My meeting with Trude Teige in Bergen, Norway. The author of the novel "Mormor danset i regnet" ("Granny danced in the rain")
I left early. It was a Monday and I had taken the day off work today, especially for this occasion. The plan of driving from Balestrand over the Vikafjell to Bergen, I had to discard in the evening. Wind speeds of 10 m/s were predicted. That means in the winter months to strictly avoid Vikafjell. In particular this year, as it was one of the snowiest in a long time. As it turned out, this choice had been the right one, as an avalanche made the road between Vik and Voss impassable later in the day.
The often misunderstood weather obsession of the Norwegians is therefore not without reason, because it is especially in winter inevitable to observe the weather and the road conditions as you can otherwise easily get caught in metres of snow.
So instead of taking the mountain road I drove along the shores of the Sognefjord and took the ferry from Lavik to Oppedal. I reached Bergen with some delays, caused by the many tunnel works, around noon.
Despite the snow in the higher regions, the only winter remains were visible on the top of Ulriken, Bergen's famous mountain that has a funicular going up to its summit. Downtown Bergen however, was already freed from the ice and showed its windy, hanseatic splendour.
I was excited, especially because I had so many questions and heaps of ideas that I wanted to share with her. But also because it is always exciting to meet someone you only know from a few emails, from TV or from articles.
Trude, my "rendezvous" today, is not just the author of the Norwegian novel "Mormor danset i regnet", which deals with the mass suicide in my hometown of Demmin. She is also a trained translator, television presenter and political journalist and even had her own show Trude on TV2. She is well known in Norway and enjoys a good reputation here.
Trude is also giving writing classes all over the country, beside her duties on television and with writing her novels. These 3-hour seminars are open to anybody interested in learning more about writing. For today's March evening, one of these writing seminars was scheduled by Trude in Bergen Litteraturhuset.
Litteraturhuset is something like the epitome of literature in Vestlandet (Western Norway) that literally smells of printed books when you just enter the door. It is a place where the literature celebrities enjoy the delicacies of the Colonialen restaurant’s excellent cuisine. Equally it has just as many inspirational conferences and seminars scheduled as it has dishes on its menue. So leave your phone at home, the bookshop is right next to the restaurant.
Trude, who lives outside of Oslo, was by being in Bergen close to where I live. It was, so to speak, in the "4h distance" close proximity, which I call “near” now that I live in Norway.
So Trude and I had scheduled to meet in the afternoon in Bergen, just before her seminar, to finally get to know each other a bit more after so many emails that had gone back and forth. And, unexpectedly and to my great joy, Trude had invited me a few days earlier as her guest to the writing class in the evening as well. So I was spending an entire evening surrounded by books, writers and the fog of invisible ideas hanging in the air.
BERGEN AND THE LITTERATURHUSET
So, after checking in at my hotel on Strømgaten, I strolled towards Grieghallen, then along the small lake in the middle of Bergen, Lille Lundegårdsvannet. In the background I was greeted by the profiles of Ulriken and Fløien, the two most famous of the seven mountain peaks that surround Bergen.
It was stormy and as to be expected for a March day, still very cold. So I tightened the straps of my blue wool coat a little tighter, and rolled my red scarf into my face, up to my nose to defy the icy breeze.
Far away from the tourist swarms of Bergen’s fish market and its famous area of Bryggen, lies the Litteraturhuset, hidden in a narrow lane, the Østre Skostredet. The cobblestones and the few seemingly closed up shops in this narrow side street are in contrast to the Litteraturhuset, a modern oasis of literature, whose design is almost entirely held in wood and metal.
Here I opened the heavy, glass front door shortly before 15:00 and peaked into the book store on the left side of the building, thinking I might find Trude in there. I inhaled the well-known smell of fresh-printed books and became part of the muted, yet busy atmosphere inside.
TRUDE AND I IN THE LITTERATURHUSET
When I could not find Trude after a short browse, I sat down in a bright place near the window, near the entrance, so I would not miss her, when she would arrive. I then received a message from Trude letting me know that her train from Oslo was half an hour late. So I had some time, ordered a cappuccino and made some notes in my bullet journal - like I always do to write down all the thoughts in my head.
And suddenly she stood there. Smiled and waved to me. She walked up to my table and we talked briefly about both of our struggles to arrive in Bergen. She invited me to a glass of wine, which I of gladly accepted, as I only needed to leave the following morning.
Trude's bubbly, extroverted personality was inspiring. She told me of herself, and her personal journey to become the author she is now, but she was also equally interested in my story. So, time flew by.
I completely forgot my many questions in the flood of information that was pouring in on me. I listened excitedly and tried to savour this rare moment to its fullest - me together with a Norwegian author talking about my hometown Demmin.
That does not happen too often.
DEMMIN PART ONE
I explained to Trude that, apart from Florian Huber's book, "Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschiesst", the subject of the tragedy of Demmin has more or less never been in the public domain and that, before Florian's and Trude's book, I had only read or heard a few rare episodes about it myself.
In fact, the history of the mass suicides of Demmin seems to have barely been included in the history books at all. It was until I graduated in 2003 not even talked about in the schools in Demmin. So if you did not have a family member or friend that witnessed and could have told you what happened to nearly 1000 Demminer women, children and men in May 1945, then it is quite possible that you may have never heard about your own family’s history before.
In GDR times, with the strong influence of the Soviet Union, who were regarded as the liberators, this topic was more or less totally brushed under the carpet. Those who had experienced these tragic few days at the end of 1945 found their own ways to process the events, and more often than not suppressed them.
Trude told me that she had started her research at the same time as Florian Huber for his book, and she was even visiting Demmin with a team from Dagbladet, a Norwegian newspaper.
There were several moments that encouraged her to include the "Tragedy of Demmin" in one of her novels. In particular, however, it was the realisation that up to this day the history and especially the feelings of the survivors did not seem to have received their due recognition, let alone having been processed.
Standing on the mass grave, following the path that carried the often unidentifiable suicide victims to their last resting place, all those were the moments that finally convinced Trude to make Demmin the subject of one of her novel. And, how she did it, was that she decided to incorporate the story of the tragedy in Demmin's with the topic of the Tyskerjente whose background she had already extensively researched. Tyskerjentene were those Norwegian women who lost their citizenship and were ostracised from society because they had fallen in love with a German soldier. (read more about it here)
But, how did Trude get to Demmin in the first place and how much of her is in this book "Mormor danset i regnet"? Why has it never been translated into German? I had so many questions.
THE MANY IDEAS
The time until the seminar at 18:00 progressed quickly and we talked a lot about Trude's career, her passion for politics and the current turmoil in the Norwegian parliament about the the future of Silvi Listhaug.
I could however finally share my ideas about the movie "Über Leben in Demmin", which I really want being shown also here in the cinema in Balestrand, Norway. At the same time I told Trude about a proposal of a friend in Demmin more to showcase Trude’s book and the background to it in a window display during the annual art night celebration in Demmin. Both ideas were well received by Trude and we started making some plans. The fact that we are both quite easy to get excited made the whole thing a lot easier.
Then I however also learned that the mills in the publishing world grind a bit slower (as we say in Germany) – meaning things take time. Trude has already translated two of her books into German and her publisher here in Norway, Aschehoug, uses the Aufbau Taschenbuchverlag for all her German books. She even has a dedicated German translator responsible for her novels. Unfortunately, "Mormor danset i regnet" did not make it into the series of books who were translated since. But, that is exactly what we are trying to change now!
My conversations with Trude, the article and ideas, and my personal connection to Demmin, had not been unnoticed. Trude had been able to use these to her advantage and she had since forwarded them to her publisher, who was now starting to listen to her a bit more diligently.
Of course, the premiere of the film "Über Leben in Demmin", which is right now touring the German cinemas and deals with the same topic, was another important factor to have Trude's book published soon, as the tragedy of Demmin is currently being discussed across the German media.
So, the wheel to translate the book into German has been set in motion. We are therefore now both hoping to get some positive news on the topic over the next few weeks, which of course I will share here.
THE WRITING SEMINAR
I then learned from Trude while we were talking, that I will also get the answers to all my other questions in the writing course, which was about to start - so my curiosity increased again.
After paying for my coffee, I followed Trude up the wooden stairs to the second floor. Here, in one of the conference halls, sat the 13 participants of the writing course in a semicircle behind their school desks and waited spellbound for the beginning of the seminar.
As Trude made her last preparations, the two sign language teachers took their seats next to her.
And then it all started.
The seminar began with each participant sharing a little bit about themselves, who they are and why they were here. I was the second in line, and even before I could begin, Trude introduced me as her special guest. I was somebody that has a closer connection than anybody else in the room to her book "Mormor danset i regnet", because I am born in the place where this book is set in: Demmin. That small city in the North-East of Germany.
Most of the participants had read or knew the book, which had sold very well in Norway and was even nominated for the Bokhandlerprisen in 2016. Most of the audience therefore nodded approvingly when they heard the word Demmin. A very odd moment, sitting in a Norwegian seminar in Bergen in which almost all participants around me knew about a random place in the former GDR. My slightly broken Norwegian was therefore forgotten and automatically excused, when I finally introduced myself and was met with huge interested eyes looking at me.
When listening to the others it became clear that many of them had experiences in writing or worked in the journalistic field. Trude herself has been writing books of different genres and a variety of topics. She has written crime novels like "Pasienten", “Svik” or “Jenta som slutte å snakke”, published a cookbook and was working with delicate issues like child abuse or dying in retirement homes.
So she began the seminar by describing how she researched these topics, how she structured her work, and how she found the stories that made her novels so special. Her secret recipe is to search for those details others have not written before about, or that have always been kept secret. And to find these, she often did not actively search but her research brought her to them by accident.
Just as it happened with the topic of the tragedy of Demmin for her book "Mormor danset i regnet". Trude came across it by chance, almost like me discovering Trude’s book.
DEMMIN PART TWO
To describe how Trude had actually come across the subject of Demmin, she had to describe her research work a bit more.
One important encounter was the one with Ragnar Ulstein, a journalist and former Norwegian resistance fighter who had already written several war books. With his help and his suggestion to write about the unwritten stories of the Tyskerjentene, she came began researching a topic, which she would include in two of her following books.
One of her biggest treasures in this research were Ragnar’s archives, which contained interviews with several Norwegian Tyskerjentene he had conducted himself, and which had never been further evaluated as there was no interest in them.
As the fate of these women was something that had a strong impact on her, her research was intensive, spreading over months. In 2012 she then published the thriller "Svik" on the same subject, and then later in 2016 "Mormor danset i regnet ".
An interview with Trude on the radio also made Anna Reitmann aware of Trude’s interest in the Tyskerjentene topic. She contacted her and asked her for a meeting in Nordfjordeid, the place in Sogn og Fjordane where she lived. She wanted to let Trude know about her own story.
Trude accepted the invitation and met Anna.
This old lady was one of the few surviving Tyskerjentene, and began to meticulously talk about her past in Norway and Germany while showing Trude her photos of her German husband Alfred. She explained in detail how she and her German husband were forced to flee Norway and arrived, after a horrendous journey in a completely destroyed and bombed Germany.
Anna's story and her experiences should later become part of "Mormor danset i regnet" in a modified form. And it was ever more significant for Trude to tell Anna’s story when she sadly died 3 months after their meeting.
To broaden her knowledge, Trude started reading books on European, German and especially on Berlin’s war history, she rummaged through archives and researched the internet for articles in German, English and Norwegian. She tried to find video footage and old pictures to create an image that would go beyond her own imagination and was based on real footage.
One of the books that was important in this research is the one of Anthony Beevor, an English military historian who had a chapter in his book about the rape of German women by Russian and other allied forces. The sheer volume of these rapes left Trude shocked. At the same time she began realising that Anna did at the time not only arrive in a land that was destroyed from the outside, but it was also the place where the surviving women had experienced these atrocities.
When she dug deeper into the subject of the mass rapes, mainly researching online, and clicking through many mainly English website she read in one article about a mass suicide in a small place, called Demmin. Just by coincidence and because the story immediately caught her interest, she tried to find out more about it and was then startled to find so little of it in her books or the German search engines. Encouraged by a Youtube video in which a witness was interviewed, and the very limited search results she was able to make, she decided to get to the bottom of it, as it was clear to her that this tragedy was somehow deliberately kept secretive.
So Trude flew to Berlin, took the train to Demmin and got herself inspired “in situ”. She walked along Demmin’s streets, visited different places, like the mass grave, the churches or the then still existing museum. Brought many pictures of her journey with her. She talked to various people in Demmin - witnesses, older and younger citizens, with the latter often having no idea about the scale of this suicide.
And then finally, she had all the content she needed to write her novel. A novel that would connect the tragic experiences of the Tyskerjentene with those of the German women at the end of the war: "Mormor danset i regnet". She published the book in 2016.
Shortly before the break in the seminar, and after we had discussed how Trude came to writing the “Mormor danset I regnet” I was asked by Trude to talk about my family history, my knowledge of this time and the impact that this book had on me. The participants listened attentively. And, when the charming Norwegian woman next to me heard my story, she actually became so emotional that she began to cry. The people here were interested in Demmin, they even got emotional when they heard me talking about it and it felt very uplifting to be here in Bergen in a seminar, so far from Demmin, talking about its dark past. If nothing else, I helped making a few more people aware of random place near the Baltic Sea.
The atmosphere after the break however was relaxed, we took pictures together and listened to the rest of Trude’s presentation.
WHERE CAN WE TAKE IT FROM HERE
That was not the end to the story, because Trude and I indulged in one of those fantastic dishes of the Colonialen restaurant - and on top I was finally able to have Trude sign my book - these tiny moments mean so much, especially now in hindsight.
Before Trude was to board her train to Oslo, I was also sharing my ideas in more detail with her. Hannah, a friend of mine and the owner of Völschow Berg in Demmin (which is an old restaurant in the middle of the woods, now used for band practices and other events), had already written to me in advance of meeting Trude. She had the idea to design an exhibition window on Trudes and my history as part of the annual Demminer Kunstnacht (Demmin’s art night) on April 28, 2018. Trude was excited to hear about it but needed to discuss a few copyrights issues with her publisher before she was able to confirm that it was possible.
We also agreed that I will arrange a virtual meeting in April between Martin Farkas, the director of the film "Über Leben in Demmin" and Trude.
I had already spoken to the local cinema here in Balestrand in Norway, which would be very interested in showing Martin’s film. The idea is to have Trude reading from her book and discussing its content, and then rounding off the evening with Martin's documentary, which gives those people voices and faces, that are only referred to in the book.
More about these ideas will follow soon.
PS: What I can already confirm is that the lovely Hannah from Völschow Berg will indeed be able to arrange the exhibition window. A few days days ago, on April 6, I received the confirmation from Trude to give Hannah the “go ahead”.
If you would therefore like to have more information about the book's content, as well as the world's first German translations of the book, pictures and impressions, then Treptower Straße 30, in Demmin on April 28 is where you should be.
For the rest of this story and how it will continue, you will always find out here.
Read more about how it all began here