Writing the Book of Life | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 24.07.2003
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Writing the Book of Life

Fascinated by "everyday" lives, author Katrin Rohnstock decided one day to write down people's own stories. Today, the concept of her "Books of Life" is thriving.


Each life holds unknown treasures - treasures worthy of a book

It could be a dentist's practice: Inside, a hushed silence fills the room, and visitors are asked to take a seat on a long, low sofa. Indeed, the emotions visitors may feel when coming here could well compare to those prior to an unwelcome medical check-up: a slight queasiness when climbing the stairs, a certain nervousness on entering, a pang of anguish when the door closes and the session begins. "Of course, people are afraid of recalling the story of their lives", Katrin Rohnstock says. "But for most people it is a great relief, too".

The fascination of life on the street

"I always found everyday life more fascinating than anything else", Katin Rohnstock says. Here, in her quiet, airy office high above the noisy traffic on a busy Berlin street, everyday life seems far away, the only noise a constant tapping emanating from the room next door. Today, it is quiet and a light breeze fills the room whose walls are painted bright yellow. It is here where people come to tell the tale of their loves and hurts, sufferings and joys, passion and pain and, in some cases almost deaths. It is here, where many will tell the stories of their lives for the first time, and for many – the last.

Katrin Rohnstock (photo) had the idea to write down people's life stories back in 1996, shortly after the death of the Princess of Wales. Stopping at a local petrol station, a woman who knew Rohnstock worked as a writer, said to her "why don't you write down my father's life? His is a lot more interesting than that of Diana!".

Katrin Ronstock Porträtfoto Medienbüro

Katrin Rohnstock

It took several years, the fall of the Berlin wall and a fair amount of courage to embark on what Rohnstock today describes as her "vision." In 1999, she published her first "book of life," the story of a man born in Silesia. It was an experience which was to mark her for life and one which brought her back to her own background and childhood. Silesia, once German territory, today Poland, is a place and a topic still painful today. Thousands of Germans were deported from the area after the Second World War. Her father, too, came from Silesia. "Luckily, I grew up in a village where people had more time to talk about things." Today, she says, in particular in large cities, communication is getting more difficult and the gap is getting greater between generations. "Today, many grandchildren don't even know where Silesia is."

With her books Rohnstock says she wants to build bridges between generations. One architect, born in 1933 wrote: "The regret that I hardly know anything about my grandparents encouraged me to write the little, that I remember, for my grandchildren." Another, she recalls, dedicated his whole life to his work as a clinic director and hardly saw his family. "The book of his life was only about his work life," Rohnstock recalls. "But when his son read it, he said he understood him for the first time."

Lawyers and farmers

Rohnstock gets enquiries from all sorts of people: More than 1,500 people have sent her a request. From lawyers and farmers to secretaries and priests, all have a story to tell, a burden to relieve themselves of, a secret to reveal. Most come from Germany, but Rohnstock has sent authors from her team of around 20 freelancers to Spain, France and even Namibia in Africa. Each book takes an average one year to complete and costs an average of €8,000 ($9,175). Editions range from more than 2,000 for a company chronicle to one solitary edition, a confession to be handed out with someone's will.

Every new book is a challenge. Several sittings are needed to set up structure and concept, first chapters are scoured in detail by both authors and clients, sessions are recorded, copied, written and rewritten, graphs get added and cut out and many a session, hours which are spent either at the client's home or in Rohnstock's office, end up as more than just the recording of yet another tale. "Our authors take on the role of psychologist, confessor and consoler," Rohnstock says.

More than media

Katrin Rohnstock's small firm in Berlin's city center is more than just a "media office." With the life stories of hundreds of people from all over the world lining its walls and many more to come, it acts both as a library and documentary center. At an in-house academy, courses are held for people over fifty keen on learning the skills of writing an autobiography. Readings are held regularly when books are finished, and each book release is celebrated with a small party. Here, as whole families gather for wine and soup within Rohnstock's warm, yellow walls, as tears fall and jokes are shared, yet another life story is rescued from oblivion. "The 'book of life' is like a child," Rohnstock says as a gust of wind makes the window's long white curtain dance. "Like a child than lives on."

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