When we moved to Portland from Denver in 2007 I was startled to hear a language I had made every effort to forget—Russian. Suddenly old familiar words and phrases floated past me, first at the park, then at the hospital where I work. Our clinic even kept a laminated copy of the pain chart in Russian. I was surprised I could still identify those letters after nearly twenty years.
I once brought home the gold medal at the “Russian Olympics,” a language-proficiency contest that my middle school hosted. A few months later, when East Germany imploded, we ripped up our Russian books with the same enthusiasm the adults were applying to the concrete barrier in Berlin.
My early education was infused with communist ideology. In elementary school we sang chipper songs about helpful Russians and trustworthy politicians watching out for us. Their portraits hung in our classrooms, faces as familiar as family members. On special days we paraded our flag—black, red, and gold stripes like West Germany’s, except ours featured a hammer and compass inside a wreath of rye. We, the workers, farmers, and academics of the East, had chosen the higher road. Or more accurately, it had been chosen for us.
Children were the future of the communist dream for a better world, and for this reason a political organization existed just for us: the Pioneers. Every child was expected to become a Pioneer in the hope of one day becoming an active member of the SED—the Socialist Unity Party of Germany—East Germany’s only political party. Pioneer membership was technically optional, yet 98 percent of East German children joined in first grade.
Pioneers wore a uniform on special days and participated in after-school activities. They had little ID cards and vowed to follow their own ten commandments. Among them: to love peace and our republic; to respect parents and befriend others, especially Russians. Pioneers were expected to be diligent, orderly, disciplined, helpful, and friendly. Singing, dancing, crafting, and creating were encouraged as long as those activities promoted the virtues of socialism. Pioneers were required to participate in sports, practice good hygiene and health habits, and wear their uniforms proudly. They were little poster children for proper socialist citizenship.
My parents resented the political indoctrination of children, so they determined that I would not join the masses in becoming a Pioneer. Besides, our loyalty was to our church, which also offered fun activities for kids. At times I envied my classmates’ crisp white blouses and blue scarves. I begged to join their first outing, a march at dusk with handmade paper lanterns, but no exceptions were made for nonmembers.
At the next Pioneer admission ceremony, in fourth grade, my parents let me decide if I wanted to join. I debated for months, torn between wanting to fit in at school and my own growing conflicts over the communist agenda. By then I had several friends from the West who thought it was cool that I hadn’t become a Pioneer, so I declined to take the oath.
By sixth grade, the political climate had shifted. Hungary had opened its border to Austria, and thousands of East Germans were sprinting West, away from socialism, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We kids were still singing our songs and being warned about the dangers of capitalism, the way it corrupts people and society. Seeing people on TV running away from our supposed peaceful utopia made me feel better about not being a Pioneer. People didn’t really seem to want equality and harmony—they were willing to trade a lifetime of socialism for bananas and color TVs.
The fortieth birthday of the German Democratic Republic was celebrated with much fanfare on October 7, 1989. Two days later, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Leipzig, my hometown of half a million people. My parents wanted to keep us away from potential riots, but each week more people holding signs and candles joined the peaceful revolution marches. By the time we headed downtown on Monday night, temperatures had fallen sharply, as if the universe had plotted to freeze the resistance in its tracks. I watched my breath dance in the frigid air, my view obstructed by a sea of bodies taller than me. More people were squeezed around us on every side than I imagined lived in the whole world. As far as I could tell, these people had once been Pioneers, singing the praises of the Republic. Now here they were, thousands of them, holding up homemade signs that quietly proclaimed what they really wanted: passports, free elections, true democracy. We marched in curious silence until a voice called out, “We are the people!” Hearing thousands of voices chant this line sent a tingle up my spine. If this many adults want the same thing, I thought, something has to give. Something did give—the forty-year-old political and ideological barrier between us and the West crumbled overnight. In Berlin, nimble young adults climbed the twelve-foot concrete barrier that symbolized our separation.
Friends from the West were ringing our home phone. One of them called weeping softly while watching the news. Hearing an adult cry made me squirm. I wanted to comfort her, tell her we were totally fine and East Germany was nothing to cry about. “You are free!” Her voice sounded tender and caring, like she had long dreamed of this day and it had finally come. I’d never considered the end of communism in my lifetime and was surprised by her emotional reaction, but appreciated it. When she invited us over for the weekend, I quickly promised we would get there as soon as possible. I expected my parents to be as eager to head West as the rest of us. “We’ll wait for the euphoria to die down,” they said. We’d never joined the masses before, so it made perfect sense to move at our own pace now.
Meanwhile my classmates had ditched their Pioneer uniforms and returned from the West with Disney T-shirts and earmuffs, which were all the rage that winter. I was one of the last of my classmates to venture West. It was nearly Christmas, and we crossed the border after dark. I pressed my nose against the cold glass. Even at night, the West looked a million times more attractive than our clusters of gray did during the day. Our friends had plush white carpet, a dishwasher, and the softest-ever toilet paper. On their wall hung diplomas and travel photos with palm trees. Their stainless-steel fridge was stocked with cans of Sprite and “fruit dwarfs”—tiny yogurt cups my uncle had brought over from the West once. I haven’t forgotten the silky-smooth texture of this colorful yogurt. Our own yogurt came in plain rectangular packs with sharp edges. When scooped out, it retained its shape like Jell-O.
As far as we could tell, the West was not only the stronger, more prosperous part of Germany, but another world altogether. I don’t recall any talk of the two unequal halves merging. During the Monday-night demonstration back home, I got the sense that we were dreaming of making the East a new and better place, without the oppression of communism but perhaps with a little less capitalism and commercialism than the West. “Maybe someday Germany will be one country again,” my parents said. “Maybe even in our lifetime.”
For all its hopeful, catchy slogans, communism had little to show for itself as far as economic achievement. It quickly became apparent that East Germany couldn’t build a better country without a massive infusion of capital. Only the West was able and willing to bail us out. A ten-year plan for gradual reunification was discussed and quickly scrapped, because the East could not sustain itself even for a decade. Less than a year after the wall fell, on October 3, 1990, Germany was reunited under one government.
I loved the West for adopting and transforming its weaker half, and I resented the West for its perpetual and never-ending superiority. The East needed help with everything, and I was tired of not knowing enough, of not even knowing what it would take to become an equally respected citizen.
When friends from the West came to visit, I felt a flush of shame when overhearing their young daughter whisper to her mom: “This doesn’t even look like Germany. Why are all the houses so gray and old?” She was speaking the truth, and I didn’t like what I heard.
I began to tally each tiny transformation in our neighborhood, wondering how long it would take to catch up. Just how many shiny cars and renovated buildings would it take to look more like the real Germany? Political posters and busts disappeared from my classroom. My entire class dropped out of Russian. A million small changes were happening, and yet I’d head West and still feel different and behind. I’d catch a glance full of pity and wish I’d been born in the West.
Four years after the reunification, when I was sixteen, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a year in the United States, which felt to me even more progressive than West Germany. Now on the other side of the world, I suddenly became what I’d wanted to be since the wall had crumbled: a German. No cardinal adjectives attached.
People assumed that “Astrid, the student from Germany” hailed from the respectable Western part. I didn’t bother to correct anyone’s assumptions or small talk about fine German cars on the autobahn even though my childhood was spent rattling in slow motion over cracked concrete in a two-cylinder Trabant. People raved about beer and Rhine river cruises while I nodded and smiled. I learned to steer conversations away from East Germany and communism because I couldn’t handle my own complicated and conflicted feelings regarding my past.
Instead I fell in love with the West Coast during my year of study abroad, so I stayed. The year turned into a decade, then two. Seven years after moving to Portland I decided to take the leap and become an American citizen. Somewhere along the way, I made peace with my past and this country that no longer exists. I realized that the failure of East Germany is not mine to own, defend, or explain. My early life was shaped by the collective pursuit of the communist dream, by socialist ambitions, and by the notion that we were better than the rest of the world. Turns out, even though my family didn’t buy into this agenda, we were an average family from a failed country.
My parents still live in my hometown of Leipzig. Last year, my dad and I walked around the neighborhood and passed a cluster of newly built but unoccupied container-style homes. “Who are those for?” I asked. “Oh,” he paused. “They built those for refugees. But they’ll likely remain empty since refugees don’t like to stick around here.” I looked confused. “They’d rather live in the West,” he clarified. Ever more attractive and welcoming, the West.
I felt disappointed by the East’s lack of hospitality only three decades after having been on the receiving end of Western generosity. I figured if anyone would understand migrants who are seeking a better, more prosperous life, it would be the inhabitants of the former East.
As I sort through my past, I’ve mined the East for its treasures. The East has gifted me with an appreciation for simplicity and community. Our family forged a fantastic sense of humor and a deep personal network under socialism. I am still drawn to simplicity and have an innate sense of creative problem-solving. While the West has been my home for nearly three decades now, the East will always be a part of my identity, one I no longer deny. As my country of origin continues to merge and redefine its values and legacy, I have also gathered the random pieces of a complex past, and allowed them to reshape the way I see myself in the world.
4 comments have been posted.
Astrid, your stories are so interesting and your writing is great. I’m glad you shared this and that I had a chance to read it. I look forward to more. P.S. We miss you and your family in Colorado.
Cheri Barber | May 2020 |
Why do you think East Germany is less welcoming to immigrants and has a growing right wing movement? (I was born in Nuremberg and came to the US as a child in 1955)
Heidi Fox | April 2020 | Portland, Oregon
I'm one of Astrid's friends from Leipzig and I feel deeply moved after reading this story. I can remember these discrepancies as a child between what we were told from our teachers, the officials and my parents' doubts... Now, like Astrid, I'm grateful for many experiences. There are so many things which I don't take for granted. And who else can say: I lived in a country which ceased to exist??? Thank you, Astrid!
Claudia | April 2020 | Leipzig, Germany
Great story, great writing! This line really spoke to me: "Somewhere along the way, I made peace with my past and this country that no longer exists. I realized that the failure of East Germany is not mine to own, defend, or explain." But then the last paragraph pulled it all together!
Gary Walter | April 2020 | Eugene Oregon