Life in the GDR- Journalistic writing

von Philippa Wierlacher, 16 Jahre

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Life in the GDR_Philippa Wierlacher


We walk through the quiet streets of Weimar early on a winter weekend morning. It is fiercely cold and little clouds of warm air appear each time we breathe out. Small snowflakes gently sail down, shimmering in the glow of the dimming streetlights. My mother asks me if I have everything I need. I look down into my small linen bag: my phone for recording the interviews, a pencil and notebook for any additional observations and a list of the questions that I will ask. The closer we get to our friends’ house, the more nervous I become. What if Martin is offended by my questions? Or if he doesn’t want to say anything and I leave knowing as little as I do now. My mind wanders. What do I know? What do I know about the place this used to be until only half a dozen years before I was born? I look around at the grand, nineteenth century houses. Most of them have been renovated in the past few years but others are still broken down, with peeling paint and without plaster. I ask my mother if that was how the all the houses looked in the GDR. She nods and tells me that when she and my father moved to Weimar only ten years ago, the city was still a mess and it seemed as if they had gone back in time to the era of my grandparents’ youth, after the War, when cars, telephones and exotic fruit were still uncommon.

My mother begins to tell me about her first visit to the GDR when she was seventeen years old, just a couple of years older than me now. “ My best friend and I were in Berlin for a few days and decided it would be interesting to drive over to the East and see what it was like over there. We had to wait for ages until the GDR officials finally gave us our day visas. The houses where mainly huge grey flats with little strips of green in front of them on which there were always seemed to be some ragged looking kids playing football with a tin can. We parked the car and strolled over the sidewalk grass when a policeman came up and ordered us to get off the grass immediately. There were soldiers and policemen in black, or grey or green uniforms everywhere and we felt as if the ordinary citizens were watching us from behind their curtains inside their flats. Before we left, we had to spend all our East-marks, which we had been forced to exchange for in the so-called Inter-shop. There wasn’t anything to buy. I bought a little toy car and the rest of the money I gave to an old lady, who thanked me over and over again for what, to me, was a few coins. My friend and I kept wondering what the people in the GDR did in their spare time because there were no shops, no restaurants, bars or cafés over there.”

My dad had started walking alongside us, listening to my mum’s story. I asked him whether he had ever visited the GDR. “I went over with a friend shortly after the Wall fell. It was summer and we were in our mid-twenties. My friend had a red Alpha cabriolet and we felt amazing driving around Rostock with the top down. We came to the beach, where hundreds of little Trabis, the only car they’d had over there, were standing in a line like something out of a child’s drawing. But the strangest thing I remember was that when another of these little cars pulled up, a whole family came out—parents, children, grandparents– all of them stark naked! My friend and I looked at each other astounded, as if to say ‘What’s wrong with these ‘Osis’, which was what we called Germans from the GDR. Then we looked down the beach and I found it really quite disgusting how people of all ages were running around naked on the beach.” I asked him why he thought FKK (Frei Körper Kultur- free body culture- nudist beaches) were so popular in the GDR. And after a long pause, he answered, “I think, it was their little bit of freedom, or resistance even. Everything else was pretty much forbidden. At the beach they could finally do and be however they wanted; show themselves openly as they really were.”

When we arrived at Martin and Angelika’s, they were waiting for us with a big, German breakfast of fresh fruit salad, Bircher muesli, waffles and buttered toast…all things, I thought, that most people couldn’t get most of the time in the GDR. Martin and I went into his office to talk about his adolescence and childhood in the GDR. We sat down on either end of a comfy beige couch with two colourful cushions on it…furnishings that ordinary citizens couldn’t have in the GDR.
Martin’s little daughter, Hanna, was running around the room throwing a ball in the air over and over again which was actually more of a help than a distraction as it meant that I wasn’t alone in an office with one of my parents’ friends telling me his life story.

“I was born in Weimar on 22nd October 1970”, Martin began. “My dad, Erich Kranz, was from Breslau and then moved to Gotha in Thuringia. He spent a long time in prison under the Russians.” I asked Martin why. “Well, that’s a longer story but also relevant to what you want to know. You see, Pippa, after the War, there was an open cast mine right near Weimar and from it the Russians got an ore, which had uranium in it. The Americans wanted to know if the ore contained enough uranium in order to refine it to produce material for atomic bombs. My dad knew someone who worked there and an American secret service agent asked him to get some of this stuff and in return, they said they would take him to back to Breslau, where he had always wanted to go again sometime, but couldn’t because in the GDR you needed permission to go anywhere far off. Everything went fine at first. My father got a bit of the ore and went to a tram station where he was supposed hand it over to the Americans. But the Russians caught him. Someone had told on him. They had noticed that one little action and reported it. My dad was in prison for 9 years in Bautzen, a Russian military prison. He was let out finally 1955 and with lots of luck he managed to study Theology in Leipzig and he became a Protestant pastor.”

I knew that normally, if you had been to prison in the GDR, you would never be given the privilege of attending university so I asked Martin about this, and why his father had chosen Theology. “With my dad in prison were many political inmates and many of them were pastors and professors. They tutored my father in Latin and Hebrew and because he was able to show that he knew these languages, the regime allowed him to study to become a pastor. It was seen as an undesirable course so it was available to someone who’d been in trouble with the System. My dad stayed critical towards the system and in 1960 my parents were planning to leave and go to West Berlin. Back then you were still allowed to do that. But my mother was heavily pregnant with my brother and after she gave birth and came out of hospital was too late; the Wall had been built. From that moment on, my dad decided that if we had to stay in Weimar, he was going to stay critical towards the system, and do so openly.”

“But wasn’t that very dangerous?” I asked.
“It was not only dangerous, but also very difficult. For example, my oldest brother and I were not allowed to graduate from gymnasium. After the Wall fell, my dad looked at his “Stasi Akten” and they showed that at least 30 IM’s (official Stasi workers) were assigned just to surveille him. When we moved to Weimar in 1979 I was going to enter third grade. My parents had to look around for quite a while before we found a school where the director was not in the SED (the Communist Party of the GDR) and would allow me into his school. When we finally did find a school, there were still a few teachers who treated me very badly. My class teacher, for example, openly called me communist hater and there were times when woke up crying, wishing that I didn’t have to go to school anymore. I stayed at that school until 10th grade. After that, it was normal for the boys to go into the army. You could either go for one and a half or for three years. But in order to be allowed to go on to do the Abitur, you had to go for three years. Because it was obvious with my background that I wasn’t going to go to the army for three years, the teachers didn’t even think it was necessary to talk to me about going to Erweiterte Oberschule, which was what upper high school was called back then.

I wondered aloud whether there had been many people like Martin’s family, who stood up against the regime openly. Martin’s answer was emphatic: “No, of course not, most people who were opposed were so only in secrecy but the vast majority just went with the system because that was the easiest thing to do. What I want to make clear though, is that it was possible to stand up against the regime. Although it brought problems with it, it was possible. That’s important because now so many people say ‘We just went along with it because you couldn’t jut stand up against it’. But that’s not true, Pippa, it was possible, but you had to be prepared to live with the consequences, like we did. So after finishing the 10th grade I became a male nurse at a Protestant hospital in Weimar. Meanwhile, I had always liked singing, it was my main hobby. I wanted to study singing and the good thing was that you could get into some conservatories by taking an entry test and doing an audition, even without an abitur. And that was what I did. Even so, the university told me that before I could be allowed to start to study, I would need to go to the army for at least one and half years. Actually, there were certain options there. Either you completely refused, in which you had to go to prison for two years; or you went for one and half years but didn’t have to do anything with weapons. Instead you learned how to be a nurse etc. My older brother had gone for the conscientious objector option and had been treated horribly so I didn’t want to do that.
“To my surprise, the Army told me that I could also go and sing for officers and soldiers in the ‘Thomaner’, a famous men’s choir in Leipzig. However, when we finally arrived in Leipzig, the officers there told me that I was going to have to serve in the army normally. Looking back, I can’t believe how stupidly naive I was to believe them that I was going to be allowed to just sing. I was eighteen when I finally went to the army in 1988 and by that time, you could already feel that a change was coming. The number of people involved in open resistance was getting bigger and then, in spring 1988, the protests really started.
My dad was very engaged in these protests and even organized them in Weimar so, from summer 1989, I was officially no longer allowed to have any contact to my parents. It wasn’t long after that, on 7th October 1989– which was the anniversary of the founding of the GDR– that we were got together in our barracks to watch state TV and we conscript boy-soldiers could all plainly see that there was something going seriously wrong. It was the first mass protest. Of course, the television was turned off immediately and we were sent to bed. The next morning I was picked up and brought to a military prison, where I was slung in a cell big enough to hold about three people with twenty other lads. None of us knew why we were in there and we had no idea at all what was happening outside.
“The next day we could hear tanks rolling by the cell block but we had no clue what was going on. I was in there for ten weeks when suddenly, on 15th December, without anyone one telling us what was going on, they picked us up and loaded us onto trucks and we were then brought to Haale at the Saale and we were brought to a cigarette factory where they made the famously awful ‘F6’ East German cigarettes. We were set to work there but one morning at breakfast we heard some men say things like: ‘I’m going to visit my aunt in West Berlin.’ And ‘I’m visiting my brother over there’. Naturally, I asked how they were ever going to do something like that and they told me… ‘Don’t you know? The Berlin Wall has fallen.” I sat there stunned. ‘Didn’t you hear?’ they went on, ‘It happened over a month ago on 9th November.’ I couldn’t believe it. I asked around to use a telephone and called my parents who told me all about what had happened over the past few weeks. I didn’t believe it, at first; I thought it was a practical joke.

I didn’t really know what had happened myself. These events that were the turning point in post-war German history and in the lives of everyone of my parents’ generation had happened before I was born and I realized that they were all embarrassingly hazy to me. So I asked Martin to explain how he had experienced what had happened in those few weeks in the autumn of 1989. “As soon as the Wall had fallen, the big Monday demonstrations in Leipzig had taken place. My boy-soldier comrades were in charge of ‘defending’ Leipzig from the anti-Communist forces of counter-revolution. My comrades in the army were ordered to stop these 100,000 or more protestors—100,000 people in an improvised rebellion… think of that, Pippa— so the Stasi had had our officers pick out all of the ‘political unreliable’ who might have acted in sympathy with the civilian protestors. That was why I had landed in prison. Our officers knew that if we had come back to our barracks once the Wall was down, we would have created chaos because it would have been clear that the system was about to collapse! They had sent us to the cigarette factory because they didn’t want to ever have to deal with us again.
“While I was locked up not knowing about the momentous events that were taking place, my parents were very active here in Weimar. The Jacobs Church was the main ‘wende’ or hub from which all the big demonstrations in Weimar were organized. It was my parents who started and organized those huge protests in Weimar. We had our own massive Monday demonstration with 100,000 plus people right in front of the Stasi building.
You probably don’t even realize but it’s in ‘Cranach Strasse’, very close to where you live, that huge yellow building on the corner. It’s called the ‘Palais Durkheim’ now but then it was the main Stasi building. A huge building with thousands of workers busy inside it.

Once the Wall had fallen, while the people stood out the front and chanted to be left in, the Stasi workers burnt and shredded everything they could but there was too much for them. For almost every person in the city there was a folder the IM’s wrote down and filed everything about them. Everything! A few years ago we looked at my father’s folder and they even wrote down things like, ‘Erich Kranz leaves house at 10 a.m. Goes to Baker. Buys two bread rolls and one croissant. Returns home. It was ridiculous what they wrote down but there were so many of them and they had to justify their jobs. Of course, the idea was always that maybe it would have some bigger conspiratorial meaning later.

I have heard all this in passing before, have read about it in magazines or on the web, seen it in t.v. shows and films but only now, told by Martin, to whose family it all happened, does it finally strike me as real, leads me to ask him how many agents and informers there really were. “It’s very hard to say but in Weimar there were definitely several thousand. It is generally agreed that every third person was an unofficial informer for the Stasi. We even had close friends that spied on us and we only found out years later when we looked at our Stasi Akten. But you always have to remember that, though we were aware of it, we just tried to live normally. We didn’t think all the time about who might be from the Stasi because we couldn’t have got on with living our lives, if we had. I didn’t know any different so it was just normal for me.

I have a kind of a funny story about the Stasi that illustrates how it was for us then. I had a good friend who lived in ‘Paul Schneider Strasse’. Now, this friend’s neighbour was a doctor, and the two families were very close friends. I lived next to the church and we had a telephone as the pastor always had a telephone, which was very uncommon; only few people had a phone in the GDR. My friend’s family in Paul Schneider Strasse didn’t have a phone but their neighbour; the doctor did, as doctors also needed phones. One day, shortly after the wall fell and I had been able to leave the army, my friend went over to the doctor’s flat and asked if she could call me. She picked up the phone and before she even dialled anything she could hear our voices in the flat. She hung up immediately and rode her bike straight over to our house to tell us what had happened. We couldn’t believe it but she said, you just said this or that and we were completely surprised and said, ‘Yes that’s true. We just talked about that.” Then she rode back to the Doctor’s and we tried it again and she could clearly hear our conversation but couldn’t say anything. My father went over to the doctor’s to confront him about but he denied everything. Of course, it was obvious that the doctor had spied on us for years. My father then got our apartment checked over and we found out that every room had little microphones in it. The whole apartment was completely bugged and we celebrated its all being over by ripping the whole lot of it out.”

On my way home after my talk with Martin, I thought about what he had told me. I looked up at the houses and wondered what people might have lived there during the GDR and how they might have lived. Where they happy and believed in the system or did they, like Martin, have the will and power to stand up and say something against the state? I thought about how strong Martin had to be, to be able to survive prison and being separated from his parents for such a long time and having to live in a state which his parents openly opposed. What problems and troubles must he have had in his adolescence? Some how, I looked up to him now and respected his hard past. My parents who grew up in the same time period had experienced a completely different life even though they had only grown up, with a few kilometres in-between them. And now they are all friends and live in one town in a free, democratic country. I smiled, thankfully there where people like Martin and his family in the GDR who stood up against the system and fought so that I could nowadays grow up here in Weimar in a free county in which everyone could do as they like, say what they believe and go wherever they want too.

I chose this topic as my personal project because I think that it is very important that people in my age know about the GDR and about the past and life of people who lived there. Sadly, many of my friends don’t know more than a few facts although the fall of the Berlin wall has only been 25 years ago. I also live and grew up in Weimar which was part of the GDR and that is the reason why I personally feel connected and also know a lot of people that have grown up in the GDR, one example being Martin.
I decided to rather than just writing a historic essay about life in the GDR it would be much more interesting to make an interview with someone who grew up in the GDR and make the project inform of a ‘journalistic writing’ and to add my own thoughts to this work.
The project taught me about life in a dictatorship and how hard it was and still is, and what consequences it brings with it, if you don’t just go with the rest but stand up against the system and fight for what you believe.
I chose this topic because many people don’t know although of details about the GDR and they might say they don’t have too because it lies in the past but the fact is that there are still a few countries in the world which are dictatorships and in which people are not aloud to travel where they want too and do what they want too without being punished. One example, of this is North Korea, and this example of a dictatorship like the GDR used to be is right now and there fore I think it is very important for everyone to know about these things and appreciate the fact that Germany was able to unite again, without ever letting things get out of control and using weapons or starting a war.



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