Date published: February 20, 2012
Journal code: WNFS
Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - Gabriele Dietrich, who hails from what was West Berlin, has spent most of her working life in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, teaching social analysis and feminist theology in a Tamil medium college. She has been intensely involved with women's movements, unions in the unordanised sector, anti-nuclear campaigns and ecological movements. An excerpt from her memoir, Upholding Each Other, from Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India, edited by Ritu Menon and brought out by the feminist publishing house, 'Kali for Women-Women Unlimited':
During the blockade of Berlin in 1948, which we survived by being trooped off to a Swedish soup kitchen, my mother decided to take me across the green border, together with another woman with a daughter like me. We had to walk through the forest for five hours without speaking, because "the Soviet army shoots without warning". I was mortally scared of the Soviet army as we had spent months under its occupation. Nearby, all the young women on the street had been raped. Though, being children, we didn't know what was happening, my cousin and I could hear the screams in the night. We would feel my mother's and grandmother's bodies go stiff when they - children clutched tight - confronted a soldier. Decades later it dawned on me that, in a way, my cousin and I had served as a kind of human shield. Her mother had disappeared in the mines during flight and turned up traumatised after many months. A few years later, mother and daughter emigrated to America. We visited my father in his realm of relative plenty, a village in a northern province, where he was 'de-Nazified' from his SA-membership in order to be able to serve as a minor clerk in the administration again. My mother taught adult education classes, how to recycle old woollens, and also imparted English to people who aimed at migrating to the US or Canada. My grandmother stitched old clothes into new. The blockade and occupation led to the Cold War which culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.
My decisive political formation came from the resistance of the West Berlin population to caving in under threats of blockades and starvation in order to take over their city and made the united East and West Berlin the capital of the GDR. A deeply stirring event was the uprising by workers against the Worker's State, in June 1953, against higher production norms. They marched through the main road where I went to school, onto the Rote Rathaus (the red building of the Eastern Administration), right through the Brandenburg Gate. Onlookers cheered them with cigarettes and foodstuffs, but of course the uprising was extinguished by Soviet tanks. It was in the same year that Stalin died, and his dead body in the black-and-white of the newsreel is etched in my memory forever. I had also seen him decorating 'deserving mothers' with twelve children. I somehow believed then that there was less likelihood of war and tyranny now, and that women would be allowed to bear fewer children. The workers' uprising was an extremely energising ray of hope. Though it was crushed immediately, I happily donated my piggy bank savings to the Hungarian uprising four years later. Our last hope was the students' revolt of 1968 and the Prague Spring, again crushed by Soviet tanks. Had there been socialist democracy in Eastern Europe, had the Soviet Union not invaded Afghanistan, had Allende been allowed to stay in power in Chile, the world could have looked very different today.
I was deeply inspired at the age of eleven by the diary of Anne Frank who, despite her personal experience, believed in the inherent goodness of human beings. Her dreams of becoming a writer and journalist while watching the chestnut tree blossom in the Prinsengracht (the secret quarters where she and her family were kept in hiding), moved me to tears. It was a fairly gentle and sheltered way to access the history of fascism. In school, we were shown documentaries about concentration camps, fascism, social democracy after World War I, the League of Nations - but there were few women in this rendering of history. Somewhere along the way, from an old workers' song, I realised that there had been a woman called Rosa Luxemburg who, together with Karl Liebknecht, had been shot by the army under social democratic rule between the Wars, their dead bodies thrown into the Landwehr canal. Decades later, I read some of her letters and writings and came across the book by Raya Dunayevskaya, 'Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation and Marx's Theory of Revolution'. From there, it was a relatively short distance to the debates on women, the 'last colony', and the realisation that women were not really the last colony, that internal colonies were all the time recreated by capitalism, consisting of dalits, adivasis, workers in the unorganised sector, impoverished peasants and tribal populations in the north-eastern states of India.
My mother decided to divorce my father about nine years after his return from the War. It was a classic case of the inability to readjust after nearly ten years of a long-distance marriage due to war and imprisonment. Women had survived flight, migration, civil bombardments, and had reorganised life, removing the debris. Men came from the trenches and prisoners' camps and found it difficult to restore what they had dreamt of as 'normalcy'. Many families broke up. My mother, who had worked as a typist after ten years of schooling, took adult education classes and passed a teacher's training examination. My father tried to deny alimony for me, his only child, but the court decided otherwise. He also underwent some adult education and paid up. My mother dinned it into my head that it was crucial to have a good education and a good job. She was not too clear what this might mean, as she herself never had either of these. Her imagination vacillated between a school teacher (with lots of holidays) and perhaps a film star. She sent me to ballet classes, but when she realised that I took them very seriously and contemplated becoming a classical dancer, she was horrified.
(Excerpted from 'Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India: Making A Difference', Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, 2011/386 pages/Softback; Rs 350)
(© Women's Feature Service)