Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

From the author of comes a well-written piece of historical fiction about the Berlin Wall. A Night Divided is set in 1961 East Berlin, which is under the control of the Soviet Union.


Near the end of World War II, the West and Soviet Union had already agreed to divide the city of Berlin, which was the capital of the Third Reich and also its cultural capital. As a result of the Yalta Conference which took place from February 4 to 11, 1945, Germany and Berlin would be divided into four zones that included the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the United States.

Stalin raced Soviet troops to Berlin hoping to conquer the city before the Allied troops arrived. He was likely intent upon capturing the city so as to obtain key German research on the atomic bomb. The race to develop the first atomic bomb was between America, Germany and Russia.

The city itself had already been bombed to rubble by British and American warplanes as well as by the Red Army. When Soviet troops finally entered Berlin, they used raped over one hundred thousand women, including Russian women who were prisoners in Nazi camps. On May 2, 1945, Berlin fell and the Germans in the city surrendered to Marshall Zukhov.The Soviet army occupied all of Berlin at first but turned over the areas of the city that were agreed upon earlier to be controlled by the American, British and French. The four powers shared alternating control of the city but as time relations between the communist Soviets and the West deteriorated. This resulted in the Soviets leaving the arrangement they had with the West and implementing independent control over East Berlin.This was the beginning of the Cold War which started in 1947.

Eventually East Berlin was became the capital of East Germany - the portion of the Germany now under Soviet control and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - a Communist nation was formed on October 7, 1949. West Germany was formed on May 23, 1949. A year long blockade by the Soviets of West Berlin in 1948 was an attempt by the communists to gain control over all of Berlin. Fortunately they did not succeed.

While life in western portion of postwar Germany began to improve, life in areas occupied by the Communists did not. There were food shortages and lack of democratic rights. Determined to stop the huge migration of people, many of them young professionals, to the West, the East German government decided to close the border and erect a wall separating East and West Berlin. The East German government began building the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Named the "anti-fascist protection wall" the beginnings of the wall were initially erected during the night of August 12th, as a barbed wire fence. A concrete block wall was then constructed. The Berlin Wall was actually two walls separated by a large space known as the "death strip". Determined to leave the repressive regime, many tried to escape to the West. Some were smuggled out in cars, while others tunneled beneath the Berlin wall. This article in the British newspaper, Independent, tells about some of the tunnel escapes.

The Berlin wall was eventually dismantled in 1989 after a series of events that began earlier in the year in Hungary. After opening its border with East Germany, refugees began flooding into the country. This led to similar events in Czechoslovakia and more refugees leaving East Germany. Eventually protests brought about the dismantling of the wall, which began on June 13, 1990 and the reunification of Germany.

Below is a newsreel from Universal on the first anniversary of the Berlin Wall:

The Battle for Berlin in World War II


Eight year old Gerta Lowe lives with her older brothers, fourteen-year old Fritz, ten year old Dominic and her parents in an apartment in East Berlin. Her father, Aldous, is a member of a resistance group fighting for democratic rights.On Sunday, August 13, 1961, Gerta and her family awake to find a fence of barbed wire has been placed between East and West Berlin. Her father and Dominic, have been in the west for two nights and are now trapped on the west side of the fence.

Their neighbour, Herr Krause who lived next door with his invalid wife, came to their house two nights earlier warning the Lowe's that they should leave for the west while they still were able to do so. People have been quietly disappearing, fleeing to the west and the promise of a better life. The Russians control the eastern half of Germany and the capital city of Berlin, with Britain, America and France control the west.  Gerta's family would have left for the west months ago if her mother had agreed. But Gerta's mother does not want to leave the life they have built in East Berlin, nor her ailing and widowed mother. She is angry that Herr Krause has put these dangerous ideas into her husband's head. But Herr Krause suggests that Aldous go to the west to find an apartment before they leave. Gerta's mama agrees to this and they decide Dominic will accompany Aldous. Now they are trapped on the other side.

People still continue to find their way out - sometimes running over the barbed wire, swimming the canals. Soon the government began putting up concrete topped with glass shards and building watch towers manned by guards. While Greta and Fritz are shocked, their mother encourages them to accept their life as it is now. For four years this is exactly what those around them did. But Gerta, now twelve has never stopped noticing the wall. And a visit by the Stasi, the German secret police, two years ago, made Gerta and her family nervous. In their hopes to discourage the Stasi from spying on them, their family did everything a good East German family would do.

One day while walking to school with her best friend Anna Warner, Gerta notices her brother Dominic standing "on a platform behind the wall in West Berlin." Overcome with joy, Gerta waves. But her happiness soon turns to dread when she and Anna are accosted by a border guard named Muller. Muller wants to know who Gerta was waving at but she doesn't tell him. At home that night Gerta tells her mama and Fritz about seeing Dominic. Instead of being thrilled at what happened, Mama tells Gerta that she's not supposed to be watching the wall. Later on Fritz and Gerta spend time in the bedroom talking about the wall while playing a Beatles album. Fritz informs Gerta that Anna's older brother, Peter, is planning to escape to the west that night. No one knows but Fritz and the group of students from the west who are planning to smuggle him out in their car.

On the walk to school the next morning, Gerta spies not only her brother Dominic, but also her father. And her father begins behaving strangely, pantomiming a favourite folk song he used to sing to Gerta when she was younger. The part of the song he acts out refers to a farmer working in his garden digging, except her father focuses on the farmer digging with a shovel. All of this leaves Gerta puzzled and struggling to figure out just what her father was trying to tell her. As her friend Anna points out, "He wouldn't have you take the risk just to show you a dance." Soon Gerta determines that her father wants her to dig. But she has no idea why or where.

That night Gerta learns from Mama that Anna's brother Peter was shot trying to escape. Fritz has not returned home from work and now Gerta fears for her brother. They learn from the foreman at his work that Fritz was taken away by the Stasi because they believe he was involved in Peter's escape attempt. The next morning Gerta awakes to see Fritz has returned home but he also reveals to her that their apartment must be bugged because he told no one else about Peter's planned escape. Later when they are away from the apartment, Fritz reveals that they Stasi showed him the huge file they have on their father as well as the file they have on him. He has been branded an "enemy of the state' and this means that Fritz will never be able to attend university nor get a good job. Instead he will be placed into the military. He also tells Gerta that they have a file on her too.

Peter's death breaks apart Gerta and Anna who believes that Fritz helped with his escape attempt. Meanwhile their neighbour, Herr Krause is attacked by the Stasi. When Gerta tries to intervene she is accosted by one of the Stasi but is saved by Fritz who recognizes him as a former classmate. That classmate is now cruel and heartless - an indication of the man Fritz will become if he is forced into the military. Determined to find out more about the idea of digging, Greta manages to send a message in sight of the wall, asking her father where the digging is to occur. Days later she receives a drawing of a building from Anna. It takes Greta time but she soon learns where that building is located; it is now part of the Berlin Wall with the front of the building inside the Death Strip. Knowing this is the place her father wants her to dig, Greta investigates the building, not understanding exactly why her father wants her to dig. Until she realizes that he wants her to tunnel beneath the Berlin Wall to escape. It will take all of Greta's resourcefulness and courage to undertake this task, one that will place her, her family and those who learn of the tunnel's existence in great danger.


A Night Divided is very good historical fiction because Jennifer Nielsen effectively conveys to her readers what life was like in Communist East Berlin in the early 1960's. Since young readers today have no memory of the Berlin Wall or the Cold War, this novel could have benefited from either an Author's Note at the end to provide some detailed context for the story, or a brief prologue introducing the setting of the story. Their absence is all the more noticeable given that Scholastic Press is the publisher. The photographs at the front of the novel showing the Death Strip, the barbed wire fence that was the precursor of the Berlin wall and a map showing Berlin and the wall are wonderful introductions to the setting of the story.

Despite this, Nielsen does a good job of portraying what it was like to live under Communist rule in East Berlin and what the Berlin wall meant to those trapped behind it. Life in the Soviet controlled section of Berlin was not easy. Gerta mentions how people in the east noticed the growing disparity between the communist section of Berlin and West Berlin. "But Russia's promises of a better life under Communism weren't happening. As the west repaired its war damages, ours remained like unhealed scars. Their shops were full, and ours constantly faced shortages. They were growing stronger, while we leaned on Russia like a crutch, pretending to be every bit as strong."

Life in East Berlin is rife with rules and little freedom. After the death of Peter, Fritz determines that their apartment is bugged. They have no freedom to express even their thoughts in the privacy of their own home. If they resist, they can do so only in their minds.

Everyone watches everyone else and yet everyone pretends they are not looking. The neighbours become informants in the hopes of benefiting economically and socially. At twelve, Gerta is already keenly aware of this, as evidenced by her behaviour towards Frau Eberhart, "who patrolled the front of the apartment building better than most of the guards in the watchtowers."

Nielsen also manages to capture the terror the East German Secret Police, the Stasi, inflicted on the people of Berlin and their capacity to completely ruin those who opposed them. The Stasi held detailed files on enormous numbers of East Germans and had no qualms about killing those who opposed communism. Their treatment of people is exemplified by Herr Krause who is eventually murdered by the Stasi. And it is the situation of Herr Krause which eventually convinces Fritz that he cannot remain in East Berlin. Fritz begins to realize that his life in East Berlin will become unbearable, with no hope for a further education or a good job. He knows that once he is forced into the military he will become like his friend Viktor. He will think and act like the Stasi. He's so desperate to get out that he considers swimming the dangerous, fast flowing Spree River. We begin to see why a young person might become so desperate that they would risk their life to escape.

Overall, A Night Divided was a fascinating tale that informs readers about an era almost forgotten - the start of the Cold War and the closing of Eastern Europe behind what was soon to be called the Iron Curtain. It's good to see historical fiction being written about events not normally the subject of a novel.

Book Details:

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
New York: Scholastic Press      2015
317 pp.

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