Before we moved to Seattle from Alabama in the early 1990s, we visited the city, including a stop at the Space Needle. Nearby was an exhibit that just on the composition wasn’t much to look at – a huge slab of concrete with graffiti sprayed all over it in another language. Its history held its significance. It was a piece of the Berlin Wall, torn down only a few short years before.
Fortunately, that was as close as I got to the Cold War, to the oppressive Soviet rule over Eastern Europe. Other weren’t so lucky.
Bruce Judisch was in Berlin when the wall came down, and a particular moment during all the chaos had a tremendous impact on him. It was the starting point for research into his book Katia. He was gracious enough to answer a handful of questions I had about that moment, about history, and about how other people’s success and struggles have an impact in our lives.
Tell me a little bit about the photograph that inspired Katia.
Bruce: On November 10th, 1989, the first full day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I hustled my family onto the U-bahn (subway) to Checkpoint Charlie to ensure we all got a full taste of this historic event. After greeting East Germans pouring through the checkpoint, unhindered for the first time in 28 years, we walked northward along the Wall through the celebrating crowds toward the Brandenburg Gate. We were approaching Potsdamer Platz when I noticed a gentleman standing on the street corner with a piece of paper held high above his head. Oblivious of the crowds milling about him, he stood there for the longest time. I discreetly moved around toward the front of him and read the name “Katia” scrawled in red marker on the paper. The curiosity, even intrigue, of who Katia might be, and who the gentleman was, prompted me to snap his picture. I never approached the man. To this day I don’t know his name, or who Katia might have been. However, the poignancy and uniqueness of the moment stuck in my mind and eventually became the seed for the story.
How do you think history can be even more impactful through the eyes of an individual person?
Bruce: I think individual people are the carriers of history. Some witness it; some research it. But boiled down to its finest point, it’s the individual mind that decides to preserve it. There are those who preserve it poorly, whether by lack of skill or personal agenda, and there are those who do it well—as intellectually and morally honest as they can. I hope I fall into the latter category of people, as my story, albeit fiction, carries truth that I think is worth preserving and transmitting. Ultimately, only my readers will decide that, though.
Why is it so important for present generations to learn from the past? What do we lose if we lose that perspective?
Bruce: I’ll avoid the overused adage about being destine to repeat history forgotten, and instead appeal to Scripture. Judges 2:10 reads, “All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.” (NASB) The book of Judges depicts a downward spiral in a bleak period of Israel’s history, and I believe it starts with that verse. Israel failed to teach its progeny the fear of the Lord, and they suffered the consequences of it. You can pair Hosea 4:6a with that, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” and the handwriting is on the wall (no, I won’t chase that rabbit to Daniel…sorry J) Israel lost the perspective of its history with God, and we can just as easily lose perspective with our history of the Cold War and the lessons to be learned from it. As a note, the sequel to Katia, For Maria, to be released next month, provides even a stronger reminder of an event that should never ever be forgotten.
As the journalist in your story is uncovering more of Katia Mahler, she begins to learn more about herself. Why do you think other people’s lives can influence ours like that?
Bruce: We see ourselves in other people, perhaps even look for ourselves in other people—something to esteem. Sometimes that reflection comforts us, sometimes it grieves—or even annoys—us. For Maddy, our young journalist, Katia and Oskar come to represent something Maddy longs for, although she didn’t realize it until she spends considerable time with them. The influence others have on us is an essential reason why it’s so important whom we spend our own time with. Even more weighty is the realization that we also influence other people who are looking at us for the same reason. Scripture holds us accountable for that influence.