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An Ossi is still an Ossi

I got to know Anna Klein by her entry to my guest book, in which she had "outed" herself as "Ossi" (which is a nickname for people from East Germany). In the first email I sent her, I mentioned that I planned to place my Wall pictures on the web and that I was interested in background information from East German people. I didn't know that Anna was only 24, but she told me that she had already discussed and shared enough troubles "back then". So we did the following email interview.

Anna Klein, Berlin, subway station Alexanderplatz

"How was your childhood as a typical GDR citizen?"

I was born in Berlin on 3rd of October 1976, which is the German Unity Day nowadays. In March 1977 we moved to Dubna (USSR) because my father worked there on a physical research project. There were plenty of such exchange projects. My brother was born in September 1978. We both went to day nursery. After a wonderful and interesting time, of which I have a lot of memories, we went back to GDR in summer 1981. I spoke Russian fluently, but unfortunately I lost it over the years.

We then lived in a modern estate in Königs Wusterhausen near Berlin. I went to kindergarten because both my parents were working.

In autumn 1982 we moved to Berlin-Johannisthal. After another year in kindergarten I started school at 26. Polytechnische Oberschule (polytechnical elementary school). I was a very good pupil during all these years. We had classes on Saturday mornings as well, we learned Russian as our first foreign language and the first 10 years of education were exactly the same throughout the entire Republic

I was voted "Gruppenratsvorsitzende" (form captain – chairwoman of the Young Pioneers) by my schoolmates every year and they elected me to the "Freundschaftsrat" (pioneer friendship - pupils' representatives).

Like nearly all of my schoolmates, I was a member of the Young Pioneers first, and afterwards a member of the Thälmann Pioneers. We spent various afternoons with the Pioneer groups, doing handicrafts, collecting acorns and chestnuts for the zoo and finding out a lot of things about the area. We invited one of our schoolmates, who was quite religious, to join our meetings, which he did with pleasure.

I took drawing and piano lessons and I did canoeing, which was a challenge and great fun. However, my parents urged me to stop canoeing when it became too demanding and when - as I realized only later - they offered me dope to increase my productivity. So I started playing tennis in a girls team.

My sister was born in December 1988. In April 1991 me and my class were consecrated according to GDR traditions, despite the fall of communism and the change of life. But we didn't get the usual present of a book called "universe, earth, mankind".

Well, I suppose that was a typical GDR youth.


Junge Pioniere - Young Pioneers

Anna (centre) at the meeting of the Young Pioneers

"Would you consider yourself as having been moulded by the GDR?"

Yes, indeed. At least as far as politics and social life are concerned. From my point of view, values like solidarity, sense of community, equality, taking care of and looking after others played a more important role in everyday life than nowadays. I really haven't quite warmed yet to the capitalist system and the striving for power, success and money.

"Have you been proud of your country when the socialist "world" was still all right?

In retrospect I think that most of the GDR citizens were proud of their country. Maybe that's the reason why it was so difficult to bear the constant negative remarks and slander about GDR that came up afterwards. Especially because these people didn't even know what they were talking about, for they haven't lived in GDR. 

Nowadays I wouldn't agree to the statement about the socialist world having been all right at any time at all.

"What did you associate with the word "Germany"? What did you associate with "Germany, united motherland" back then?"

Actually, the word "Germany" has never been a real subject. There was the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. Nobody even mentioned the possibility of a joint "Germany". There were rather historical associations. The verse "Germany, united motherland" of the GDR's national anthem has originally been meant literally but came out to be unrealistic, at least from the Communist point of view. Later you weren't even allowed to sing it in public.

"Before 1989 have you ever dreamed of a) visiting West Germany once b) moving there?"

My father had the opportunity of travelling abroad several times because of his profession as a physician. That is, several business trips to Hamburg, as well as congresses and meetings in other countries, on which we - as his family - would have been delighted to join him: Singapore, USA, France, Italy. But we could only watch slides and listen to his eloquent stories. We never wanted to move to West Germany. The subject arose again in 1989 when my mother's brothers had decided to leave GDR forever. The idea of not being able to meet these close relatives again was very painful for all of us.

"Did you have contact to people from West Germany?"

I had great-uncles and great-aunts in Kiel, West Berlin and Darmstadt. They visited us on special occasions like birthdays and weddings. We also received the usual West-packages, for birthdays and for Christmas at least. 

"Did you watch West German TV?"

As I did not grow up north Rügen at the Baltic sea coast or in the area of Dresden (the so-called "Valley of the Ignorants"), we could receive West German TV and watched it. So McGyver, Colt Severs and General Hospital were part of my everyday life. In stricter families/schools, watching West German TV and listening Rias was officially forbidden. That wasn't the case in my, more liberal, family. We read BRAVO, even though not very often, and my father brought further newspapers from his trips.

"Did you believe USA and West Germany were your enemies?"

They started this kind of propaganda early on and used it intensively. Just have a look at some parts of our history books. I can't really say, though, that USA and FRG were my enemies. Perhaps we had such a positive picture of the USSR's and GDR's superiority in our minds that we didn't have to think about it too much.

"Did you ever even think about living in a joint country with the West Germans?"

No way, sometimes It's difficult for me even today...

"What did you know about the wall, have you ever seen any pictures of it back then?"

I couldn't avoid dealing with the wall, for I grew up in a border district of Berlin (by the way: for us it was Berlin, not East Berlin). From some places in Berlin you could even see the wall. It was interesting that the west-facing flats would catch sight of only deserted fields and a high wall.

The so-called border districts were genuinely restricted areas which you could only pass having a special permission. In 1987 I was at a birthday party of a friend of mine who lived near the border to West Berlin. My father was late when he wanted to fetch me because he had been examined and questioned thoroughly. I remember that my friend always had an admittance passport with her, though these rules might be similar in other border areas.

"What did you believe was the reason for the wall?"

I'm not sure wether I actually thought about why there is a wall. It existed already when I was born and has never been questioned, at least not by me. I was aware of the disadvantages, though..

"What did you know about the Stasi back then?"

Of course I didn't know very much about the State Security Police. That's what a State Security Police should be all about. That their activities are not obvious to everybody.

"Did you know anyone who was a member of the Stasi?"

Yes, I knew some of them. At least in name, parents of my classmates. Shortly after the fall of communism people were saying that our principal and some of our teachers had been members of the Stasi. I know of proved contacts in our family, which is not unusual in a family of intellectuals, whose members were even travelling abroad. At least I know the difference between contacts and active Stasi-coorperation, which the media in general don't, obviously. 

"Imagine somebody would have asked you 'What do you associate with the FRG'. What would you have answered?"

West TV, popcorn, McDonalds, the German singer Sandra, Kinder chocolate, or maybe: the country over there, where they speak our language and where they have advertising and many other things of which I don't even know they exist.

"Would this answer have been the same thing you were thinking? If not: What did you think?"

Baring in mind that I would have been 12 years old at most, I would have said what I was thinking. 

"How did you experience the 9th and 10th of November 1989?"

Following the large-scale demonstration of 4th of November at the Alexanderplatz in Berlin as well as the heated time prior to the fall of communism and especially the lack of emotional preparation for experiencing that many people's dream - i. e. the fall of the wall and the change of the system - would be fulfilled so quickly, we spent those two days at home. At least we didn't walk over to West Berlin straight away, even though - as I said - the border was not far away at all. From 10th of November onwards the classrooms were emptier than before, the pictures on TV showed that you could now go to West Berlin without major complications.

The weekend after the wall had come down we went to West Berlin in the evening in order to pick up our welcoming money of 100 deutschmark, feeling somewhat out of place. What I found most surprising was a petrol station which sold not only petrol - as it was the case at our petrol stations - but also ice cream, drinks, magazines and jelly bears. And it was even a tiny petrol station...After that we went to the Ku'damm in order to look round the shops which were open till late in the evening. 

Meanwhile I know West Berlin very well, yet I still discover places I've never been to before. The name of the other side of the city will probably always remain "West Berlin" for me.

"What were your hopes that day for the future of your country?"

There was a strong hope for different circumstances and a new Government back then. There were plenty of discussions within the family, at meetings with friends of the elder generation, as well as in public rounds of talk and initiatives that didn't target a quick takeover. We seemed to have the power to change society ourselves and to let the dream of a country full of happy people come true. There were a lot of ideas. The commitment of the rounds of talk, of the Church, of many people and of new movements made us brave and hopeful. Everybody used the words "We are the people". It was incredible how quickly this turned into "We are one people" in early 1990. And it was even more incredible how few of those ideas have been implemented at the end of the day and how easy the annexion of such an economically weak country took place.

"Do you consider yourself German or Ex-GDR-German?"

When I was in France for quite some time I realized that I do consider myself German but that I will always remain an "Ossi". And that's ok ...

"When did you go to the West for the first time?"

If we're not talking about West Berlin, I went to Hamburg to visit relatives. I can't remember too much of it, though.

"What were your first impressions of the West?"

One of the first impressions was that everything was quite colorful, colored and garish, shining and full of contrasts, thus varied, but maybe distracting, too. I prefer the colors to the grey East.

"What do you think about the West now?"

I consider the West, or the Western system, which we do have now officially as well, as closely related to property, ownership and money. These values, i. e. being able to afford things, being rich and owning land and houses or even just money for establishing your own company and working independently, have gained too much importance. And even though my relatives hardly ever spoke about money for it was neither too much nor not enough for the things we needed, meanwhile prosperity and heritage plays a role for them as well. And I don't like that. I prefer values like love, friendship, community and solidarity, that's what life should be about, not money. And I think, to come back with my impressions of the West, that the values I prefer play a less important role over there. They lower the pensions in order to save money and complain about the pensions system, which is one of the most advanced ones. After the fall of Socialism the praised social market economy tended rather towards market than social.

"In how far do your impressions coincide with what you learned in school about the West?"

The chapter "imperialist states system" of my history book is about the foundation of the EEC and about the Treaties of Paris. The "oppression of the democratic powers" within "imperialism" is proved by the fact that FRG outlawed the Free German Youth in 1951 and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956. In geography we had to learn the names of rivers and towns thoroughly, as well as which mineral resources can be found in which places. Political and social information about FRG had gross propagandist leanings. I'm not sure wether the bid to bring the Western system into discredit convinced each and every pupil. 

"Is there anything you know about GDR that you didn't know when you lived there?"

Only after the wall had come down I learned about personal tragedies of new friends and their acquaintances or of other people who became famous after the fall of communism. Some of my friends who grew up in religious families went to school knowing that they'd probably never be allowed to do the Abitur (German school-leaving certificate) or even study. Others were put into jail or deported because they had different opinions about life and personal freedom. I haven't been aware of the wall-victims tragedy.

"In which way did GDR better than Germany nowadays?"

There was no unemployment. I want to stick to that despite all comments on feigned unemployment and people who did have work but were so-called "idlers". The recognition of the status "employed", at least in this part of the world, corresponds to the unemployeds' sensation of having failed, being useless and superfluent.

I also liked how working women were treated in GDR. On the one hand because they didn't have to fight for a job and take stage in order to keep up with the men. And on the other hand because society supported them and accepted their demands. East German women who were employee, wife and mother at once, as well as active in society and leisure, deserve credit, that's what I think at least. Of course the same goes for West German women who did the same.

From my point of view, the children and youth welfare was more comprehensive, too. The social network, by means of which everybody should be covered, was especially valid for that area: day nurseries, kindergartens, after-school care and pioneer centers to look after working parents' children, holiday camps of which I have gorgeous memories, and support in juvenile sports and music or other activities.

It is certainly controversial wether teachers should watch the pupils' social behaviour and environment in addition to teaching. However, I clearly prefer that to nowadays' "It's not of my business what happens at that child's home".

What I noticed as well is that - in comparison to today - the GDR's educational system was solid and good. Despite the advantages of individuality and unrestrained development, I enjoy the general knowledge we have all gained. I'm talking about the fact that we started all the subjects earlier, e. g. biology 2 years in advance, and had to take them until we left school, without the possibility of dropping the subjects we didn't like.

"Do you think that West Germans will ever really understand you or will the generations that grew up separated remain emotional 'Wessis' and 'Ossis' until they die?"

I'd like to split that question. I don't know whether West Germans will ever really understand me. I truly hope so and I think It's possible if they try really hard. As long as they don't, nothing will change. Here they mustn't forget to remain open in order to gain an overall view. That is, they should beware of getting influenced too much by isolated information they heard or read and taking them for granted.

"This is where a horrible wall once separated the people!"
"This is where a horrible wall once separated the people!"
© Barbara Henninger/www.cartoonkarten.de

I'm afraid the generations will unfortunately keep their "Ossi" and "Wessi" in their hearts even after the end of the separated peoples' days.

(June 2001)

feedback: Anna Klein