The Other Side of the Wall
Written & Illustrated by Simon Schwartz
Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Graphic Universe, 2015, 112 pp.
Sometimes immigration is a choice, sometimes it is a necessity, and sometimes it is a matter of life and death. For these who lived behind the Iron Curtain and on the “wrong” side of the Berlin Wall, immigration was often the only way to take their future into their own hands.
The Other Side of the Wall (2015) by Simon Schwartz is a graphic novel. The book published in Germany in 2009 is translated from German by Laura Watkinson. The narrator tells the story of his family’s immigration to West Berlin from East Germany. He skillfully portrays in black and white pictures of life in the DDR (East Germany) with its political repression and the lack of freedom to discuss openly and to teach about truth. That is why many people made a decision to leave their ordinary lives and to try to make a new life for themselves and for their children. In the DDR, people were often afraid to talk to each other in their own apartments. They were afraid that the secret police would be able to listen to these conversations and so went for walks in the woods to talk with very close friends about their emigration plans.
Simon’s family lived in a town called Erfurt. His mother always wanted to leave for the West, wanting to see the world beyond the Wall. She loved jazz and the Beatles. His father had his doubts. He had a true socialist upbringing and was hired for a teaching position at the university. Meanwhile, many of their friends already left. When Simon’s father refuses to consider the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets as a just war, his decision leads to the need to emigrate. This is a difficult decision, especially because they would need to leave behind parents and professions. He immediately lost his job as a university professor, but the family has to wait three years before they are able to leave. “The authorities in Erfurt were still frozen in a Stalinist ice age” (p. 86).
It is interesting to read about the reactions of Simon’s grandparents. The mother’s parents seem to understand the desire of a younger generation to live a different life, but the father’s parents do not even want to see them after they apply for an exit permit. Once the family leaves, they are not allowed to return even for a short visit. Only Simon is able to go back to East Berlin to visit his maternal grandparents for a few days, but “there was always that worry that I wouldn’t be allowed back home” (p. 21).
The emigration from East Germany to West Germany was a special case of immigration. A person needed just to cross a checkpoint to get to a new life, but at the same time, both Germanys had been one country, and people spoke the same language. The story in the book goes back and forth between the new life in West Berlin and reminiscences of the past. To make it easier for American readers, the book has a glossary and a timeline of the Berlin Wall.
This is the first book by Simon Schwartz, and is clearly based on the author’s own experiences. The book takes the form of a memoir of Simon’s childhood and, at the same time, gives a realistic portrait of life in East Germany under the Socialist regime. The pictures in The Other Side of the Wall are similar to the well-known graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of Childhood (2004) by an Iranian author Marjane Satrapi. This novel is also about a coming of age in a different country after an emigration from a country with a totalitarian regime. Both graphic novels clearly take root in Art Spiegelman’s famous Maus (1986). Another book which could be paired with Schwartz’ book is The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain (2007) by Peter Sis, a Czech-born American illustrator and writer of children’s books. More about Simon Schwartz and his work is available on his website.
Olga Bukhina, International Association for the Humanities, New York