room. He had more than enough time to stop at the nearby café and grab a coffee before heading into the office. By the time Willie reached the municipal building where he worked, there were still more than ten minutes before he had to clock in for the day. The company that employed him frowned upon tardiness, and he always made certain to show up with plenty of time to spare. He walked toward his office and one of his colleagues approached him.
“Good morning, Willie. Thank goodness you’re here. There’s a meeting this morning in the auditorium. Mr. Chairman is waiting for us.”
Willie’s employer was a formidable older man known by everyone simply as Herr Vorsitzender – Mr. Chairman. He was a staunch supporter of the SED and had little patience for anyone whose views differed from his own.
“Got it. Thanks.” Willie replied.
“Why this meeting?” Willie asked himself, and “why so early in the morning?” Typically a gathering of this sort was intended to update everyone about ongoing projects while reminding them not to rest on their laurels. A similar meeting had just been held several weeks ago, so it seemed strange that the engineers would be required to convene again so soon.
A set of double doors opened into a stark room where a number of men were already gathered. They chatted in low tones amongst themselves and paid little attention to Willie as he entered. His coworkers were generally affable, but not the sort of people he would typically socialize with outside of work. The space was chilly and drab. Overhead, rows of fluorescent lights cast a garish illumination that made everyone underneath them appear sallow. Spying a card table with a coffee urn, Willie walked over to it only to discover, much to his dismay, that the only coffee available was instant. No cream. No sugar. Grabbing a paper cup, Willie tossed in a spoonful of the powder and filled the cup with tepid water. It smelled dreadful and didn’t taste much better. He set it down and returned to his place. He sat in a cold, uncomfortable plastic chair as the meeting came to order.
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Chairman began, “we’re here today to discuss the precarious future of our beloved country. To the east, we have order, dedication, and discipline. Our citizens strive to live with pride and dignity in a nationalized and stable society. Like anyone else, we want prosperity. But prosperity must be regulated. To the west, we see chaos, a libertine and corrupt world that threatens the values and ideals we want to safeguard. How long will it be before the world we know ceases to exist?”
Willie was caught off guard by the nature of Mr. Chairman’s message. It was the last thing he expected to hear. His thoughts drifted back to the unsettling conversation he and Paul had the night before about the changing face of Berlin and its uncertain future.
A man sitting several rows ahead of Willie raised his hand before standing up. “Can we not open more schools, better schools, here in the Soviet sector to keep our children close to us? Can we not provide better employment opportunities closer to home that will keep our workers here in our area of Berlin?”
Nods of approval followed as the man sat down.
“Unfortunately,” came the response from the podium, “it is not that simple. Each day, Berliners are subject to western propaganda on the radio, the TV, and in newspapers. They are being systematically poisoned by the west. If our beloved citizens cannot discipline themselves, we must set up parameters, as any parent would for their children.”
Herr Vorsitzender continued. “We have learned much from our Soviet brothers. Since the end of the war, they have established order. Everyone in the Soviet Union knows their place. They are provided for by the government. Surely, our own citizens deserve the same consideration.”
A round of applause resounded through the room. Mr. Chairman raised his hand long enough to silence the crowd. He continued his rhetoric for another hour or so. Willie couldn’t be certain of the time that had elapsed and was afraid to glance down at his watch.
“Let us take a brief intermission before we proceed. Gentlemen, five minutes to stretch your legs.”
Once reassembled, Mr. Chairman began droning on again about the evils of western influence. The lecture was insufferable and Willie felt less like an audience participant and more like a child being reprimanded by a very stern authority figure. What was the point of this endless rambling? “He’s already made his point, hasn’t he?” Willie muttered under his breath. Glancing around the room he noticed that everyone but him seemed unfazed by the man at the podium. Aside from shifting occasionally in their seats, the other attendees were held in rapt attention. Willie’s backside began to ache from the unforgiving chair and he could feel a dull pain radiating down the backs of his legs. The harsh lighting in the room made it impossible for him to daydream and so all he could do was think ahead to what the rest of the day held in store for him.
Eventually, Mr. Chairman offered his closing remarks before ending his political tirade and releasing his employees back to their respective jobs. Willie’s head was still spinning.
No sooner had he returned to his desk, than Willie was once again approached by one of his colleagues.
“Mr. Chairman would like to see you right away.”
Willie placed his briefcase on his desk and walked back down the corridor to Mr. Chairman’s office.
“You wanted to see me, Herr Vorsitzender?”
“Yes, come in, and please close the door behind you.”
Willie entered the spartan office and took a seat across the desk from his employer.
“Willie,” Mr. Chairman began, “I have a matter of great importance that I wish to discuss with you. I hope I can count on your complete cooperation and discretion.”
Willie seldomly interacted closely with Mr. Chairman, so this peculiar invitation caught him off guard.
“Of course you can count on me. What can I do for you?”
“Willie,” Mr. Chairman began, “did you pay close attention to what I said earlier this morning? I hope you did. As I mentioned, we are living in troubling times. Day after day, our citizens travel back and forth across the city and what do they have to show for it? They are being corrupted by western values that threaten to erode their character.”
Willie felt a growing sense of dread as he listened. Again, his thoughts drifted back to the conversation he had with Paul. Things were worse than he ever imagined. Willie knew that Paul was right about the SED and their stranglehold on the city.
Mr. Chairman continued, “We have to act now to restore order and decorum among the people of Berlin. The SED has decided to establish certain parameters to prevent the further spread of western influence.”
“I’m not sure I follow you, Herr Vorsitzender, and quite frankly, I’m not certain how I can be of assistance.” Willie felt trapped sitting in the office and wished he hadn’t shut the door behind
“We must keep unsavory elements at bay if we are to maintain order in this city.”
“How do you propose doing that?”
“I am not going to do anything; you are. The SED has asked me to instruct you to design a barrier that will separate the two disparate factors at odds with one another in Berlin.”
Willie’s face flushed with heat. “A barrier? What kind of barrier?”
Mr. Chairman produced a file of spec sheets and preliminary designs and gave them to Willie.
“Your job is to make sense of these drafts and create something that will help us achieve our goals.”
Willie took the file, scanned them briefly, and stood to leave the office. Before he reached the door, Mr. Chairman cautioned him.
“As I mentioned, Willie, this project requires absolute discretion. It is highly classified, and the consequences would be most unfortunate for you or anyone else who may learn of it before its time. I hope I make myself perfectly clear.”
“Yes, Herr Vorsitzender, you have made yourself completely clear. I guess I’d better get to work.”
Willie left the office in a daze as he walked to his desk. What had he gotten himself into he wondered?
He did his best to avoid eye contact with his colleagues along the way. Willie put the file on his desk and spread out the pages it contained. The designs were crude and uninspiring. Willie pulled out a sheet of paper that contained the minimum requirements including the length and height, but one detail, in particular, made him shudder – a minimum of 300 guard towers.
“Scheiße, they can’t be serious.” Willie looked up from his desk to make certain nobody heard him. Tucked in among the sketches and spec sheets, was a map of Berlin. Willie had seen plenty of government-issued maps before, but this one was different with a bright, red line of demarcation snaking its way across the entire city, a distance Willie guessed was more than 40 kilometers. To the east was the largest of the four sectors – the Soviet sector. To the west were the remaining French, British, and American sectors.
Captivating from cover to cover. I hope there is more to come from Mr. Stiller.
Intriguing and romantic - 02.12.2021
This wonderful novel takes you into a key moment in history, the building of the Berlin Wall, and a very personal story of what unfolds with love and determination. It's also offers a look inside the fascinating world of haute couture. A great read all together.
Do yourself a favour! - 28.11.2021
200 pages that are filled with hope, trials and the power of love. I found the story line runs parallel to what the world is facing during these times of pandemic and uncertainty.
Truly Enjoyable! - 09.11.2021
A quick and enjoyable read! I couldn't put it down.