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Life Behind the Wall


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Year Published

Book Review

Life Behind the Wall by Robert Elmer has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. This book is a compilation of three novels: The Candy Bomber, Beetle Bunker and Smuggler’s Treasure.

Plot Summary

Each book in Life Behind the Wall is from a different time period. Candy Bombers is set in the 1948 American and Russian sectors of Berlin; Beetle Bunker is set in 1955 war-torn East Berlin, and Smuggler’s Treasure is set in the late 1980s. It follows three generations of a family, with each story centering on a 13-year-old child who is coping with the aftermath of war and the political unrest in Berlin.

The prologue to Candy Bombers happens in 1988 and acquaints the reader with the caretaker of the Greybull, Wyoming, airport. He catches 13-year-old Nick Wilder hiding in a WWII Air Force cargo plane. Nick sees the name Erich scratched into one of the wooden seats.

Chapter One jumps back in time to 1948 Berlin in the American Sector. The United States and its allies are involved in feeding those in the Russian sector of Berlin shortly after World War II — historically known as the Berlin Airlift. Erich and his cousin Katarina sneak onto a U.S. cargo plane at a nearby airport, hoping to “borrow” some food for their starving family. Instead, they are forced to hide when crewmembers approach to complete loading the plane. The cousins are onboard when the plane takes off.

After they are discovered and the plane lands in another city, they meet Fred DeWitt, an airman serving as a reporter for the U.S. Air Force. Fred sees the kids as an opportunity for a public-relations story about the Berlin Airlift for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Although Fred seems like a nice guy, Erich doesn’t trust any Americans because they were the ones to fly bombing raids over Berlin, destroying the city and killing many, including his father, who was a Lutheran pastor.

On the return flight, Erich gets an idea to drop candy parachutes over the city for the kids below. Others like his idea, and it catches on with U.S. Air Force flight crews. They become known as the Candy Bombers. Fred takes Erich home and meets Erich’s mother.

From time to time, Erich senses that he is being watched or followed. He even gets a glimpse of the man he calls the Shark, who Erich assumes is a Russian. Erich doesn’t know why the Shark is watching him.

One day while searching in the rubble of his father’s study in a bombed-out church building in the American sector, Erich and Katarina find a book his father had told his mother about right before his father died. When Erich opens it, he sees that its pages have been cut away to create a hollow where a small silver communion cup and a key reside.

Erich and Katarina are forced to leave the rubble when they hear Russian voices approaching. On a return visit to the ruins, Erich meets the former church custodian who tells him his father did not die accidentally in a bombing, rather he was taken away by authorities when they learned he was involved in a plot against the Nazis. Though no body was found, people taken away like that are killed. Once again, Erich is forced to flee when someone approaches.

Later when Erich and Katarina walk toward home with their mothers from the Russian sector to the American sector after visiting relatives, a Russian officer stops them. The officer wants to question them about Fred, whom they think is an American spy. After the officer’s bodyguard roughs them up, Fred suddenly appears, armed with a gun, and he succeeds in getting the Russians to leave.

Fred continues to try to befriend Erich and his family by bringing small sacks of food for them each week. After several months of weekly visits, Erich overhears his mother, Brigitte, and Fred discussing marriage and the opposition they face from both sides of their families. Making his presence known, they then announce to him their plans to marry and move the family to Ohio in the United States. Erich doesn’t like the idea.

Erich returns once more to the ruins of his father’s study, hoping he can figure out the mystery of the key. In frustration, he gives up trying to solve the key mystery and tosses the key into the rubble. Then he changes his mind, and as he begins to look for the key, he sees a keyhole under his father’s desk. Since he can’t find the key, he uses his hand to break through the panel and is amazed to find a bag of silver coins.

Without warning, the Russian officer appears. Erich puts the coins in his pocket. The officer ties up Erich. He wants to use the boy as bait to attract Fred. His plan works. Fred frees Erich from his bonds, but the officer points his gun at him. The church custodian sneaks up behind the officer and hits him with a board. After a brief scuffle, the officer is knocked out, and they all escape. Fred gains Erich’s respect.

Three weeks later, Fred and Brigitte marry in the American sector of Berlin, with Erich as best man. Erich gives Fred the communion cup, inscribed with his father’s name and ordination date, as a gift.

_ Beetle Bunker _ starts with the background story of 7-year-old Sabine in an East Berlin hospital in 1955. Sometimes when the pain from her polio therapy becomes too much, Sabine cries. The nurse then locks her in a closet. Sabine is the daughter of Fred and Brigitte DeWitt. Fred was killed in a plane crash before Sabine was born.

Six years after the polio treatment, Sabine is 13, and her half-brother, Erich, is 26. He is an aspiring medical doctor in East Berlin. One day, limping along on her crutches to visit Erich at the hospital where he interns, Sabine stumbles into a deep hole at a construction site for a bombed-out apartment building. Because of her weak legs, she is unable to climb out. She decides to make the best of things and explore the ruins.

She discovers that she is in an old bomb shelter with several rooms. In the last room, Sabine marvels at an old VW Beetle, missing its back seat, wheels and other parts. She thinks it might make a good place to use as a hideout for reading. She finds a spiral staircase. Climbing it, she finds a way out. Erich appears at the top to assist her.

Months pass, and Sabine rises one morning to find the start of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and she realizes that she and her family are now trapped in East Berlin. That same day, her grandmother, Oma Poldi, suffers a stroke and is hospitalized. Sabine fights off her bad memories of her own time at the hospital so that she can visit Oma Poldi. Oma Poldi’s physical decline continues, and Sabine is puzzled when Oma Poldi repeatedly says she is sorry and begs for forgiveness from her Savior. Her last words to a puzzled Sabine are for her to read the Bible.

During visits to the hospital, Sabine meets Willi Stumpff — a 13-year-old boy with a visual impairment — who can only see shapes. Willi’s mother is in the hospital with his prematurely born sister. Willi tells her that his apartment is right next to the new wall, and Sabine tells him about her VW in a bunker.

The next day, Sabine goes to Willi’s apartment, and together they look out at the wall being erected. She describes for Willi what she sees across the river in West Berlin — shops, the park, people strolling. Then she sees a man trying to climb the wall to escape to East Berlin, and they witness the Vopos (Russian police) shooting the man.

Upset by the new wall and its implications, Sabine and Willi decide to try to unite the people to action against the wall by printing flyers with Sabine’s printing kit — a dangerous act that could cost them their lives should they be caught. When they are out in the night distributing the flyers, a policeman catches Willi, but he manages to escape. Next they try to incite people to strike against their workplaces as a protest against the wall, but it is unsuccessful.

Their actions attract the attention of a small group of friends who work at the hospital with Erich. They also are Christian. One of them, Greta, shows them that she has the flyer they printed and warns Sabine and Willi that they must be more careful. Greta, Erich and four other friends, assured of Sabine’s and Willi’s political sympathies, are interested in the hole Sabine fell into because they want to tunnel under the wall so they can escape. Sabine’s bunker looks like the perfect place to start with space to pile all the dirt, and it’s only 42 feet to freedom. The friends work hard to dig the tunnel.

However, one day when Willi and Sabine are at the hospital because his mother and sister are being released, they learn that five of the group have been arrested for treason. With Erich also being watched, Sabine and Willi decide that only they can finish the tunnel — a brave act for Sabine since she is claustrophobic (because of her early hospital experience). Willi and Sabine dig the remaining 10 feet of the tunnel. With an accidental cave-in near the top of the tunnel, the exit hole is established.

Sabine and Willi decide to escape that night, before the tunnel is discovered. Erich chooses to stay in East Berlin. In the end, Sabine, her mother, Willi and his family successfully escape to West Berlin.

_ Smuggler’s Treasure _ brings the reader to the summer of 1987 and President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Two years later, 13-year-old Liesl, the daughter of Willi and Sabine Stumpff, goes with her mother to the border crossing to East Berlin to visit Liesl’s Uncle Erich, her mother’s half brother. It is Liesl’s 13th birthday. Onkel Erich gives Liesl her great-grandmother’s Bible.

Nick Wilder, who was introduced in the prologue of Candy Bombers, has made friends with Fred DeWitt, the caretaker of the Greybull, Wyoming, airfield. Together, they work on restoring an old World War II aircraft. Nick’s father stops by to tell him he has re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and that they are being assigned to West Germany.

When Fred hears this, he decides to give Nick the communion cup that Erich had given him long ago so Nick can return it to a German church or anyone who will appreciate it. After his family moves to Frankfurt, Nick takes the cup to a silversmith to have it appraised. The silversmith determines that it is quite valuable, but worth a little less than its full value because of the inscription.

Nick is interested in the cup’s history, and the inscription leads him to research the Reconciliation Church. He learns that it had been torn down, but the Reconciliation Church Remembrance Society was established, and its president is Sabine Stumpff. Nick writes to Sabine and plans to visit it with his parents.

Meanwhile, while doing research on the Berlin Wall for the school paper, Liesl Stumpff interviews her grandmother, Oma Brigitte, about her experiences. She asks about Fred, and Brigitte shows her a letter from Fred’s parents telling how Fred died. And for some reason, the U.S. Air Force had no record of the marriage, so she couldn’t even call herself his widow. All she had for proof of the union was their child, Sabine.

Some time later, Nick drops off the communion cup to the Remembrance Society. It reaches Liesl first, and she is excited when she sees that her grandfather’s name is inscribed. Liesl is compelled to find out more about the history of the communion cup and Fred to put all the pieces together.

She visits the American Embassy to learn more details about Fred. To her surprise, the press attaché informs her that three men were killed in the plane crash on the date in question, but Fred was not one of them. Back home, unable to sleep, Liesl decides to look through her great-grandmother’s Bible.

In its pages, she finds letters dating back to 1948 from Fred to Brigitte. She learns that Fred had lost both of his legs in the aircraft accident and that Oma Poldi had annulled the marriage. Oma Poldi wrote to Fred that Brigitte had a new husband. Liesl realizes that her great-grandmother had deceived the family. Liesl wakes her family to share the letters with Oma Brigitte and her parents.

Together they unravel the mystery of how Fred’s family lied to them and how Oma Poldi had deceived them as well. Suddenly, Oma Brigitte gasps as she sees the communion cup that was delivered earlier. The last time she saw it was on the day of her wedding to Fred. Liesl determines to find the American boy and learn the rest of the story about Fred.

She contacts Nick, and he provides Fred’s phone number. Liesl calls Fred to explain what has happened. Fred is surprised to know that he still has a wife as well as a daughter and granddaughter. Still not satisfied, Liesl decides to cross the border alone to see Onkel Erich for more information. The crossing guards are suspicious because she was photographed near a protest group, so they detain her on charges of subversive activities. They put her in a jail cell for more than six hours before she is allowed to leave. Then she hurries to Onkel Erich’s place.

Once at her uncle’s apartment, they get news that the Berlin Wall is coming down, and the borders are now open. Outside, Onkel Erich surprises Liesl by removing a tarp covering the old VW that Sabine had been so fond of. He had spent 28 years restoring it. They climb in, and Onkel Erich drives them across the border to meet their waiting family.

Liesl also meets Nick and is thrilled to learn that Fred is about to fly over, dropping candy parachutes. The family piles into the VW and heads to the airport to greet Fred when he lands. In the epilogue, Fred and Brigitte renew their wedding vows and make their home in Berlin.

Christian Beliefs

All of the main characters are Christians who have a strong faith, attend worship services, trust in God for their lives and pray often. Erich, Katarina, Sabine and Liesl often recognize and apply the Christian values they’ve learned to situations in which they find themselves. They grapple with what it means to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. Sabine prays to Jesus for healing from her polio.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Erich’s deceased father was a Lutheran pastor. The values he taught Erich during the early years remain with him, even as an adolescent. They serve to prick Erich’s conscience as he schemes to “borrow” food to help feed the family. His father provides for his family, even after his death, through leaving them the silver cup and a bag of coins.

Oma Poldi reminds her grandchildren what it is to set a Christian example. She lies when she writes to Fred that his marriage to Briggite is annulled and that Briggite has a new husband, thus altering life’s course for Briggite and Fred. Fred is a responsible, caring Christian man, who works hard to understand Erich’s circumstances. In his early visits, he tells Erich he is not interested in Erich’s mother, but several months later announces his plans to marry her. Briggite’s relationship with her mother-in-law parallels that of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible. When her mother-in-law refuses to leave East Berlin, Briggite commits to staying with her there.

Profanity & Violence

A Russian bodyguard hits Briggite across the cheek, making her fall to the ground. He also strikes Erich in the side with his rifle butt. Though he doesn’t shoot, Fred points a gun at a Russian officer, and the officer later aims his gun at Fred. The old church custodian clubs a Russian officer over the head. As he does so, the officer’s gun fires. Blood stains the custodian’s shirt. Sabine sees and Willi hears the Vopos (Russian police) shoot a man trying to climb the wall.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at

Additional Comments

Lying: Children frequently leave their apartments, misleading their mothers or other adults about their intentions.

Authors mentioned: Martin Luther, Dwight Moody, Brother Lawrence.

Literary mentions: Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämtliche Schriften (U.S. title: Collected Works of Martin Luther), Black Beauty, Gone With the Wind, “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” by Cher

Smoking/drinking: Sabine’s aunt and uncle smoke and drink.

More discussion: The author includes discussion questions for each book.

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