In Other Words

Coming of Age in the Camps

A young "quota refugee" from Russia adjusts to life in Germany, from pizza to making new friends, in this first novel by a rising German talent.

Spencer Platt/Getty Imagest
Spencer Platt/Getty Imagest

From My White Nights (Meine Weissen Nächte). Translated from the German by Michael Ritterson.

 

On the edge of town, out where there aren't any more houses, just a couple of leftover American barracks standing empty behind barbed wire: This is where the camp is, also behind barbed wire, just like us. Long, brown, one-story barracks with very thin walls; I once saw a documentary film about a prison that looked just like it. Living in the barracks are asylum-seekers, foreigners waiting for a residence permit, knowing not one word of German, and getting food rations handed out to them every couple of days.

From My White Nights (Meine Weissen Nächte). Translated from the German by Michael Ritterson.

 

On the edge of town, out where there aren’t any more houses, just a couple of leftover American barracks standing empty behind barbed wire: This is where the camp is, also behind barbed wire, just like us. Long, brown, one-story barracks with very thin walls; I once saw a documentary film about a prison that looked just like it. Living in the barracks are asylum-seekers, foreigners waiting for a residence permit, knowing not one word of German, and getting food rations handed out to them every couple of days.

 

And us, with our status as quota refugees and unlimited residence permits, "better class" foreigners who just landed here accidentally, by mistake (the town hadn’t been prepared for Jewish immigrants from Russia) — for a year and a half it’s home for us, too. Our room: 12 square meters, two bunk beds and a thin mattress on the floor, one table, and one wardrobe for all of us. My father and I each sleep in one of the top bunks, my brother has the mattress, and when he moves out later to study at the university, we’re all glad because now we really have a lot of space. My grandmother, nearly 80 years old, complains a lot and cries; she wishes she was back in her old apartment in Russia. My parents fight a lot, because anybody living in 12 square meters would fight, because we share the shower room and the kitchen with 17 other families from Russia and private space is a nonexistent luxury. And me, I’m 11 years old and confused because Barbies cost more in Germany than I’d imagined they would, I don’t understand one word of this language and so in school I never know, except for math class, what subject we’re studying at any given time. I’m 11 years old, so I have nothing to say about it.

The first summer in the camp I check out a few children’s books from the town library every week and read them outside, lying on the grass. Whenever I look up, I see the barbed wire and the sky, and when school starts again in the fall I know German pretty well and I make some friends. My parents write to our relatives in Russia: She’s doing fine, she can even speak German quite well already, and she has some friends. But my friends at school have Scout backpacks and Pelikan fountain pens, and I don’t even dare to ask my parents if I can get watercolors, even though the teacher says I need them for class. My new girlfriends are very nice. A lot of the time we play at their houses in the afternoon, and when I ride my bike home in the evening (I have my own bike; it’s from the flea market but it’s mine. At night it stands in our room between the table and the wardrobe so it doesn’t get stolen), I pretend that my family lives in the house I’ve just come from. That’s my favorite game. From Sandra, one of my friends, I borrow a Quelle catalog on some pretext or other, and in my bunk bed before going to sleep I page through the furniture section to get a better idea of how the décor in our house would look.

 

Sandra keeps asking when we can play at my house sometime, and one day I can’t think of any more excuses, and we pedal out to the camp. I don’t know where we’re supposed to play. There’s no space in our room — my whole family’s in there — and outside, in front of the camp, are Albanians trying to sell us things and yelling and screaming in Albanian, and I’m afraid that Sandra won’t think that’s so great, and that her bike will get stolen. Sandra looks around inquisitively when we get to the camp, inquisitively and dumbstruck, and I’m so terribly ashamed because inside it always stinks, and outside are the Albanians. I want Sandra to leave, and as soon as we’re in the barracks corridor I say, "Oh, I forgot the key to our room, so we can’t play here today after all, ’cause my parents aren’t here right now." Just then my father comes out of our room into the corridor. He sees us and waves. He wants to meet my friend, but I take Sandra by the hand and pull her outside. Luckily, her bicycle’s still chained to the fence.

So that afternoon we play at her house again. She has a room all for herself, her brother does too, and her mother makes pizza for us, the first pizza I’ve ever had. Later, back at the camp, my father asks me why I ran away so quickly with my friend and if it was because I’m ashamed. I don’t want to answer him; I don’t want to say yes, because I’m 11 and I’m supposed to be content. My parents are always fighting, and my grandmother cries; I’m 11 and content. But I tell my father about the yummy pizza, and the next day he buys frozen pizza at Aldi. We don’t have an oven in the barracks, so my father cuts it in pieces and we fry them in the skillet — my second pizza.


For the next translation, click here.

Lena Gorelik was born in St. Petersburg in 1981 and came to Germany at age 11 with her Russian-Jewish family as a "quota refugee" -- a term of convenience devised by the German government. Excerpt used with permission from SchirmerGraf Verlag.

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