In "Die Gespenster von Demmin," Verena Kebler uses a mass suicide at the end of World War II as a foil for a coming-of-age story.
The Hanseatic town of Demmin in the Mecklenburg Lake District: remembering history Photo: Norbert Fellechner/imago
Larry prepares for war. Not at the one against parents or one’s own insecurities, although we are in a bildungsroman, but at the real one. Because if you want to be a war reporter, the ninth-grader from Demmin believes, you have to be prepared for the worst: With her love interest Timo tests her on what waterboarding feels like, hanging herself upside down in trees – so she can learn to stay sane while being tortured.
Her neighbor, the senior citizen Mrs. Dohlberg, thinks of something else when she sees Larry dangling from the branch: namely, of the old Kastner, "even though she wasn’t hanging in the tree at all, but in the front garden". A whole life ago now.
In the small Mecklenburg town of Demmin, the 30. April to 4. May 1945, at the end of the Second World War, an unprecedented mass suicide takes place. Because the Wehrmacht had blown up the bridges behind them after their retreat, the people of Demmin were trapped when the Red Army moved in. 500 to 1.000 people shot themselves and their children, hanged themselves or went to the -peene – some out of panic at the Russian soldiers, some out of despair at the loss of the war.
"The ghosts of Demmin" are everywhere in Verena Kebler’s debut novel of the same name: they haunt basements and families, frighten contemporary witnesses and cover the present like a veil of gray. Kebler, a 32-year-old from Hamburg who now lives in Leipzig, heard about the story from her boyfriend’s relatives in Demmin, she told in an interview with the Lubeck News.
Verena Kebler: "The ghosts of Demmin". Hanser Berlin, Berlin 2020, 240 pages, 22 euros
For a moment, one is puzzled – because it seems inappropriate to use mass suicide as a foil for the coming-of-age story of a morbid teenager who, in particularly dramatic moments, sometimes lies down in dug-up graves, but otherwise has very age- and genre-typical problems: quarrels with her best friend, no desire to meet her mother’s new boyfriend.
Convincingly trained toughness
But the narrowing of time levels works because Kebler develops it carefully. Until then, you have plenty of time to make friends with Demmin and Larry, who sometimes reminds you of Nini, the heroine of Stefanie de Velasco’s young adult novel "Tigermilch": Like the Berlin girl, Larry is surrounded by a deep melancholy despite her convincingly trained toughness.
"Sunday morning in the Netto parking lot, you can pretty well imagine being the last person on earth," she says. Or: "Sundays in Demmin are like a bath in lukewarm water."Although Larry would rather go to war than live in Demmin forever, Kebler does not describe the small town as limbo. Instead, it finds images for its strangely comforting dreariness that should seem familiar to anyone familiar with net parking lots in the province.
The greatest achievement, however, is her casual, yet not flippant, handling of an old, weighty question: How much compassion do the perpetrator people deserve?? How does one speak about the war traumas of the civilian population, without making oneself common with those, which annually on 8. May to march through Demmin for "commemoration march"?
Empathy for the children’s perspective
Kebler portrays Ms. Dohlberg’s visitations full of empathy for the children’s perspective on war crimes, while Larry and Timo are the voice of radicalism: "I think you should just make an effort to survive," Timo says in a conversation about suicides. At some point you die anyway, and until then you can hold out. "Unless you’re a Nazi," Larissa retorts to that. "Right," says Timo. "Nazis can die anytime for all I care."
Christoph Schlingensief once said that remembering means forgetting: Once an image or event has been sorted into the great commemorative almanac, it can no longer irritate anyone. The reappraisal of the mass suicide in books and films, for example Martin Farkas "About life in Demmin" from 2018, has just begun.
Verena Kebler’s novel is a plea not to forget history too easily.