“Castles in the Sand”

It was the summer of 1972. We had been in the habit of heading to the mountains for our summer holidays, but the Olympics were on, and half the world was going to Bavaria. So instead, Dad had decided to visit the relatives in the Zone. I asked him if the people of the Zone were living in a cage, and Dad whispered: “It seems like that from over here, but you see, to them maybe we’re the ones living in the cage.”

I didn’t quite believe him, thinking of the sad lion I had seen at the Hannover Zoo, who was behind bars in a small confined space. It was clear that the lion was the one in the cage and not us.

The border crossing took some time, questions were asked, the car was searched for several hours, but at good last we rolled into the Zone.

A vast landscape opened up before us. This was no cage at all. The meadows were resplendent with myriads of yellow flowers, stretching all the way up to the blue sky dotted with white puffy clouds moving along slowly.

The relatives lived not far from the border, in a pretty town replete with a redbrick church and a castle. Despite its elegance, a distinct farming smell hung about the place. When we got out of the car I noticed how sharp it was. They were all there to meet us, very shy, except Aunt Hertha, the one who never got a man after the war because of her club foot. She was making coffee, observing me intently and gently stroking my hair: “Well, my boy,” she said, “what do you think? Now you’ve seen both parts of Germany. Will we be one country again someday?” 

Who was I to foretell the future? I sensed, however, that she wanted me to say yes. So I did.

“I hope you’re right, my boy.”


The next day Papa suggested we drove up to the shores of the Baltic. After all, it was a family holiday, and that meant spending time on the beach. I’d never seen the sea before. What an unforgettable moment when the green water and the gigantic waves breaking onto the flat sand first came into view. The beach looked very different from how I had imagined it. It was filled with hundreds of holes, they were a bit like the craters of small volcanoes. The place looked like just after an air raid. Upon closer inspection I noticed that all these craters were man-made strongholds of sand piled up into circular walls. Inside each of these fortifications was a wicker basket not unlike a big shell, and inside of them the holiday people were holding their red faces to the sun.

I was very excited and immediately suggested that we also built one of these sand enclosures.

“Why are they all building these big sand castles?”

Papa had all the answers.

“I think it’s for shelter,” he said. “From the sharp north wind, and so people can protect their belongings.”

It was hard to find an empty lot, but we finally did and started copying our neighbours. The castles were all decorated with sea shells showing where people were from – towns like Wismar, Berlin, Stralsund or Rostock. They had come from all over East Germany to compete with each other in building the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing fortress and they had hoisted flags to mark their territories. Armed with heavy spades and shovels the men were walking around the walls of their ramparts, digging deep moats all the way around them and putting down planks as bridges leading to the entrances.

“Why do you have a moat?” I asked a man shovelling away near us. His face was stern, and he sounded as if he had been constructing beach castles all his life.

“It protects the castle from flooding.”

So we started building our very own castle around Mama who was trying to relax and enjoy her holiday inside the wicker basket. It was better than any playground sandpit I had ever seen. When Mama was fully walled in, Papa looked out to sea and said: “See the big breakers out there? There are people jumping up and down there. Let’s go join them.”

It was far but I was game. My sister stayed behind. She was scared. “They look like funny people,” she said. “Look at those red and yellow bathing costumes they are wearing. Maybe they’re extraterrestrials.”

We walked over to the green ocean and stepped inside it. The water was surprisingly warm at first but getting a bit colder as it got deeper. Soon it was up to my neck, but the waves were still way out of reach. I was struggling and so was Papa. I was glad when he finally suggested to turn around and swim back to our castle. But swimming back didn’t seem to be an option. The sea had something else in mind for us, as it was pulling us further and further away from the land, our castle, and all the other castles were getting smaller and smaller.

“What shall we do, Papa?”

He had all the answers.

“Stay close to me,” he said. Papa was a mountain man, I thought, the sea was testing him.

Just at that moment, a boat pulled up. It stopped right next to us and held three very serious looking armed men in uniform, one of whom said:

“Swimming to Denmark?”

Papa seemed to get a little nervous at the thought. Denmark must have been very far away.

He said: “We’re trying to join those people out there.”

“What people?” said one of the serious men.

“Out there in the surf.”

“Those are not people”, said the man. “They’re border demarcations. Swimming beyond them indicates the intention of an illegal exit from the German Democratic Republic.”

“We’re from the west,” said Papa, and it sounded as if we had flown in from another planet.

“Ha,” said another one in uniform. “Anyone can say that. Show us your passports.”

Papa may have had all the answers but he didn’t have our passports with him.

I tried to help him, and said: “Those would get really wet in here, wouldn’t they?”

But the GDR man wasn’t amused. He clearly didn’t appreciate being lectured by a precocious 8-year-old. The men asked us to climb into the boat, and we all sped back to the beach where we accompanied them to our sand castle. Papa then had to show them our passports and entry visas. They looked at these for a long time, then at me, my sister and finally at Mama, who had turned very red in the face. She had been in the sun for a long time.

“You should not endanger your children,” said the man who had done most of the talking, handing back our passports. And turning to go he added: “Make sure you get your eyes checked.”

In silence we packed up, abandoned our castle, and drove back to the relatives.


The next morning, Papa was sitting at the kitchen table. In its middle throned a large yellow and round pound cake, the hole in its middle completely ring walled. Something seemed to trouble him. Aunt Hertha walked in, limping heavily. She put the kettle on, then cut a slice from the cake and put it on the plate in front of me.

“How did you like the sea, my boy?”

Thoughtfully she was stroking my hair. It would be easy, I thought, to drive my matchbox Porsche into the centre of the cake now. Dad stood up and turned up the radio. There was talk about the age of terror, and how the Republic had been right in fencing itself off from the West. The door opened. Mama entered the kitchen. She sat down next to me, yawning, and started covering her red cheeks with Nivea.

“Bad news,” said Dad. “The whole Israeli team was just taken hostage in Munich.”

He was scratching his forehead on which three worry lines had appeared.

Driving my Porsche through the opening of the cake, I started thinking about the importance of sand castles in the world.

About the author

A member of PEN (German writers abroad) Peter Arnds is the author of six books and approximately 50 essays of literary criticism. Recently he published a volume of his poetry and water colours (A Rare Clear Day, Red Fox Press 2015), which he produced during his residence at the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island in 2012, and a translation of Patrick Boltshauser’s novel Stromschnellen (Rapids, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014). Rapids was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award 2016. Peter has published numerous short stories and poems in journals such as Cyphers (A Dublin Literary Journal), Animal: A Beast of a Literary MagazinePrairie PoetryCape Rock MagazineBy & By Poetry, as well as in Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland, an anthology published by Dedalus Press.

Peter’s novel Searching for Alice is forthcoming with Dalkey Archive Press in spring 2019.

Peter Arnds