Bernauer Strasse, 13th August 1961 by Emma Venables

I stand on Bernauer Strasse, looking at metal curls, wondering how high I can jump; whether I should be wearing trousers rather than a summer dress; whether I really should chance my luck now – maybe the rumours of concrete blocks to come, obscuring the view as well as the access to the other side of the street are false. Will my mother forgive me if I go? Will I ever be able to write to her, to explain why I couldn’t stay, why the rules and regulations, the attention to detail, felt like a noose ever tightening around my neck? I mentioned Hans over dinner last night but she didn’t ask any questions, didn’t make eye contact, when I said he had disappeared, likely arrested for a throwaway comment about Ulbricht. I’ve so many things I want to say but they turn to tar on my tongue. I could say them on the other side of this street, fill notebooks with uncensored cursive and leave them lying around my apartment.
       I move two small steps closer to the makeshift border. What it would feel like to be caught on barbed wire: to feel it piercing my skin, muscles, arteries; to watch my blood pour onto the cobbles and feel the weakness that comes with loss; to try to move but realise I’m held in place? When I was a child my mother told me the story of Tante Emmi and how she died by throwing herself against the fence at Ravensbrück. The barbed wire there was electrified and, like a fish on a hook, the more she writhed, the deeper it went. I always imagined her as something with gills, something that slipped beneath the surface, and glided away. Tante Emmi – a thief, a whore, a waste of space, breath, time, to everyone else but, to me, the niece she never met, something mythical and bold. I see her wink, flick her tongue over her red lips, as she crosses the threshold between this life and the next. I envy her her ability to gather her limbs, her resilience, and see herself through.
       This wire glints in the sun of an August afternoon. Seductive. It is so close, so close I could reach out and impale my little fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers on it. I look around. An old woman dabs a handkerchief to her eyes. A child reaches through, tries to touch her playmate. A man waves. A dog barks at the spiky shadows. The guard with the gun looks bemused as if he didn’t go to bed expecting to wake up and protect a barbed wire wall dividing a city, parents and children, brothers and sisters, lovers. If I jump will he catch me by my hemline and drag me backwards? If I don’t jump will I be able to go home, eat dinner, nod as my mother talks about anything but division, severance, oppression? I think of Hans. His fingers in my hair. His kisses on my throat. He told me all the jokes he could, utterances of freedom, plans to slip from East to West. You’ll come with me, right? he asked. I nodded. We might have to go separately, meet each other over there, he said. I nodded.
       Behind me someone clears their throat and, for some reason, I feel it in my bones like the crack of a starting pistol. As I jump I think of Tante Emmi, of the volts sizzling her veins, shaking her from life to death, and then of Hans, of white-washed walls, the escape routes he’ll be drawing in his mind. I hear cotton tear, feel it snag, fail to acknowledge the brief applause as my feet hit the cobbles.
I walk along the other side of Bernauer Strasse. I don’t look back.

Emma Venables short and flash fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University. Her first novel, Fragments of a Woman, which is about five women in Nazi Germany, was published by Aderyn Press in June 2023. She can be found on X and Bluesky (@EmmaMVenables) or at her website:

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