I had previously read Peter Wyden’s fascinating book, “Stella”, about his Berlin high school Jewish classmate, who survived the Nazi years by working for the Nazis turning in other Jews-in-hiding.
I had had Wyden’s book “The Wall”, the story of the Berlin Wall, on my bookshelf for years, afraid to attack it only because of its size, approximately 700 pages. The book was published in 1989, but was written before the Wall came down.
The problem with the book is its length. Wyden tried to do too much. His chapters on the creation of the wall and the shortcomings of American intelligence, the questions about whether East (or West ) Berlin was worth fighting for and, if so, whether it was worth threatening to use (and maybe actually using) nuclear weapons, are fascinating. The impact of the Wall on families in the east, and the west, were harrowing, and made you realize how petty it all was. The stories of the swaps of East Berliners for western prisoners were new to me. But the lengthy stories of individual families over the years told me more than I needed to know – the book could have been shortened by 200 pages.
In 1960, East Germany was in trouble. It’s population was moving to the west. If it were to succeed, the population drain needed to be halted. This was the rationale for the wall. But the families caught in the middle (those who had been on the wrong side the night the wall went up) were caught in tragic circumstances (i.e., the East German woman married to a West German living in West Berlin, who returned east only to sell her apartment, and was not allowed to return to her husband).
I’d recommend “The Wall” highly. But if you decide to read it, don’t think you’ll finish in an evening.
Equally interesting was Israel Cohen’s “Travels in Jewry”. Cohen, an English Jew working for a number of Jewish organizations, had the opportunity to visit Jewish communities everywhere throughout the first half of the twentieth century. His visits between the wars were instructive – the difficulties faced by the Jews of Poland in spite of the government’s professing equality, the poverty of the Jews of Lithuania, the relative freedom of the French Jews, the Jews of Italy and Portugal and Spain and Rumania and Turkey. An educated, and connected, traveler’s description – a period of time about not enough has been written, when great hope mingled with fear, with fearing eventually winning out. The book was published in 1953, giving Cohen the opportunity to provide small postscripts on each chapter describing the effect of the war years on the particular communities. As you can imagine, not a pretty picture.