Translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer
As I stood on the shores of the Baltic in late September 2017, it looked too cold for me to even consider paddling. The seagull was braver than I. Now imagine you are so desperate with life in the communist state of East Germany that your only hope for the future is to swim out into these choppy waters westwards, ever westwards until you reach the Danish island of Møn some 40 km later if departing from Hiddensee, or some 45 km later if taking the Kühlungsborn to Fehmarn route. Peter Döbler swam the latter successfully in 1971, and our two teenage protagonists, Hanna and Andreas, are about to attempt it for themselves.
They estimate it will take them 25 hours, after which their lives will be changed forever. With the freedom and opportunities in the democratic West, they will be able to build a life worth living. Because in the DDR all they face is a dead end existence working on the factory floor. Andreas was always a rebel (with just cause taking his home life into consideration) and had fallen foul of the authorities. After leaving home he is now squatting in a condemned building, although he retains hopes of salvaging a career in computer science. Hanna, his friend, didn’t like to rock the boat; an intelligent girl she was looking forward to taking the Abitur (A-levels) and progressing to university. Although her family presents problems. Her father has mental issues and her grandfather is critical of the state. When Hanna’s grandfather takes his criticism far beyond “harmless” jokes, he is fearless for what can the state do to an old man like him …. forgetting that this regime is capable of making younger generations pay for the sins of the elder. His actions also unfortunately implicate Andreas. And so Hanna and Andreas prepare their escape and find themselves hiding their swimming equipment under a wild rosebush on the Kühlungsborn beach, ready to make a getaway when twilight comes.
The story of their swim across the Baltic is, to a non-swimmer like myself, a physical feat both awe-inspiring and frankly terrifying. Fighting cold, cramps, fatigue. There’s the complication of avoiding the searchlights from the watchtower at Kühlungsborn, the coastal guard boats, the need to ensure they don’t lose each other in the darkness of night. Surviving a storm and outright perfidy on the open seas. (The lengths a communist state will go to ensure their hold on two teenagers are unbelievable.) The relief (shouldn’t that be danger?) of reaching the international shipping lane. This story is heartstopping and heartbreaking at times.
Linke alternates the swim with the backstory leading up to the decision to make it. This is really effective in always providing a reminder of why these two promising teenagers decide to subject themselves to this ordeal. To risk imprisonment or death should they fail. Written for the young adult market, the depiction of the East German regime is not as brutal as in, for instance, Julia Franck’s Back to Back, but the soul-crushing heartlessness of the regime is evident all the same.
The key question is whether Hanna and Andreas succeed. I’m not telling but I will say that Linke’s ending is not blind to historical reality. More than 5,600 East Germans tried to escape via the Baltic Sea between 1961 and 1989. Less than 1,000 made it.