Kyra's Excellent Adventure Part 6: Into the East, part 1: Shadows of the Past
At the beginning of this series of posts, I talked about how my dad's father was born in Germany, in an area that later became part of East Germany. His family emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, but stayed in close touch with the relatives who stayed behind. Maintaining the family ties was important to them, and the care packages they sent helped the relatives back in Germany through some very tough times in the following decades.
The times my family lived in Germany in the 70s (1970-71 and 1978-79), making the trip into East Germany to visit our relatives was a priority and one of the major events of our time there. These were profoundly influential experiences in my life, and (since this blog is about my books) on a lot of the themes in my books. Again, with this trip, visiting our family in this area was a priority, and I was very curious to see how things now, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, compare to my memories of how things were back then, during the Communist occupation.
First, for some context, a look back. Here are some random impressions from the 1970s (related with respect for the privacy and feelings of those still living who lived through those times). Some of these are my own memories, some of them are things I wasn't really aware of at the time that were later related to me by my parents.
My main memory is that everything was very gray and grim. My dad says part of that is because our visits both times were in February, not the best time of year. But I found my journal from 1978-79, and our visit in 1979 was in July. I've included excerpts from my actual teenage journal at the end of the post.
Time of year aside, I remember everything being dark and colorless. The pollution was terrible, all the buildings were blackened with soot from the smoke of coal fires. In one of the towns we visited, the town brewery dumped its raw waste into the creek that ran through town. Everything looked shabby, run-down, and dirty; the things that were new - new apartment blocks, cars - looked cheap and flimsy.
And not just the physical - the atmosphere of fear and lack of hope was palpable even to kids. People were afraid to speak openly. You worked at what the government told you to work at, you lived where the government told you to live, you got what the government decided to give you. And there were signs all over telling you how wonderful it all was. You were supposed to think what the government told you to think, even when it contradicted what was right in front of your eyes and what you lived every day.
To be allowed to enter the country, one of the things we had to do was promise to spend at least 15 West German marks per day.
The house belonging to my grandfather's family (like all private property) was confiscated by the Communists and the entire family was given one apartment in the house to live in. (Note: the photos in this post are courtesy of my father. All rights reserved.)
A grandfather's daily task was to go down to the store and stand in line for two hours to buy a bottle of rhubarb juice so that his young granddaughter could have some vitamins.
A town's allotment of meat for an entire week was a 3-pound (or maybe it was 3-kg) roast. People would just buy thin slices off of it. As we learned to our chagrin after buying the whole thing to treat our relatives to a nice family dinner. Why did the store let us buy it? Because we had West German marks.
Staying with our relatives would have caused too much trouble for them with the police, so we stayed at the state-owned hotel. On the ground outside, a pile of potatoes was heaped up alongside a pile of coal. Kitchen workers had to sit in the hallway to peel the potatoes.
In one elderly relative's apartment building, the toilet for the whole building was on the ground floor, a wooden bench with a hole in it.
In spite of the deprivations, our relatives welcomed us warmly and with overwhelming generosity. One time, all they had to eat was rice, so that was what they gave us. We did our best to return their generosity with the gifts we brought in and the care packages we sent, but it was like the widow's mite - they gave us all that they could out of the little they had, with their whole hearts. It was tremendously moving and humbling.
When it was time to leave, it was really hard, knowing that we could go but they had to stay. Sometimes elderly people would be allowed to leave the country for short trips, but anyone who was young and still working or who might possibly decide not to come back, no way. The thinking was that the old people wouldn't want to leave their homes and families for good. When we left, we felt like we were leaving our family members in prison and didn't know if we would ever be allowed to see them again. A few of the older ones did make visits to the U.S., but they had to leave someone behind in East Germany to make sure they would come back.
Leaving the country, we had to stop at the guard station at the border and wait for a long time while the guards searched every inch of the car. They rolled a mirror underneath and even stuck a wire into the gas tank to make sure we weren't smuggling anyone out. We kids stood by watching, and even though we were just kids, we knew enough to be terrified of what would happen if the guards found something they didn't like. The guards at the border posts served as judge, jury, and executioner. Finally the inspection ended and we were allowed to go.
From my journal (entries edited and names redacted for privacy):
4 July 1979
Our hotel rooms were nicer than I had expected, clean and modern. On the other hand, they were expensive (as foreigners, we had to pay twice the regular rates) and had no hot water.
Next time: Into the East: Out of darkness into the light.
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