The Only Paradise
Barbara selected and translated this collection of the letters prior to her own death in 2020. Her Prologue, footnotes and Epilogue provide historical context and personal background. Images of the actual handwritten correspondence and numerous photographs have been added to Barbara’s original manuscript to enliven the translations and enhance the authenticity of this unique epistolary memoir.
Barbara saved all of Ursula's letters and recognized their value. This book is a tribute to human dignity and the spirit that transcends ideology.
What a gift this book will be to teachers and professors of the German language and German history. The author's prologue, footnotes, and epilogue provide context, and the chronological structure of the book allows the reader a fireside seat to a more personal unfolding of the drama of East and West. The letters themselves, written in a lovely German script, are preserved as artifacts in this attractive book.
Ursula's letters reveal her to be very practical, thoughtful, and spiritual. Many of them mention gifts she received from Barbara. How much she loves the copper mold for jello (Yello) that she uses for its decorative value as much or more than for its purpose as a mold (Yello being hard to come by). In almost every letter Ursula mentions gifts she appreciates, protests that they are expensive and then drops hints about what might be appreciated in the future, even as she says she doesn't want more.
The material culture on both sides of the Atlantic is richly described, and the book includes pictures of some of the gifts Barbara received in turn. She cherished notepapers decorated with dried flowers, postcards, and little stuffed bears. These gifts were accompanied always by the kind of news shared only with true friends: both the agonies and the ecstasies.
As Ursula, who is many years older than Barbara, makes her big decision about whether to stay in the East or to move to the West after the wall comes down, the variables she weighs are mostly financial. Her pension will cover her costs if she remains. If she moves, she fears she would not have enough to cover rent and expenses in a decent place. She very carefully plans for each vacation, and the two women are able to meet again numerous times after the wall comes down (Barbara takes a job in West Berlin and also visits again after she returns home).
One of the most interesting aspects of the view after the wall comes down is the contrast between the initial euphoria on both sides and then the settling in of what feels like second-class citizenship to the East Berliners. Some of them develop nostalgia for the old days of Soviet control. Ursula herself does not seem bitter, but she is clear-eyed about her choices, and she is canny in making the best of whatever circumstance she is in. Her faith seems to grow stronger as she nears the end of her life. She finds community in her church. Finally, readers must be grateful to Barbara's sister-in-law, Laurie Gray, whose name does not appear in the book but whose finishing touches have given a gift that preserves Ursula's and Barbara's memories and offers lessons in the power of friendship to the world. Shirley Hershey Showalter Author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World and former president of Goshen College