Helga Schubert: “It’s no longer life for him,” a doctor told her

Helga Schubert: “It’s no longer life for him,” a doctor told her

2023-05-26 14:25:00

FDrives along empty Mecklenburg country roads near Lake Schwerin: from the townswoman’s perspective, one half-enchanted, half-forgotten place follows the next; in each, old men with captain’s hats pulled low over their foreheads seem to walk through the wind. It’s the first, still cautious, northern spring day, the path leads across a wide field into a blue-grey cloudy sky, then suddenly the inconspicuous house stands there next to a paddock.

Helga Schubert opens the door with the nimble gesture of a woman who lives her life, even if she would find the expression too cliched, presumptuous, she simply lives, what else? Caring, and she waves you in and disappears into the kitchen herself, getting coffee and poppy seed cake.

Schubert’s 96-year-old husband, Johannes Helm, is sitting in the conservatory, which looks out over the fields. Her new book “The Today’s Day” is about him: his care, his love for him, everyday life as a couple, when one of them slowly goodbye to life and the other writes about it. “Today” has received positive reviews from the critics, whether as a contribution to the nursing debate in Germany or as a literary document of a love that lasted almost sixty years.

preserve dignity

“This is no longer life for him,” a doctor told her, she could give her seriously ill husband “a few more drops of morphine,” writes Helga Schubert, later a hospice place was found for Helm. But her husband didn’t want to stay there. Schubert took him back to the house in Mecklenburg, to the secluded area that reminded him of his childhood in Silesia and where he had painted his Neo-Impressionist paintings for years. When Helga Schubert talks about the decision to take care of her husband who is suffering from dementia herself, it sounds easy: Of course, that was just the way it was, not like a complex decision, more like a reflex.

“I love him very much,” it says at one point, which sounds simple, but holds a promise that the book also talks about: to respect a man’s own wishes, to preserve his dignity, including his masculinity. “He had something mysterious for me from the beginning,” Schubert writes at the beginning of the book, and at the end, despite all descriptions of dementia, urinary catheters and medication, this secret remains protected, perhaps even protected anew by the words of the woman who wrote the book.

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In addition to caring, the common ground between “two old lovers” and the slow “exhale” of a life, “The Today’s Day” also negotiates the beginning, Helga Schubert’s life theme. “I’ve got antennae,” she says, still halfway out of the kitchen, fetching sugar, and it’s not entirely clear what she means: whether, after all these years, she knows every emotion of her husband so well that she believes the next one being able to anticipate, or whether she also speaks of her way of looking and writing with foresight.

The writer Helga Schubert went unnoticed for a long time and has always started afresh. Her debut, Lauter Leben, published in East Germany in 1975, was short stories, laconic everyday stories about women and their way of approaching an ambivalent life. In 1980, at the suggestion of Günter Kunert, Schubert was invited to the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, but was not given a permit to leave the country because the jury chairman at the time, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, was considered anti-communist by the GDR authorities. Forty years later, in 2020, she won the competition at the age of octogenarians and shortly thereafter published “Vom Aufgeten”. It has always been important to her not that you tell something, but how.

Helga Schubert is sorting her estate for the German Literature Archive in Marbach in her study

Helga Schubert is sorting her estate for the German Literature Archive in Marbach in her study

Source: Marlene Gawrisch

But now, says Helga Schubert, when she re-enters the conservatory, she first has to tell the story that always makes her husband laugh. She read that a report had been found in the archives of the SED: Johannes R. Becher, Minister of Culture in the GDR and opponent of naturism, walked past a beach full of naked people. He noticed a woman who had put the “New Germany” over her to protect herself from the sun. “What are you doing there, you old pig?” Becher called.

A little later he had a prize to give to the writer Anna Seghers: great praise for the comrade. Seghers replied: “It’s still old pig for you!” Helga Schubert and her husband laugh, he a little longer than she. “If I were telling the story correctly, I would leave out the essentials – someone is walking by, and that’s Johannes R. Becher,” explains Schubert. Johannes Helm laughs again, then he looks over the fields.

Difficult chapter Christa Wolf

When Schubert was in the kitchen, he talked about his pictures. He started doing them in his mid-40s, alongside his job as a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where he met Schubert. If a grown man over forty starts painting and then also writes, then hope arises: “Actually, each of us could start anew every day,” Helga Schubert noted in Helm’s book “Malgrunde”. Is there such a thing as salvation through never-ending beginnings?

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Sibylle Lewitscharoff 2016 in Berlin

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Schubert has jumped up again, into the kitchen, Helm continues to look outside. Then he points to a small hut at the end of the garden: it’s his observatory, he often sat there at night with the two telescopes. Once the writer Christa Wolf and her husband came to visit. “And I said, ‘Want to see my moons of Jupiter?’ And they: ‘What, these dots are moons of Jupiter?’” Helm laughs.

Christa Wolf is a difficult chapter in Helga Schubert’s life. She brokered the house for Schubert and Helm in the 1970s, and the writer Sarah Kirsch offered her a loan. At first Wolf encouraged her, says Schubert again at the table, but she felt that something was “not right”. Wolf put mallow in her hair and told her how talented she was, but then portrayed her terribly in “Summer Piece”, “Günter de Bruyn’s wife said she would shoot herself if she was described like that”.

With Christa Wolf’s “Childhood Pattern”, published in 1976, Wolf had let her read the flags beforehand, but could not deal with the criticism. “Why did she have to portray herself as sensitive like that? She really didn’t suffer from the world at all – and she resented me for telling her that,” says Schubert. Above all, Wolf Helm wanted to warn her because she always wanted to leave the GDR. “I’m like a child who always says: ‘The Emperor has nothing on’ – I often feel like that. I’m so alert.” Schubert says she was right with her political assessment. Christa Wolf was exposed as “IM Margarete” in the early 1990s.

Helga Schubert takes care of her husband Johannes Helm herself

Helga Schubert takes care of her husband Johannes Helm herself

Source: Marlene Gawrisch

And when did the GDR really come to an end for you? When she sat across from the man who had had her spied on for a documentary, Schubert says. In Berlin, the former Stasi man ran up to her in the café where the film was shot and the first thing he said was: “I feel remorse and shame.” She shouted: “I’m already wired!” Then he: “Well, me too!” Schubert laughs: For her, the GDR was over, “transitioned into a film situation like that”.

But she shouldn’t talk so much about the past, Christa Wolf or betrayal, says Schubert and looks outside. Helm has meanwhile nodded off, he sits there quietly, a silent presence. Over there, says Schubert, pointing to the garden, there in the little wooden house she went through the text of “The Today Day” with her editor again. “I’m a form watcher.” Once you have the last sentence, write it down. She often read books backwards to understand the structure. She writes in the evenings, in the hours when her husband doesn’t need her directly.

Helga Schubert in conversation with WELT journalist Mara Delius

Helga Schubert in conversation with WELT journalist Mara Delius

Source: Marlene Gawrisch

Helm woke up again, does he want something? Schubert asks in a light, light voice, almost girlish. The question of how it is that she does not perceive her life as a caring woman as a story of renunciation suddenly becomes superfluous when one sees Schubert and Helm together and when one thinks of “Derden”, short for “The one I love”, has read. For her, her “Hours of Love”, as the subtitle says, also means hope, not farewell. “Perhaps it will also help the reader to be lenient in their attitude towards their own lives, who knows,” says Helga Schubert.

She herself actually only has two projects left: to enable her husband to continue to live a satisfactory life and to manage his pictures well. Schubert leads into the barn in the garden where hundreds of them are stored, Helm follows. They are strangely spherical, sometimes dreamlike scenes and landscapes. In one picture, a house is burning, like the one that used to stand here and burned down in 1983. Only a small part is burning in the picture, you could almost miss it. “I’m not hiding any difficulties,” Helga Schubert later said succinctly, but with her words she took the shock out of them.

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