Home > Uncategorized > “You can still see…”

“You can still see…”

I’ve been beating the streets of Lübeck, looking for someone who would tell me about its history, or had thoughts on the former border with East Germany. Yesterday, I met an older man who was eager to point out Lübeck’s churches and downtown attractions, lecturing me mostly in German about their merits. After a while, I asked him in rudimentary German about East Germany and West Germany. For a guy who had been talkative, he was temporarily without words, and his faraway look hinted that he wasn’t just thinking about what to say. He eventually launched into a history lesson, highlights of which included Lübeck’s geography, Adolf Hitler, and something about how Germany is more high-tech than the U.S. Needless to say, I wish I had understood him better, but that look in his eyes didn’t need translating.

Today, after several hours of unpromising starts to conversations, I headed back to my hostel, frustrated and tired. Then, as luck would have it, the landlady stopped by as I was cooking dinner, and was extremely friendly and chatty. We struck up a conversation, I showed her my trusty guidebook, and before I knew it, she was telling me all about her experiences, thoughts on East vs. West Germany, and more.

She was about 50 or 60 years old, an Estonian woman who had fled her home with her mother after World War II. Meanwhile her uncle had been sent to Siberia and never heard from again. She did not return to her hometown until just eight years ago, by which time everything was completely different. Impressive, but very different. She lived in Berlin from 1964-1980, when the Wall cut through the city. During this time, she was a student, and a member of the RAF (Red Army Faction). She cut ties when the group became too radical, and wondered aloud how things had escalated from an effort to make political change, to murder and violence.

When I asked her about differences between East and West Germany, she told me that “you can still see” evidence of the division. The regions still feel different. She agreed with me that the architecture is a give-away, but added that East Germans have a different mentality. They are harder-working for one thing. She needed occasional help around the hostel, and always found the best help in women from Leipzig or Dresden and rarely found a Western woman willing to work. She elaborated, explaining that Eastern women were also more liberated, as they had often worked mens’ jobs. She concluded by observing that relations between people were better in the East because people were forced to help each other more.

This final thought came as a surprise to me, having learned about the Stasi, police state, and an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that blanked the GDR during the Cold War. Wouldn’t this make people more insular and less helpful toward their neighbors? Perhaps it was different between cities and the countryside? I certainly understand the idea of cooperation in the face of a common foe, but this perspective applied to East Germany is a new one for me. Perhaps this will be another area of investigation as I make my way down the trail.

Although I wasn’t able to record the discussion, this was still a fantastic start to the conversations I hope to hold along the trail and I can’t wait to hear more voices.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary Henry
    June 16, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Kate,
    We are pleased to be able to “travel” along with you via your blog and photographs and look forward to learning what happens next! Safe travels.

    Mary Henry and Rick Mullin

  2. David Tompkins
    June 17, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Hope things work out with the bike! But it sounds like things are going well otherwise. The East Germans I know also talk about the solidarity they shared during the years before 1989–you had to have connections and work with others in order to get things necessary for life. Official ideology, of course, promoted collectivism rather than individualism, and this rubbed off on society more generally. And yes, part of this solidarity took the form of grumbling against the regime, as people bonded over their situation under communism. There also is the concept of the “niche society” where people found others who shared their interests and had social contact and satisfaction largely outside of the gaze of the state. It really wasn’t until after 1989 that people realized just how far the Stasi had penetrated society by getting reports from average citizens on the activities of their neighbors and family members.

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