Daniela can tell us the day, practically the minute she met Jan: on the first of January in the year 2011, walking on a Miami beach. She can tell us how Jan courted her after he returned to Berlin—“we Skpyed every day for three hours!” She can describe her move to Berlin, their wedding, the birth of their son (she got pregnant just two months after the marriage). And then how cracks started appearing in the fairy tale facade he’d created for her.
But she cannot tell us who Jan is—because she no longer knows. She doesn’t know why, three and a half years later, he has exclusive custody of their son Leo while she lives in a women’s shelter, permitted to see Leo only once every two weeks.
When I work as an interpreter, I have no personal flesh in the game. Here, I was a conduit, creating a bridge of language between the slender blonde 30-year old American and the court-appointed German psychologist. When the questions grew multi-layered, the explanations tricky, both were glad I was there.
“It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hinde,” she said to me as we left the psychologist’s office. I excused her for not knowing his name was Hyde. Originally from Slovakia, she ended up in the US when she was fourteen.
Her English is fine, though. It’s German grammar and sentence structure that give her headaches. Nonetheless, she can express herself clearly and correctly when she concentrates.
Perhaps her mother moved from Slovakia to the US to bring up her daughter in an environment with more stability and opportunities. At any rate, Daniela did well in school, attending college and majoring in political science. She dreamed—vaguely, it seemed—of returning some day to Europe, using her education for work. When she got a job with the US Department of Defense, she moved from Washington DC to Miami. There she rented a nice apartment and bought furniture and a new car. Jan “discovered” her on the Florida beach just a few weeks later.
She had not dated much over the years. She told us she was waiting for the right man to come along. When Jan took her out in style that January in Miami, she brought along a girlfriend as chaperone. After all, she wasn’t sure she could trust him.
He soon invested all his considerable persuasive power to get her to become his wife and move to Berlin, where he runs several businesses.
“He was like no one I’d ever met. Strong, eccentric, full of energy. A very intelligent man. On his shelves lots of books about psychology and sociology.”
Daniela told us that Jan said: “Once you come to Berlin, there’ll be no need for you to work! I will take care of you. You can help me develop my business ideas—a smart, educated girl like you. But it’s just servitude to work for a boss who’s using your labor to get richer! We have family businesses—you can help me with them.”
Though Jan, too, has Slovakian parents, he grew up in Germany. He works in premium real estate. He’s fond of eating out, of travelling in style. In fact, he insisted on buying Daniela a completely new wardrobe—and on throwing out all the clothes she’d brought with her, she told us in a bemused voice, still in a way admiring his chutzpah.
“Soon after Leo was born, he told me that he couldn’t stand how I smelled, he found me disgusting. He stopped sleeping with me. Almost always he slept on the couch. Before we were married, in the early months—he was so passionate. It was such a huge difference.
“When we fought, he’d sometimes take his ring off and head into the night. Sometimes he came back a few hours later, sometimes not at all.
“I learned only after we got married that he’s been seeing a therapist for aggression issues for eight years. Eight years ...”
The psychologist said, thumbing through the many pages of testimony and court papers, “But you only reported him to the police once, in the files there’s only one incident of domestic violence.”
“The last incident, the one at the pediatrician’s,” Daniela said, “the one you’ve got in your files—that’s the only time he was violent in public. And even then he found an out-of-the-way corner of the waiting room to stamp on my foot. He’s a big guy and he stamped with all his might—it really hurt! And to turn to the police ... I wasn’t sure I could trust them. My German’s not good—I didn’t know if I could make myself understood,” Daniela said.
Though not in tears, she was incredulous about her situation: “I’ve got poor German. I’m in a city with high unemployment. I have no money of my own—everything is in his name. There’s no way to get an apartment without a job. My parents spent everything they had to get me a German lawyer—and then the lawyer said she could do nothing more for me.” Leo, just 18 months old, now lives completely with his father, Jan.
“You talk about your husband as if he were magical,” the psychologist said, wrapping up the three-hour session. (She was drafting an expert opinion for the court.) “You sound like you have no say in the whole matter.” I heard disdain in her voice, as if a modern woman must know how to control her own life.
“Magical?” she asked the psychologist. “I don’t understand what you mean. Until now he’s gotten everything he wants, step by step by step.”
Daniela walked slowly to the underground train to return to the shelter deep in East Berlin where she now lives.
She won’t be travelling anywhere soon. If she does, she wouldn’t be able to see her son. Even for just two hours every two weeks.
published 8 November 2014