After Hitler’s defeat in 1945 World War II., the division of Germany into four parts meant East Germany was occupied by Soviet Communism. Travel restrictions were imposed by The Wall which was in place from 1961-1989.
In Berlin we saw a parish split by The Wall so members on the “other side” could not attend worship in their own congregation. Families could not bury their dead in the church cemetery in their own family plots.
1982-1989 – The Peaceful Revolution
Following our attendance at the Saturday afternoon, January 13, 2013, Bach Motette concert worship at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, we were privileged to listen to and dialog with Lutheran Pastor Ulrich Seidel who had participated in the Leipzig Peaceful Revolution 1982-1989. This peaceful protest was begun by Pastor Christian Fuehrer at St. Nicolaikirche in Leipzig. This persistent protest eventually resulted in the pulling down of “the Wall” and the fall of Communist occupation in the Russian sector of East Germany. (One point he made about their strategy is that people carried lit candles because this would preclude violence. When you’re watching your candle to make sure you don’t burn yourself or start a fire, you’re not going to lash out at other people when they taunt you or attempt to incite your anger!)
Our second tour hostess from Christian Tours, Renate Skirl, sat down with us one morning at the Colleg Wittenberg and told us her story as a child growing up as a Christian during the Communist regime. By being a Christian and refusing to join “The Party,” she was isolated. ( Although there were about 12 in her confirmation class – taught by the pastor, the others participated in the Jugendweihe [communist confirmation] and were confirmed one year later. She was the only person being confirmed in 1968 at the Castle Church in Wittenberg). Such separation from peers is particularly difficult for a teenager who likes to be one of the “in-group!” As an adult, when, as a divorced mom, she needed income, the fact that she didn’t list any Communist party affiliation could have prevented her from getting the job she had applied for. Fortunately someone who interviewed her liked her experience and her attitude, so she was hired for the position she wanted and was qualified for, anyway. Now she has adult children and six grandchildren, one born just before Christmas 2012.
1989 – 2013
After The Wall came down, other than reuniting of family members, or going to visit relatives from whom they had been forcibly separated for forty years, there was not much “crossing of the lines” between East Germany and West Germany. There is an invisible separation between East Germans and West Germans in terms of self-identity. There hasn’t been much desire for East Germans to leave their homeland and migrate to the West, nor for West Germans to move to the East, even though they are now free to do so. They are loyal to the homes of their ancestors, and once freed to come and go as they pleased, they chose to stay to reclaim their homeland and national identity, to improve themselves and their lives.
On my husband and my tour to Berlin and Potsdam in 1994, we saw everywhere the landscape of bombed out buildings, which had not been repaired since 1945, and were further deteriorated by lack of upkeep during Communist occupation. In 2013, we saw only one building in that condition – it had been left that way deliberately to show tourists and passers-by what had once been, before freed East Berliners had opportunity to repair or replace the damaged buildings. Seeing a single building with bullet/bomb holes in it in 2013 didn’t have the same impact of “war zone damage” as did seeing blocks of buildings everywhere in that condition, in 1994. What was impressive in 1994 was that, despite the exterior condition of these buildings, nearly all the windows displayed white lace curtains!
In a quarter of a century of relative freedom and growth, the East German people have not only renovated their physical infrastructure of bombed-out buildings; but have also gained self-respect and dignity, finding meaningful and fruitful employment. Now at last they need not be ashamed, but proud to be German. Even more to the point, they say, “I am proud to be East German.”
Proud to be German
I respect the East German people greatly. These, our hosts, were everyday, ordinary friendly people – with dignity, self-respect and integrity, just like any other people we know or meet or encounter anywhere here at home. Often I forgot that I wasn’t at home in the USA and that I was actually abroad, on foreign soil– until we began to order food, or to ask assistance in the stores. The language gap is more pronounced in East Germany, where older people learned Russian in school, whereas West Germans had learned English or French as second language and “serving tourist” language. Most Americans visit Europe but don’t speak the languages of the European countries we visit. Some folks in East Germany still speak Russian, not English, as second language.
There is a Jewish population in Germany now, but understandably small. Not many survivors or their families chose to return after World War II. They had nothing left and no one to come back to–only terrifying memories. We visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin very briefly, but found this to be one place in Germany where security precautions are still on high alert level.
We were told that tour guides in the concentration camps and other historic Holocaust sites (like White Rose, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald,) may sometimes seem reticent because it is too difficult to allow their emotions to become involved in what they are doing. They need to stick to facts. Most cannot last very long in this work – probably two or three years at a maximum. It becomes too overwhelming, too emotionally draining. It takes its toll.
Among the storytellers, we met with Renate Wind, who has lectured here at WTS on a couple of occasions, and was interviewed here by Persistent Voice staff last fall. She spent about an hour and a half with us talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German Resistance movement of World War II., when we visited the Coliseum museum memorial at Nuremberg.
What impresses me is that the East German people are telling the story. They are healing by telling it. They are not hiding the facts. They are not hiding the past. They are not hiding their history. They are not denying the facts and saying it didn’t happen. These story-tellers are honest and open, and they are doing a superb job in educating – not only their children, but also our children, younger generations and tourists from foreign countries, including their former enemies.
It is very important that these landmarks, these prison camps and concentration camps and the atrocities, which happened here, are preserved and kept as reminders and memorials to those who suffered and died here, as tangible facts of history, so that people from everywhere will know what happened here and understand what is important and how much impact our human relationships have on each other! We are all together one – one human family with same good strengths, hopes and aspirations, emotional feelings, and vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. I saw us all as one in human nature. In much of what we saw, we are one even as Lutheran Christians despite our differing national histories.
These story tellers and these museums and these landmarks must be kept in place now, for very soon those of us who remember the Nazi era – whether Nazi, Germans, enemies or “Allies,” – will be gone. The men who actually fought in World War ll are now in their 90’s, and those of us who were children in elementary school at that time are now in our 80’s, or late 70′s. It will be only the stories we write, tell, and pass on to the younger generations that will educate people as to what happened. If we do not hand down the stories, these realities will too soon be forgotten.