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Katia by Bruce Judisch
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's review
Nov 10, 11

Read in September, 2011

Surviving a Dictatorship: A Review of Katia

I chose to read Bruce Judisch’s novel Katia because much of it takes place in a time period that fascinates me: the period after World War II through the collapse of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

A contemporary young woman whose life has shrunk to boy friend, sorority, and cell phone learns from the memories of an older woman about the weightier issues of sacrifice and courage.

Maddy McAllister, an American journalism student studying in Germany, is hired to write the memoirs of Katia Mahler. Katia paints the picture of life during the Soviet-sponsored communist regime in East Germany after World War II. Katia’s friend, Oskar Schultmann, hovers in the background. Maddy comes to understand that both are hiding secrets from each other.

Through Katia’s telling, we see the Communist regime tighten its grip on East Germany following World War II. The Cold War drifts into place and the Iron Curtain falls. Freedoms on the eastern side of the Curtain are curtailed. Fair elections in which citizens choose their own government, are unknown. However, the regime is unable to prevent people from voting with their feet and escaping to the democratically ruled West Germany. To prevent their escape, the regime constructs the infamous Berlin Wall.

Oskar describes life under the Communists to Maddy. “Life in the East during what you Americans call the Cold War was something you cannot understand without experience,” he says. “You trusted no one. The son spied on his father, the pastor on his church, the postman on his neighbors.”

Katia’s brother and a friend attempt an escape. Did either of them make it? Katia doesn’t know. She doesn’t even know if her brother should have trusted his friend.

I always assumed that escapees from East Germany happily found a new life in the West. From the book we learn that spies from East Germany infiltrated the West, and, Oskar explains, escapees never knew who might be watching to assassinate them. Once the Wall fell and freedom came to East Germany, those who had betrayed or tortured did not know if their victims were alive and free and perhaps stalking them.

Eventually we learn Katia’s complete story. It includes secrets hidden for years. Maddy learns as well about devotion to the truth even if the truth is not always “fair.”

Bruce Judisch has written a compelling story of a time that ended in great jubilation but contains hints of the complex world that we inhabit today. Those who don’t know history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.


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