Selections from When I Left Karl Liebknecht


In the Karl Liebknecht House in Leipzig, Germany, thirty people of various nationalities are seated around an improvised table on the stage in the Events Hall, interpreters behind them, some with texts in front of them, some without, and while it looks as if they’re at an ordinary meeting, they are, in fact, at an exceptional one, one that could be called a performance. They are taking part in a pilot project organized by the Society of Admirers of Karl Liebknecht of Leipzig, which, on 19 January 2018, in recognition of the 99th anniversary of the death of Karl Liebknecht—the great German leftist and colleague of Rosa Luxemburg—had invited them, all migrants who, prior to their emigration, had lived at an address either bearing his name or having some other connection with him. Some had changed addresses temporarily, others had moved away forever, some wanted to leave, some never completely left, and yet others were connected in some particular way with places named “Karl Liebkhnecht.” The call was announced publicly, and it generated a great deal of interest, but in the end, thirty people were selected. The hall is completely packed: some are residents of Leipzig, most others somehow connected with Karl Liebknecht, a majority also members of the Society of Admirers of Karl Liebknecht. All are showing great interest in the event.

After a short speech by a representative of the Society of Admirers of Karl Liebknecht, people are given the opportunity either to speak freely or to read from a prepared text–each in their own way, in whatever manner they wished and considered appropriate–about how their Karl Liebknecht address had left its mark on them, both while they were living there and afterward. 


Kristine, 36, Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany – Słubice, Poland

I am a German teacher. I graduated from Karl Liebknecht High School in Frankfurt an der Oder, then studied in Berlin, but now my family and I have been living for several years in Słubice, Poland, where I teach German at the Zbigniew Herbert High School. My husband works in Frankfurt an der Oder, my hometown, and every day he drives precisely five minutes to get to the air conditioning business that relocated there from Berlin. I used to work for the company as well, but thank God, I am now finally doing what I studied, in Słubice no less, in Julian’s city. My daughter goes to the local primary school; my husband is the only one who goes back and forth to Frankfurt, driving past the Wikipedia monument on the Polish side of the border. If Julian could see it, he would give a throaty and ironic laugh, then wipe his glasses, hug me with one arm, and pat me on the back. Who came up with the idea of putting a Wikipedia monument in Słubice? The only other thing separating Frankfurt an der Oder and Słubice is the bridge across the Oder. In Frankfurt you hear the same ringing of the bell tower of the “Church of the Most Holy Mother of God” as you do here in Słubice.

It seems my whole life has been connected with these two cities, and somehow, it is not only Frankfurt an der Oder that is my hometown, but Słubice as well. Strange, isn’t it? Even when I was studying at Karl Liebknecht High School, Frankfurt and Słubice had so many joint projects and our school programs were so interwoven that if there’s anybody with two hometowns, it’s me, that is, all of us who lived in one town or the other. In my second year of high school I had the opportunity to participate in a student exchange program and spent a year in Słubice attending high school, and now I live here with my family and I work in that same high school. When I was a high school student I lived in a dormitory. I quickly became friends with the Polish students in my class—none of us had any problem with Polish or German; it was as if we had been born bilingual.

My best friend was not a girl, but a young male student, Julian, and everyone in our class joked that we were head over heels in love, when in fact we were only the best of friends. Right from the start of our friendship, Julian said, “I have never kissed a girl, and I don’t think I ever will.” “Me neither,” I told him, and that made us laugh, me with embarrassment, hesitantly, but he, with his throaty and ironic laugh. Then he took off his glasses to wipe them with the handkerchief from his coat’s breast pocket. My laughter, followed by his—always with that overtone of irony—followed by the wiping of his glasses with the handkerchief from his coat, really brought us so close together that every Friday afternoon after school, rather than going home to Frankfurt an der Oder, I would go to Julian’s house; later in the evening he would walk me up the street; I would sleep in the dormitory, then go home on Saturday morning.

Julian didn’t have a mother. I learned that the first time he invited me over to his house after school. On the desk in his room was her photograph in a frame like those you see on gravestones with a memorial photo. It was several months later that Julian told me his mother had committed suicide when he was three years old. She had jumped from the window above the desk, a window he never opened, and once, when I wanted to look down from the fifth floor, he just said to me, “Don’t.”

Julian lived with his father, a man so old that I thought he was his grandfather the first time I saw him, since my father seemed half his age. His father, who had been an active mountain climber in his youth, greeted me curtly and then disappeared into one of the apartment’s other three rooms. Once when I went to Julian’s, his four-year-old nephew was there, the son of one of his sisters. I learned that he had three sisters, the oldest a full twenty years older than him. None of them lived with him, but they came back to their old home regularly to look after the housekeeping for their father and brother.

In school, Julian distinguished himself from the other students by always wearing perfectly ironed shirts, an unusual wardrobe item for a young high school student. Over his shirt he always wore a jacket coordinated with the color of the shirt, and always with a small breast pocket containing a beautifully ironed white silk handkerchief. All the other boys wore blue jeans, but Julian usually wore trousers made of velveteen or some other nice material, which, thankfully, weren’t ironed with a sharp crease, because I am sure our classmates would then have teased him even more, since as it was, he was treated like a weirdo. He frequently also wore a tie that clashed oddly with the rest of his outfit. His hair was always carefully washed and slicked back, like actors in Hollywood films from the fifties. No, there was no other boy like him in Słubice, nor in the Karl Liebknecht school in my city. Maybe that’s why I was attracted by his appearance, which was really just the façade of a human being more intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful than anyone I had ever met before or later in my life. What was there that Julian didn’t know! I thought that by knowing Polish alongside my mother tongue, I was on my way to becoming a polyglot, but he already was one: he spoke French and English fluently. By the age of seventeen he’d already read the works of all the German philosophers I’d barely opened and rarely understood. He knew Hölderlin’s poetry by heart, whereas I hardly knew anything more about Polish poetry than what we’d learned in school. I was often embarrassed when confronted with his knowledge, but he always gave his throaty and ironic laugh when I’d say to him, “Don’t get me frustrated, I haven’t read that either.” Then he would hug me with one arm and pat me on the back as though I was his buddy, not his girlfriend.

One of Julian’s sisters was often at his home. The sisters were even odder than Julian. They carried a sense of guilt. They wore no makeup, their hair was combed and smoothed back, gathered into a ponytail; they dressed in long skirts and clean blouses, and their nails were carefully clipped and unpolished, smelling of soap and sorrow. They moved and spoke quietly, muffled like nuns. They ironed Julian’s and their father’s shirts and pants quietly, skillfully, but silently, shoulders hunched, eyes vacant, yet here they were, most often in Julian’s room, because for some unknown reason that is where the ironing board stood. It was as if they carried the guilt of the death of their mother, who looked at them with a tender smile from the photograph on Julian’s desk under the window from which she’d jumped from the fifth floor. Why? Julian and his sisters never spoke about it. His sisters didn’t speak to me at all; they would merely throw me a weak hello and ciao. Yet I didn’t have the impression they were upset, nervous, or angry that I was with Julian as we sat in the room together on his bed looking at an encyclopedia of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy or translating excerpts from Kant into Polish.

When Julian’s nephew was there—all his sisters’ other children were nieces, and they were older and rarely came to visit their uncle and grandpa—we played cards and laughed, most often the nephew and I, but Julian would laugh throatily and ironically when one of us made a bad play, and we would call out, “High five!” when one of us won at go fish or rummy. The boy would then leave the room and go to his grandfather, and we wouldn’t hear another sound from him. In the evening, around eight, before I left, Julian would throw his house coat on over his nice shirt and pants, or a v-neck sweater, and he would accompany me down the stairs and to the corner of the street; he would hug me with one hand while tapping me kindly on the back like always, and he’d say to me, “We’ll see each other on Monday,” and, almost at a run, I would cross the three streets that separated me from the dormitory. As I ran, I would turn to see whether Julian had gone inside his building, and I would seek out the window of his room. It was at the top, the fifth floor, of a building constructed in the same Socialist style as mine in Frankfurt an der Oder. East Germany and Poland weren’t that different, nor are they today, except for one thing: today, everything is much cheaper in Słubice than it is in Frankfurt an der Oder–at least, that is, for us Germans.

When I was at home on weekends with my family, no matter what I did, no matter who I socialized with, I was constantly thinking about Julian. I often caught myself dreaming that one day he would unexpectedly tell me he loved me, and we would become boyfriend and girlfriend. But when I thought how we would have to kiss each other on the lips, the dreams would vanish: Julian and I could only kiss each other on the cheek, plus there was his inevitable one-armed hug accompanied by the sudden pat on the back. No, that did not look like people in love, at least not like in the movies that ran in the Frankfurt movie theaters. Julian was the closest male in the world to me, but I couldn’t imagine we would kiss on the mouth, though it seemed as if nothing stood between my lips and his but the photograph of his mother on his desk beneath the window of her death. Still, when I thought of the end of the school year and how I’d have to return full-time to Frankfurt an der Oder, I thought I might yet get past Julian’s dead mother and kiss him. But when Julian told me he would be spending the next year in my city on the student exchange between Frankfurt an der Oder and Słubice, the joy I felt in my soul quickly drove away any vulgar thought of that kiss.

And so our friendship continued in Frankfurt an der Oder, where Julian got a room in the dormitory near “Karl Liebknecht,” my high school. Now he was my classmate, but he never made friends with anyone else in the class. We sat together, ate our snacks together (I had a sandwich from home; he made something in the dorm cafeteria at breakfast), we walked together around the school during our recess, talking nonstop about great literary and philosophical topics and other things, freely moving from Polish to German and from German to Polish. Of course, he talked the most, and I agreed with everything he said.

On Fridays after school he had to return home to his father in Słubice, his large suitcase filled with shirts, slacks, jackets, ties, and everything else his sad sisters had to wash, iron, and prepare for him for the following week. The saddest day for me was Friday, when I knew he would go and we wouldn’t see each other until Monday. The year I was in Słubice, we spent every Friday at his house, but now I spent Fridays alone. In fact, after the year spent in Słubice, in Frankfurt an der Oder I felt more and more alone. Usually, I walked with him to the dorm. He would make that throaty and ironic laugh when I plucked a hair from his jacket, he would take off his glasses and wipe them with the handkerchief from the small breast pocket in his jacket, then he would hug me with one arm and pat me on the back. He would go into the building to get his bag, and I would turn around and run home, my soul filled with emptiness and nostalgia. I would then routinely go into the Church of the Holy Cross, where I would sit with my vacant thoughts until my legs grew numb from the cold floor. I would finally go home and nag my mother, saying she just had to call my aunt and convince her to send my cousin over to our house the next day, so that I would have someone to go out in the city with, go to the movies, talk about this and that and not feel so alone. But on Sunday I was already getting ready for Monday, when Julian and I would see each other at school. Although he would already have returned to Frankfurt Sunday evening, he never called then for the two of us to see each other right away; we waited until Monday, when we would be in school.

One day, my parents told me that the following weekend we would be going on a picnic at Lake Helene, outside the city. We had never gone there; because the Oder flowed through the city we had never thought about going to a different body of water. My father was celebrating his fortieth birthday, however, and he wanted us to spend the day out in nature. I don’t know how I did it, but I asked whether Julian could join us. They’d heard about Julian, especially the story about his mother—whenever my mother heard it she’d cross herself—but they hadn’t met Julian, because for some reason he’d never come to our house. “Let him come,” my father said. And so the first thing on Monday, I told Julian that my father had personally invited him and had even insisted that he come with us the following Saturday, which was a lie, of course, but otherwise I couldn’t have convinced him to stay the weekend. Julian throatily and ironically laughed, cleaned his glasses with his handkerchief, hugged me with one arm, patted my back, and said, “Okay.”

I remember my father’s birthday most of all because Julian was there, and especially because of our walk along the lake after the others had had a bit to drink and were lying on the beach telling jokes. He and I stole away and set off along the shore opposite the beach. The walk was like every other we had taken around my, that is our, Karl Liebknecht High School. Still, what remains in my memory is one momentary scene in which while I was walking behind him, we reached a tree growing with its trunk nearly touching the lake and a thicket of reeds in the water. On the other side stood а bush so full of thorns that we couldn’t get past it. We had to step into the lake to get around it and continue on. Julian carefully took off his shoes and socks, rolled his beautifully ironed pants up to his knees, and stepped into the water. I was flustered by the sight and waded in with my shoes on; my dress got wet up to above my knees. I began laughing uncontrollably, and when Julian turned around and saw me, he pulled aside the thicket, which had pricked my dress and nearly dragged me into the lake. He gave his throaty and ironic laugh, but he couldn’t wipe his glasses, because he was holding his shoes in one hand and holding back the thicket with the other so I could get past. Then we continued on in the most normal fashion, I, barefoot with my shoes in one hand, hiking up my wet dress in the other, he in front of me, shoes on and put together as if nothing had happened. At that moment, the question flashed in my mind whether Julian and I would be together, one way or another, our whole lives. Now when I think of Julian, I picture most of all this scene with the thicket by the lake and the thought inside me like pain.

Much time has passed since then. I spent my fourth year of high school at my school, he at his. From time to time we spoke on the phone, but we saw each other only once: at the showing of the film Lilya 4-ever in our movie theater when it had been arranged for fourth-year students to come over from Julian’s high school. We sat next to each other, watching the film and swallowing the lumps in our throats brought on by the story; at the end, both of us were so overcome with sadness that we could only sit silently while the others bustled around the theater’s canteen. Who knows why, but after that, we never saw each other again.

A short while later, his father died in a fall from a cliff. He had been a longtime mountaineer, but evidently no longer had strength enough for his mountaineering club’s anniversary expedition. Julian’s youngest sister and her family moved in. He told me this over the phone, but he never again asked me to visit. And he had never come to my home while he was staying in Frankfurt an der Oder, and that’s how things remained. My only hope of seeing him was the evening of our graduation, since our two schools decided we would celebrate together for several hours; we would start walking toward them and they toward us, and we would meet on the bridge across the Oder, and in this way eternalize the friendship between our schools. Julian made no comment about his graduation on the phone, and when I asked, “You’ll come, right?” he laughed forcedly, neither throatily nor ironically, but his voice was on the edge of tears, and I could almost see from the other side of the line how he wiped his eyes, and I wanted him to clean his glasses as he had before, to hug me with one arm and pat me on the back. Julian was not there that night at the graduation ceremony on the bridge, and his classmates told me I shouldn’t have expected him to come when his family was still mourning the death of his father. No, no I hadn’t thought of that; Julian and his father had never seemed close to me, but apparently it was otherwise.

After graduation, I enrolled at the university in Berlin, where I met Klaus. I finished my studies but could never find work in my field, so I worked in Klaus’s air conditioning business, and then we got married. In the third month of my pregnancy with our daughter Claudia, I happened to run into one of Julian’s former classmates at Alexanderplatz. We were both pleasantly surprised by the meeting—I, of course, for the chance to ask after Julian, since we were no longer in contact and I didn’t know what was going on with him. “How is Julian?” I asked. “Julian? But Kristine, Julian committed suicide three months ago,” he said, his eyes brimming with the shock of my having asked about something I should have known. “He threw himself from the window in his room,” he said, still not believing that he had to tell me this, rather than I being the one to inform others. “I thought you were at the burial; we weren’t there, his sisters wanted to bury him with only a circle of those closest to him.” I looked at him as though I were peering through a display window, not believing what he’d said. My legs gave way beneath me, and I had to sit down on a curb in the square. “Why?” I managed to get out. “Who knows?” he replied, “Maybe because when he returned from his position teaching Polish in Budapest, he couldn’t find work and saw no way forward.” Julian was a Polish lecturer in Budapest? I knew nothing about that. I hated myself for not contacting him a single time all those years. But I had wanted to so many times! I had always felt that he should call, and I was angry at him for never contacting me. What mistakes occur because of human stupidity! I will never forgive myself. Only a fifteen-minute walk separated us! I could not believe he’d killed himself because he couldn’t find new work. After all, his youngest sister and her family lived there in the apartment and would surely have helped him until he found his way.

No, Julian likely committed suicide because of his mother’s suicide. The time simply came for him to do it. As he looked at his mother’s photograph beneath the window, it must have seemed natural that one day he would jump. From the same window, above the same desk. Was that the first time he had opened the window since her death? Did he move his mother’s photograph when he climbed up to throw himself out? Or perhaps he had already placed his own photograph beside hers, and now the two of them look out tenderly at his sister while she irons clothes. No longer shirts and pants, nor ties in eccentric colors, nor white silk handkerchiefs. Only black clothes for all the dead, past and future.


Irena, 21, Skopje, Macedonia – Tirana, Albania

I moved away from Skopje’s Karl Liebknecht Street last year, after completing my studies in international law, with knowledge of English, German, French, and Albanian, and no future. I kept applying for jobs, both in Macedonia and abroad, and finally, I was offered a one-year project in the office of a German foundation in Tirana, Albania. The foundation is trying to implement further use of European Union laws in the Albanian legal system and its main work is to connect Albanian society with that of its neighboring countries.

My brother and my parents, lost in their terrible world, folded up the sofabed I had slept on since childhood even before I had left for the bus station. I couldn’t wait a second longer either; I could barely wait to leave, it made no difference whether to New York or Tirana. I was never happy in my home in Skopje, I never had good relations with my brother or my parents, and now I’m doing everything I can either to remain in Tirana when my project here ends or to go somewhere else. I know that no one in the family misses me. My family should have ended up in a psychiatric institution long ago, but there was no one to put them there, and I was too timid to take that step. In fact, everyone in our neighborhood knows us for three things: my brother is “Branko the idiot who begs for money for the bus and wanders around Skopje,” I am “Irena, beautiful and clever, but what for, with all those idiots at home; she even tried to commit suicide when she was younger,” and as for my mother and father, “You’d say they were fine people, her with her beehive hair and high heels, all put together, and him calling out good day, good morning to all his neighbors, but for years they’ve been walking around inside their apartment naked and they don’t even roll down the blinds. They have no shame and no curtains!”

Yes, that’s all true. My brother has shown signs of psychiatric disorder ever since he was young—he didn’t understand many things at school or on television; for example, he couldn’t grasp the difference between a house and an apartment; he’d say we lived in a house, though we lived in an apartment, and he got F’s at school, and because of that, my father beat him with his belt, my mother, with her high heels, and when he got to school covered in bruises, they simply gave him enough D’s so he could pass and not repeat the year. They didn’t want him on their conscience. But no one did anything more than that for him, not the teachers or any of the neighbors. Neither our relatives nor anyone else ever visited us a second time—when they arrived the first time, my family would greet them naked, just like the way they walked around all the time. When I was young, I thought it was interesting; once, while they watched television, I was sitting in my mother’s lap and reached up to touch her breast—I’m sure I was already five or six years old, since I can remember it. She chuckled and slapped my bum. My brother and I were naked all the time. As soon as we got home from anywhere, we would all take off our clothes, but we didn’t put on any house clothes, we just sat around naked, in winter and in summer, my mother most often in high-heeled house shoes. In summer, it was even pleasant to be naked, but in winter we turned on the three electric heaters we had at home, and we quickly got used to being naked, even in winter conditions. When someone rang the doorbell, we’d open the door naked, but it was not often that anyone rang.

When I was in third grade and other schoolchildren began to call out, “Irena’s got a naked butt, a car will crush her like a nut!” I was so embarrassed that our nakedness began to bother me. I began to revolt, and I stopped taking my clothes off after school, but my brother, who was older than me, still did, and he’d hurl himself on the floor while shouting at me that I had to undress, and if I didn’t, I’d really get it good when Mom and Dad got home from work. My mother worked in a kindergarten—even today I am amazed that was possible. She wasn’t given notice until she was forty-six, though she maintains that she submitted her resignation. After that, she worked as a waitress in a pastry shop. She went to work dressed in tight tailored skirts or dresses, and always, always wore shoes with such high heels that she couldn’t walk straight, and her legs wobbled at the knees. I don’t know how she even sat around at home in heels. My father worked in the Tito metal plant, that is, in the plant that’s there now, as a mechanical engineer, but about two years ago he was put on disability. Was it a psychiatric diagnosis? Apparently, someone reported that he walked around naked at home, and so that we didn’t die of hunger, he was given a disability pension. How was it possible for a person with a university degree to behave like that, walk around the house naked? My brother was clearly a child with special needs, but he was never treated like one. Sometimes he was more normal, but most often he either gazed at the ceiling or swung his head wildly back and forth until it dropped from exhaustion. He would go days without eating, but my parents didn’t notice. Now he is a grown man, and you can count his ribs; he walks with a waddling gait around the neighborhood and begs throughout the city for bus money, dressed in an unwashed shirt and the same underwear he’s worn for weeks at a time, his hair disheveled . . . everyone turns to look at him and they call him Branko the Fool. I don’t know how I managed to live so many years in the same room with him.

They continued going around the house naked, but I no longer noticed their nakedness; I had undergone autogenic training, so that it no longer bothered me. It didn’t get to me, and I simply didn’t see it. Despite all the arguments and insults I endured from all three of them, I was the only one who sat at home fully dressed, and I changed my clothes in the washroom after I got the key from underneath the washing machine where I’d hidden it because they’d also put away the keys, so anyone could go anywhere without knocking. No longer could anyone see me naked, either inside or from outside looking through the windows with no blinds in our apartment on the ground floor of the building on Karl Liebknecht Street. The neighbors were now accustomed to the nakedness in our apartment; it remained interesting, funny, and scandalous only for the new generations of children. Several times, policemen stood outside and stared into our apartment, but they likely thought it was our private business whether we were dressed or not at home. It wasn’t a disruption of public peace and order. But how come no one asked whether all the members of the family wanted to be naked, or whether they were forced to be? Surely people looking from outside saw me dressed and everyone else naked? Or maybe they were perverts like my family?

I especially couldn’t stand my brother’s and father’s sex organs, which constantly shifted positions, now forward, now tucked back, now upright. I loathe, and will loathe for the rest of my life, male and female sex organs! It is because of them that I attempted to kill myself when I was thirteen. When I saw my father with his erect organ walking into the bedroom where my mother was reading a women’s magazine, I knew I would soon hear screams emanating from there sounding like someone was being slaughtered. Often the door wasn’t even closed, and my brother would stand there and watch them having sex. When his sex organ was erect he’d come into our room and push me onto the bed; he wanted to rape me, thinking that was something normal: since his organ was erect, he had the right to discharge it, and where else but in the female sex organ, that is, in me. I think I went out of my mind from my own screams. I pushed him, hit him, kicked him, and I always managed to free myself, because he weighed barely forty kilos, and I weighed much more. I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in, and waited for everyone to calm down, my mother and father pretending to scold my brother, “When you have a wife, you’ll have sex with her.” Then my brother, out of the frustrations that tore him apart in every sense, would break glasses or dishes. He often threw himself at my mother naked, and she would laugh and push him away saying, “You little fool,” but my father would go crazy, and he’d take the belt from the armrest of the chair and hit his naked behind. Who knows if my mother and brother ever had sex? It seems to me now that even that could have happened in our house. It was definitely a crazy house, in every sense. I still wonder why the state didn’t look after us, after me. I had nowhere to go; I simply saw no exit. I began to think it would be better not to exist, to be no longer alive.

One July day while we were on holiday, my brother tried to rape me and nearly succeeded. But I then weighed sixty-three kilos, because I ate everything I could find, both out of compulsive hunger and because of my self-protection against my brother. I hit him on the head with a vase and called my mother at the kindergarten to tell her that Branko’s head was bleeding. My father came quickly, changed clothes, shoved him into our green Citroën Dyane and took him to the doctor’s. While I was at home alone, I swallowed my mother’s pills and lay down on my couch. As if in a dream, I heard her say, “She’s gone and swallowed my diazepam, the idiot!” So my father put me in the Dyane that day, too. I think he carried me from the room in his arms, and at the hospital they wrote on my chart, “attempted suicide.” I survived. After that, our apartment became quiet. They continued to walk around naked, but I didn’t notice them. It was as if I had grown up, matured. I went to my former daycare teacher, she’s the only one I thought of, and I told her everything. She connected me with a woman who did autogenic training, though I didn’t know what that was. Mrs. Nevena taught me how to control myself and not get too worked up. She advised me to stay around in the school library, and my daycare teacher arranged for me to be given free food from the school cafeteria. So I’d stay all day at school and at home do practically nothing but sleep.

In high school, I opted for the language stream, and I began to learn languages. I uttered so many words inside me that they entered my subconscious, which became a space for words in other languages. The words gave me protection; in their world I felt safe. My family continued to do crazy things. They went around the apartment naked; my brother had pretty much stopped going to school and began to drink everything he found around the house. He began to roam about and mooch cigarettes or money from anyone he could; sometimes, he didn’t come home to sleep. My mother was given notice from the kindergarten and began to work in the pastry shop, but I watched all this while making a point to take no notice of it. I spent my high school years at school and in the library. Languages came so easily to me that before going to university I already knew German, English, and French fluently.

A professor in the university program for international law said that the future for students in Macedonia was the Albanian language. He couldn’t explain it more concretely, but he said that we would find out for ourselves that this was the case. I immediately began attending conversational language classes in Albanian, and fortunately, in Skopje I had the opportunity to speak it. Right away I felt close to the Albanian girls who wrapped themselves in long coats and scarves in both summer and winter. I envied the clothing they wore, the security, protection in front of others. How much I had lacked such clothing in the years of my childhood, when I’d had to be naked at home, and how much I still lacked it, because there was no way my family would change their habits, even now as they aged with sagging breasts, bellies, and sexual organs. When I’d leave the university, I’d circle past the National Theatre, then go past the downtown shopping center and across the Stone Bridge to walk through the old Turkish market and get to the bus stop for the number fifty bus next to the Bit-Pazar, the open-air market, just to catch glimpses of the Albanian women in their coats and scarves, because that’s where a lot of them were. I didn’t think about whether they were hot, whether they were bothered by the clothing, whether someone forced them to dress like that, whether it was their choice to be dressed from head to toe—no, I simply liked their bodies, of which you could not see a single centimeter. I greeted them kindly in Albanian; I handed a couple of coins out of my merit scholarship to the beggars sitting on the sidewalks with their young children. I spoke to them in Albanian, and they were pleased with both the money and my words. I, in turn, was pleased with their clothes, which wrapped their bodies from head to toe. Once, in the Church of St. Demetrius, I saw a nun dressed in a long garment covering her whole body. I loved her black clothing, but I was flustered and greeted her in Albanian. She looked at me in confusion and crossed herself. After that, I rarely entered the church. I spent my time either at the university or in the libraries. I rarely went to parties; I feared any male glance. I wanted no one to touch me even on the head, let alone any more intimate place.

Right after graduation I set about applying for work. But there was nothing for me in Macedonia. The minute I stumbled upon the ad on the internet about this project in Tirana, I applied, and fortunately, now that I’m there, I speak and write in English, German, and, most of all, Albanian all day. That professor in Skopje was right, at least in my case. At first, I was surprised that there were no covered women in Tirana, but I quickly understood that Enver Hoxha, with his atheization of Albania, had left Albanian women forever with no feeling of religious belonging. Today, the city is more European, mobile, and secure. The young women walk around in miniskirts, the young men stare at them, but no one is so naked that I recall my life in Skopje. I either need to stay in Tirana or go somewhere else, but I will never return to my former home on Karl Liebknecht in Skopje. In the most extreme circumstance, I’ll either enter a convent and wear monastic clothing from head to foot, or I’ll become a Muslim woman and begin to wear a coat and scarf. Or I’ll simply buy three packets of diazepam and I’ll chug them down. It’s available here without a prescription.


Frederik, 29, Schneeberg, Germany – Leipzig, Germany

If the prison weren’t in Leipzig, I wouldn’t be here. Please excuse my handcuffs and the person next to me, Detlef, the prison guard who has to accompany me to this meeting, but you surely must understand the position I find myself in. I was the only one who responded when officials at the prison called out through the loudspeaker several days ago in the cafeteria to ask whether any of us had ever lived on a street connected with Karl Liebknecht. They didn’t say why they were looking for such a person, but it caused a stir in the cafeteria and everyone began shouting over each other. Without thinking, I put my hand up and told the guard I had lived in Schneeberg on a street called Karl Liebknecht, and they could check that in their prison files. They did check, and I was called to the office. They told me they were going to take me in the prison van today to the Memorial House of Karl Liebknecht, even though I didn’t know there was such a thing here in Leipzig, though I’ve been in Leipzig before, once when I was a child and later when I was caught for what I did. But it’s not like this building is important to me, and I hardly know anything about Karl Liebknecht either. The prison librarian told me he’d get some books ready for me, but I’ve had such bad trouble with hemorrhoids these past three days that I spent my time in the can in my cell, not in the prison library.

So, what am I supposed to do, say something, like, for example, what I remember about my street in Schneeberg or something like that? That’s what they told me in the prison office. It’s easier for me to just talk, so I didn’t write anything down to read like some other people here are doing. To tell you the truth, the most important thing for me was to get out for at least a few hours, that was my goal, nothing else. So I guess I was lucky that I lived on Karl Liebknecht!

I don’t know why, but ever since I’ve been in prison, it’s already been five years, when I think about home I most often think about the dovecote my father built below the balcony in the house where we lived with my uncle and his family, that is, we lived separately, each with our own families. My uncle had two daughters, one, Elfriede, was normal, pretty I think, with long black hair and a pale face, but the other one, Maria, ugh, I don’t even want to mention her name! She was really butch. After high school she worked as a security guard at the municipal building in Schneeberg. My sister Anya is the same age as Elfriede, our younger cousin, and they were friends, but I was the only boy in the whole extended family and I didn’t have anyone to play with. Most of the time I would stand on our balcony and tease the pigeons who lived underneath it. Every day after work my father would open the dovecote and play with the pigeons for hours—he let them fly around, he talked to them, fed them, and bragged about them to everyone on the street. Even today, I don’t really know why I didn’t go out with him, but he never asked me. My mother would nearly chase me out of the house, saying, “Go, play with the pigeons, your father’s outside, your uncle’s out, you’re the only one sitting around at home, you’re just like your aunt, who wouldn’t budge from the house even if it caught fire.” Anya and Elfriede would play together on the street, paying no attention to the pigeons or the two fathers; Maria was always going to different sorts of classes and extracurricular activities, not like other girls, not like ballet, for example or a music rehearsal. She went to courses on technology, road safety, and other stuff like that. At least she could have taken me with her, because those things meant more to me, since I was a boy. But that would never have occurred to her, and as for me, not only couldn’t I stand her, but I was too lazy to sign up for anything that took too much effort.

So I stayed home, watched the pigeons from the balcony, whistled at them like I was at a football match, and they’d get frightened and beat their wings so hard their feathers would fly all over the place and Uncle Stefan from the building across the street would gather them and take them into his garage. It’s still not clear to me why he did that and what he did with the feathers. But there’s something specific I really wanted to say: that man, Uncle Stefan, lived with his family in the building across from our house, on our street, Karl Liebknecht in Schneeberg—you see, one side of the street had buildings and the other side had houses—this Uncle Stefan liked me so much that sometimes I thought he was the only grownup who truly loved me. And it was because of that love, and, in the end, because of him, that I ended up in jail.

He had two daughters, one the same age as my cousin Maria, and another older one, but I rarely saw her because she was already going into the city when I was a child. The younger one, Lila, would sometimes hang around with Maria and they played hopscotch out on the street, or “Red Light, Green Light” or Chinese jump rope, but that happened so rarely I’d sometimes forget that Lila even existed. I learned later on that she’d loved to read ever since she was little, and that she went out to play only when her father smacked her hands with his belt and the book would fall out. That’s why Maria would win any game they played with their hands. I didn’t know anything about this at that time. I only knew that Uncle Stefan, when he was standing out there with his arms crossed, as soon as he caught sight of me on the balcony, he’d say in the tenderest voice, “Freddie, sonny, why don’t you come outside a bit, come play with the little doves.” I’d just laugh at him, but my father, and sometimes my uncle, would answer, “Well now,  Stefan, you sure know how to pick the one to call outside, the little house bug that doesn’t leave the house!” But Uncle Stefan wouldn’t give up. Whenever my father opened the dovecote and Uncle Stefan noticed him from the apartment terrace, he’d go down to the front of the building and call me to come out. He had no luck getting me to come out until the first time he handed me a toy across the balcony and nearly stepped on one of the birds sleeping outside of the dovecote. It was a small plastic truck, a Scania, with a blue cabin and red trailer, black tires, and a black man in the driver’s seat. “Look, I got this for you on my vacation,” he said to me, his voice trembling, and I realized that in fact, I hadn’t seen him on the street for ten whole days.

Later on, he began giving me other gifts, things he bought just for me, little pistols, a little dog with a key you turned to make it run around in circles, marbles, small toys sold in newspaper and cigarette kiosks, covered in dust and tucked in the window at the back, but also little wooden flutes, carved dice, and other things like that. “C’mon, Stefan, you’re spoiling the kid, God help him!” my father would say, but my uncle would simply reply, “Leave the guy alone, it makes him happy, he doesn’t have a son.” Uncle Stefan would just say, “Okay, okay, let him play,” and after that, more presents appeared. I began to go out of the house a bit, moving around the dovecote with a toy in my hand or down on the street trying to see how it worked. It seems there wasn’t car traffic back then, that’s very strange to me now, because the whole life of the people living there seemed to take place down on the street between the buildings on one side, and the houses on the other. It was odd that Uncle Stefan palled around with my uncle more than my father, but still, he liked me the most of all the kids on the street. Did he want a son really badly but had been given two daughters?

I didn’t think about that until I had grown up a bit and began to go to middle school, and took the same bus that Lila, Uncle Stefan’s younger daughter, took to university. She was five years older than me, so she was ten during the time Uncle Stefan had paid me the most attention, when I was four or five years old. She was still a child herself, just like my cousin Maria. When I was seven years old, Uncle Stefan was still giving me toys, and he even carved some flutes and whistles for me. But by the time I turned nine, he stopped giving me toys and would just pat me on the head when we saw each other. Lila was already fourteen. So I began riding that bus, and one day I rode with Lila, we were sitting beside each other, and she quietly but cuttingly said to me, “Why don’t you go visit my father? He’s very sick, and you’re the only one he asks after. Mama wanted to call you a few times, but I wouldn’t let her. Why should she, if you don’t feel you need to go visit him when you know how much he loved you when you were young? He still likes you, but he loved you then.” “Yes,” I said, a bit ashamed, “I planned to, but it makes me uncomfortable somehow . . . Uncle Stefan’s such a good man, no one has ever paid me as much attention as he did.” “He never paid me any,” said Lila, perhaps unintentionally, or maybe on purpose. “And he’s not a good man, at least he was never good to my sister and me. You have no idea how many beatings I endured just to make me go out, you don’t know how many times Sonya went without a snack at school because he didn’t want to give her money. And are you even aware that on every holiday, no matter where we were, the most important thing was for us to find a toy for you, this for Freddie, that for Freddie, Freddie will be so happy, Freddie this and Freddie that. It was never anything for us, only for you. My mother would just say, ‘Enough already, you’re spoiling him,’ or ‘Nora and Wilhelm will get mad,’ but she never said, ‘Why don’t we buy something for Lila and Sonya?’ She was afraid of him, while he seemed to live only for you: little cars, toy pistols, balls, dogs, cats, and for days on end he’d carve sticks for you, but if someone at home asked him to do something, he never had time . . . Yes, nothing can be changed now, but I want you to know that you ruined my childhood, simply because you’re a boy, because my mother didn’t give birth to a son. He couldn’t stand me, in particular, because he had hoped that the second would be a boy, not another daughter. And what then? Nothing! He simply found himself a boy at the neighbors’ whom he could spoil and love as if it were his own son . . .”

I listened, and I wished a hole would open up in the bus so I could fall straight onto the street; I thought I would die from those words coming from her mouth. She wasn’t rude, she wasn’t even mad, but so cutting and cold that my blood froze in my veins. If she had cried, shouted, cursed at me, if she had sworn at me, maybe I could have taken it better, but she was so cold, so tough. And everything she said in her quiet, cutting voice was true. It was clear to me that I had devoured her father’s love which should have been directed toward her and her sister. But was that my fault? I was a child, which is true, a real dear beautiful child, with eyes that were even bluer than they are now, my hair—yes, I had hair then!—was curly and blond, I was like something from a movie, even my name was somehow like in the movies.

Lila got off at the stop before mine muttering a cold “Ciao,” and after that, every day while I waited for the bus to school, I took care not to meet her, or at least not stand or sit anywhere near her. She didn’t look at me either, she stood or sat somewhere else, cold and distant, and she didn’t greet me anymore. I thought I’d forget the incident, but ever since that day, whether I wanted it to or not, it stayed in my mind with all its grotesqueness. I hated Lila from the depths of my soul. I didn’t see Uncle Stefan, I knew he couldn’t go down the stairs, and one day I saw an ambulance bring a stretcher and I knew it was for him, and that he wouldn’t go out to the street anymore because the building had no elevator, and he lived on the top floor, the third, high enough so no one could get him down to the ground floor. Sometimes I considered going to visit him, which Lila expected, but when I thought I might see her too, I felt so sick that I broke out in a sweat as though I were under bright lights. Her sister Sonya no longer lived with them; she had gotten married in Dresden. My father rarely mentioned Uncle Stefan, especially after he sold the dovecote–what was left of it, that is–after the doves caught some kind of illness and most of them died within a week. My uncle was the one who’d hung around with Uncle Stefan all those years, and he often mentioned him when he came back inside the house. A bench had been put at the corner of the street and pensioners and other people without work would gather there. My uncle was unemployed after the watch repair shop closed, and he didn’t know how to do anything else, so he just sat on the bench, played chess, backgammon, cards, or just hung out there and argued politics with the other do-nothings, as my mother called them. So whenever I met my uncle leaving or entering the shared entrance in our hallway with its two doors, one for each of our families, he would mumble, “Your Uncle Stefan isn’t around, but what great conversations we used to have in front of the building.” What could I say to him? “Go over and see him,” or “Yeah, that’s right,” or “It’s because he’s sick,” but nothing came out of my mouth, I would just laugh and slip past him.

So, after Anya and my younger cousin Elfriede got married at just about the same time and moved to different parts of the city, the only ones left in the house were my cousin Maria, the tomboy who strutted around like a drake and began to lose her womanly shape and looked more and more like a stuffed short guy with a man’s haircut. Why didn’t she change her gender? Well, maybe that wasn’t possible back then. She never found a boyfriend or girlfriend but stayed with my uncle, who was already old and bedridden after three strokes. My aunt, who never left the house except to go back and forth between her work at the nearby butcher shop and home, died of cancer. It’s interesting that Maria loved the children of her sister and of my sister and from almost every paycheck she bought them all kinds of toys and presents. Just like Uncle Stefan had earlier. Some children are simply lucky, and when I was a child, I was one of them. But Lila wasn’t, although logically her father’s happiness and attention should have been directed toward her. What’s even stranger is that if it had been like that, had I gotten fewer presents from Uncle Stefan so she and Sonya could have received presents like I did, I wouldn’t have hated her so much, and these many years later I wouldn’t feel such resistance and hatred toward her.

I need to cut my remarks short now, time goes by too quickly for a prisoner outside of prison—and you’re probably thinking to yourselves that I’m in prison because I killed Lila. But that sort of scenario only happens in movies. Life isn’t quite like that. I killed Maria, without intending to, but how can I prove it? Ok, ok, Detlef, I know, I won’t talk about whether I deserved my sentence or whether there was a mistake in the judicial system. They told me in the prison office not to talk about legal matters, because this meeting is about how I left an address named after Karl Liebknecht and no one cares about whether there was proof that I did or didn’t kill someone. But it’s important and it was important for my leaving Schneeberg. Leipzig is the closest city to Schneeberg with a prison for people serving life sentences, so that’s why I’m here. But I didn’t kill Maria because I wanted to, only because of circumstances, but I couldn’t prove that.

I’ll tell you anyway. Five years ago, Uncle Stefan died. I hadn’t seen him for seven or eight years, ever since he was paralyzed and stopped going outside. I didn’t go to their house a single time, I couldn’t because of my repulsion toward Lila. But when he died, his wife, Auntie Sofia, with whom I had never had any contact, came over and told me to come to the funeral. She said, “You know that when you were little, Uncle Stefan loved you more than anyone, as if you were his son.” “I remember,” I told her. “He was very good.” And I went to the burial and there were barely twenty people there. In the end, even the best people, like Uncle Stefan was to me, don’t get the sendoff they deserve. But maybe he was good only to me. Didn’t Lila say that at home he was a bad person?

A week after the burial, Auntie Sofia rang our doorbell once again, this time with a piece of paper in her hand. “Freddie, Sofia is looking for you,” my mother called to me, without inviting her inside. They had never been friends; my mother didn’t even go to Uncle Stefan’s burial with me and my father. She could have, and should have—he loved me so much, but I was her son. To us even our own parents seem strange, let alone other people.

When I went to the door, Aunt Sofia slapped the sheet of paper in my face and shouted at me, “May you rot in hell. Just lap this up: he left you the garage and the car!” “What garage, what car, why?” I didn’t understand, but everything soon became clear to me. Knowing that his end was coming, Uncle Stefan made a will and put down in black and white that the garage would be left to me, Frederik Türk, along with the automobile and everything else in there. Good Lord! Even though I’d never visited him, even when he was sick, Uncle Stefan hadn’t stopped thinking of me. I grabbed the paper and slammed the door in Sofia’s face. Who does she think she is, shouting at me as if it were my fault that her husband left me the garage and the old Golf which would be considered an old junker in a few years? That’s what the man wanted, so that’s what he did!

The next day, I went to the municipal building to see what I needed to do, how to get the key to the garage, since it was obvious that Sofia would never give it to me. And, like I told you, my cousin Maria worked there as a security guard. When she saw me, she came out of her glass cubicle at the front of the building and at first greeted me like a relative. “Oh, Freddie, what are you doing here?” But when I told her what it was all about, her face immediately turned red like a crab. She looked at me angrily and hissed, “Aren’t you the least bit ashamed that he gave you the car plus the garage? What was Lila’s father to you, why should you inherit from him? Why didn’t you give the document back to Auntie Sofia? Let Lila drive the car, she needs it, what’s it to you when you have everything? You are insatiable, you’ve been like that ever since you were a child, you just waited to grab everything from Uncle Stefan’s hands!” Well, you can imagine, everything grew dark before my eyes! I raised my hand to strike her and make her disappear from my sight, make that body, that red face and those fat, short fingers that pressed the pistol on her belt disappear completely. I threw a punch to her stomach; if she hadn’t been so manlike, I might just have just slapped her, but you understand, she was asking for it. But that doesn’t mean I killed her. She just knelt down and then took out her pistol and fired in the air, and she kept yelling, “You idiot, what are you thinking, do you think that you can take everything of Lila’s, just like you took her father, is that it?! And now you want both the garage and the car?” I began to hit her wherever I could, until at some point I pulled the pistol from her hand and shot it. I shot into the air, but she tried to grab it, and it was pointing right at her head. It seemed like all at once she had no head; she burst in all directions. It was as if her mouth, stretched out, all bloody and pouring blood and pieces of flesh from her cheeks kept repeating Lila, Lila, Lila . . .

I was in a kind of fog. I didn’t know what was happening to me or how I had gotten here to Leipzig, where the police captured me. It was only when I got to court that I somehow came to my senses. I don’t even remember today how I got from Schneeberg to Leipzig. Lila was there at the hearing. I saw her in the third row. She hated me from the depths of her soul, and I hated her from the depths of mine. I said that I hadn’t wanted to kill Maria, she killed herself. I had no intention of killing her, only to frighten her, she was my cousin after all! Then the prosecutor asked me, “But you wanted to kill someone, didn’t you? If you hadn’t killed Maria Türk you would have killed someone else. Who?” “Lila . . .” a voice emerged that I couldn’t control or silence. In the third row there was a commotion; evidently Lila had jumped up and wanted to attack me. After that incident she didn’t appear again at my hearing. And I was soon sentenced for life. Here in Leipzig, where there is a section for lifers. There isn’t one in Schneeberg. And that’s the whole story.

I will never go back to Schneeberg, to my street, Karl Liebknecht. No one from there visits me, not my parents or my sister. Soon after Maria’s death I heard that my uncle had died, the uncle my parents had been taking care of for a while. I don’t know what’s happened with Lila, but if she is alive and healthy, she must be using the garage and the car Uncle Stefan left to me—to me, not to her! He loved me more than anyone. I don’t have anything in prison except a little car, the smallest of any I’ve been given. It’s really for a keychain, a miniature blue plastic Toyota with yellow windows. The prison psychologist ordered someone to take it from the key chain and give it to me so my hands won’t shake when I’m doing something. I play with the little car in my cell all the time, even though the wheels don’t turn. Let someone just try to take it from me! What does a person serving a life sentence have to lose trying to protect something of his, something holy, like for me, the little blue Toyota with yellow windows from Uncle Stefan? Nothing, except that same little blue car with yellow windows, which they didn’t allow me to bring with me today, but it’s waiting for me safe under my pillow in my cell.

Yes, I know, my time has run out, I haven’t talked so much since I’ve been in prison, thank you for listening to me, and be careful who you love and who loves you in this life.


It would be interesting to hear more stories from former and current residents of places named for Karl Liebknecht throughout the world. This storytelling meeting was a first, and represents a trial run for the next one, which will be held the nineteenth of January 2019, on the occasion of the centennial of Karl Liebknecht’s death. It has been planned that following the demonstration on the street bearing his name here in Leipzig for the rights not only of migrant workers in Europe, but for all people whose rights are endangered—humanity has not stopped fighting for these rights for centuries—the Society of Admirers of Karl Liebknecht will invite another thirty people connected with the address Karl Liebknecht throughout the world, who, at this second meeting, will tell how, or whether, the address Karl Liebknecht marked them, their life that is, either when they lived on it or afterward. History should repeat only the good things. It should be a good teacher in that at least.


Lidija Dimkovska

Lidija Dimkovska is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator, born in Macedonia, living in Slovenia. She has published six books of poetry, three novels, one American diary, and one short story collection translated into more than 20 languages. She has also edited three anthologies.

Christina E. Kramer

Christina E. Kramer is a professor emerita in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. She is the author of numerous works on the Macedonian language and Balkan linguistics, and a translator of Macedonian literature.

Copyright (c) Lidija Dimkovska, 2019. English translation copyright (c) Christina E. Kramer, 2020.