Magdalena Parys

Magdalena Parys, 2020
Magdalena Parys, 2020

The subjects that Magdalena Parys deals with are not easy. Even as a child she was writing stories that made her mother ask the question: “Why do you have to be so bleak?” To this day, dark chapters, predominantly from German history, play on her mind. Her novels “The Tunnel” (2011) and “The Magician” (2014) begin with criminal cases in the present day. But the investigations lead back to the depths of history and are testimony to the author’s meticulously precise research. Ultimately, neither of the two books are a classic crime drama or an historical novel. Instead, in these books Parys uses historical events to explore the abysses of systems that have been created by humans, but at the same time have a great influence on humans. And although he only plays a background role in her novels to date, Magdalena Parys is particularly fascinated by Reinhard Gehlen. Born in Erfurt in 1902, he was the founder of “Organisation Gehlen” which spawned the Federal Intelligence Service in 1956. Supported by the USA, one of the occupying powers, Gehlen headed up this German secret service until 1968. For Parys, this former major general of the Wehrmacht, who built up an anti-communist secret service with the assistance of the American government, embodies the major lines of conflict and contradictions of the 20th century. But where does the author’s interest in the battle of the systems, like the one that endured during the Cold War, actually come from?

Magdalena Parys was born in Gdansk in 1971. Because her parents separated when she was still a child, she grew up in the house of her grandparents on her mother’s side in Danzig-Langfuhr and in her stepfather’s parents’ house in Szczecin. “It is strange,” she says when recalling the memories of her childhood. “Whilst I remember Gdansk like a wonderful colour film, for me when I look back, Szczecin is black and white and forlorn.” Magdalena Parys was nine years old when local strikes starting in Gdansk spread across the whole country . The catalyst was the increase in the price of meat. However, the strikes allowed a much deeper frustration to be offloaded against the system that many held to be repressive. From these strikes emerged the Solidarność (“Solidarity”) trade union which, under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa, developed into the central movement for reform and revolution in Poland. Her mother in particular, who had initially studied theatre studies in Szczecin before training as a primary school teacher, believed that freedom was the ultimate good – and the Polish system was not free. She stood resolutely behind Solidarność. As a child, Magdalena Parys did not question these attitudes. Even after escaping to West Berlin, she still thought that everyone in Poland held the same beliefs as her mother. But because this not the case at all, her mother and her new partner decided to “go over the wall”, whilst Magdalena’s father remained in Szczecin as a teacher and became increasingly active for the environment. Her stepfather’s mother was German. She had met a charming Polish forced labourer in her parent’s company during the war whom she later married. She went with him to Szczecin, which at the time still belonged to Germany before being given to Poland after the Second World War.

According to Magdalena Parys, this automatically made “Oma Rita” a traitor in the eyes of the German authorities and her citizenship was withdrawn. Nevertheless, her stepfather still managed to get an invitation to West-Berlin from German friends. Both he and Magdalena’s mother were issued with papers for the visit by the Polish authorities.

This was not the case for Magdalena Parys and her half-brother Michael , who was 10-years younger. She remained at her grandparents’ house in Szczecin and time and again had to make humiliating approaches to the authorities. According to Magdalena, instead of dealing with pleasant civil servants, she had to deal with soldiers who thought it was right to harass a child in order to put pressure on her mother. In the meantime, her mother organised a means of escape for Magdalena and her brother, who was only three at the time. Contacts enabled her to convince an opposition activist to bring Magdalena and Michael to West Berlin during one of his border crossings. She was not allowed to take much with her so that she did not arouse the suspicions of the border officials. Magdalena Parys remembers this trip as a nightmare: “It was just before Christmas Eve, the border seemed deserted, but the soldiers and dogs made me really scared. My little brother was paralysed by fear.” She remembers how the border officials took their ‘travel guide’s car apart and how sinister the sheepdogs appeared. She could not help but think about the many terrifying stories of the Nazis that people in Poland liked to tell. But everything went well and Magdalena Parys arrived in West Berlin. However, she was unable to understand her mother and stepfather's enthusiasm. She missed her friends, her grandparents, her familiar environment. She now lived in cramped conditions in a refugee home at Tempelhofer Ufer. The fridge was in the corridor and she had to share a kitchen and bathroom with others. Magdalena Parys did not really notice this much vaunted freedom. On the contrary, to her West Berlin seemed like a big open-air prison which sooner or later ended at the Wall. Magdalena Parys found reading and writing stories liberating, particularly during that first upsetting period in West Berlin. Literature gave her the scope that she was missing in her everyday life.

And, in the end, life beyond her books also began to get better. It did not take long for the small family to be able to get an apartment in Rudow. As is often the case, the children integrated more quickly than the adults.

It took quite a while for her mother to finally find a job at a Waldorf school after studying again and working in a factory. By now, Magdalena Parys was attending Gustav Heinemann school in Marienfelde, which she still remembers fondly today. “There was a super atmosphere”, she said. “There were great teachers who encouraged my willingness to learn. And, like me, some of the pupils came from Poland.”

Parys quickly made friends. She was happy to accept the hour’s journey to school. It was just annoying that the report that was sent from Poland showed much worse marks that she had actually received. This was one of the typical vexations with which the children of “traitors” were tormented. Despite this, Magdalena Parys got good grades in her school-leaving certificate before studying educational studies, Polish studies and archaeology at the Humboldt University. During her degree, she met lots of people with a different view of Poland. Only later did she recognise that that did not apply to the majority of Germans. “Even today, there are prejudices and highly simplistic views of life”, she said. “I wish that people here would recognise how many people in Poland are cosmopolitan and liberal. The governing party PiS does not in any way represent all the people in the country.”

In the end, Parys worked as a scientific assistant and wrote a doctoral thesis. But she became increasingly bored by it and wrote a story in Polish. In 2011, this text became her highly praised and much read debut novel “The Tunnel”. But to get to this stage, there were a number of states that Parys had to go through in her literary career. She made her debut in 2001 in the literature magazine “Pogranicza” which over time published her poems, stories, book reviews and essays.

She also organised an international literature competition with Isabella Potrykus and was the editor-in-chief of the German-Polish literature magazine “Squaws” from 2006 to 2007. The success of the “The Tunnel” heralded the start of Parys’s life working as a full-time author, feature writer and podcaster (including for “COSMO Radio” on WDR). In 2014, the political-historical thriller “Magik” (“The Magician”) was published and in 2016 the family saga “Biała Rika”. Its central figure is “Oma Rita”, the ethnic German mother of Magdalena Parys’s stepfather. The books were translated into a number of languages. The German translation of “Magik” was written by Lothar Quinkenstein who also translates the works of Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk from Polish to German. “I am absolutely thrilled by his translation skills,” said Magdalena Parys. “Even though he always wants to get rid of a few dirty words.”

If you ask Magdalena Parys about her homeland, today she will say that it is Berlin, where she lives with her husband, two sons and a daughter. She says: “Whenever I am somewhere else for a longer period, I get a yearning for Berlin. For me, Berlin is also somewhat of a Polish city. The architecture is not much different to that in Gdansk or Szczecin.” When Magdalena Parys longs for Poland, she mainly thinks about the sea and the places of her childhood. But thanks to her numerous book tours through Poland, the author has also got to know other cities, like Warsaw and Kraków. She is much better known there than in Germany. “With a little smile, Parys says: “It almost seems like Poles are more interested in the abysses of German history than Germans are in historical thrillers written by a woman.”

Either way, Parys is already working on a third part of the Berlin trilogy which began with the “The Magician”. And she still is not done with digging in the past and telling exciting stories.


Anselm Neft, January 2021


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