The Book


In her memoir, Walled-In, J. Elke Ertle shares what it was like to grow up in West Berlin, Germany, during the aftermath of World War II, a time when the city was divided into American, British, French, and Soviet occupation sectors. Initially, forty percent of all structures in the city were destroyed. There was little food or shelter. Many died, but Elke’s family survives.

Then the Soviets cut off all surface access to West Berlin. The food warehoused in the city was expected to last for no more than thirty-five and the coal for no more forty-five days. Blackout, cold, and starvation loomed for the population. To counteract the Soviet move, the Western Allies began airlifting all food and heating materials into the city. This unprecedented logistical feat became known as the Berlin Airlift. It lasted for eleven months. During that period, the total distance flown equaled 200 trips to the moon.

East-West tensions continued to mount and the city became the focus of an escalating Cold War. Khrushchev described West Berlin as the testicles of the West. Whenever he wanted to cause the West a little pain, he simply had to squeeze Berlin. As the gap between the East German and West German standard of living continued to widen, increasing numbers of East Germans exited westward. By the early 1960s, that exodus had left the East German economy in danger of complete collapse. To stop the outflow of workers and professionals, the East German government erected makeshift barbed wire barriers in 1961. Over the next twenty-eight years, these crude obstructions morphed into a twelve-foot-high and ninety-six-mile long monstrosity, known as the Berlin Wall. It split the city into two, separating families and friends.

During these years of political turmoil, Elke is brought up to unquestioning obedience. An only child of strict parents with rigid rules, she befriends an American service family and glimpses a very different lifestyle, one that encourages dialogue and mutual acceptance. When she falls in love and defies parental authority for the first time, she ignites a parent-daughter conflict that parallels in intensity the Cold War between East and West. She finds herself incarcerated behind walls as impenetrable as the one that divides her city. While the Berlin Wall cripples her physical freedom, the walls her uncompromising parents erect threaten the last vestiges of her autonomy. On her twenty-first birthday–at the very moment she expects her bells of freedom to ring–her mother makes a startling revelation that strengthens her resolve to immigrate to the United States.

Interweaving history with personal experiences, J. Elke Ertle takes the reader on a remarkable journey into her closely supervised, yet happy childhood, her youthful disillusionment, and her deliberate, albeit difficult decision to choose freedom. With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall less than a year away, Walled-in covers is timely slice of history.