In search of joy
Say it in a postcard | Issue 20 | 2022
History touches individual lives. Take my life. I am East German. If you come from the former DDR, you don’t easily let go of it. You bring it with you, all those feelings. I left when I was twenty-three and still I feel that ‘difference’, not in my head, in my heart. It is difficult for me to trust.
I was born in 1966 in Leipzig. My mother was an opera singer and my father a composer. My parents were never Party members and this became a problem for us. My father’s name was removed from his compositions. The Stasi came to our home unannounced, particularly when my mother was on a concert tour. Did we know for sure that she was coming back? How good was my parents’ relationship?
I longed even as a child to go to West Germany. This was not permitted. It was impossible—unless you were over sixty and there was a family crisis, or you had political connections. Czechoslovakia was the only place you could go without a visa. Still you had to be careful. But I was never careful. And if I stepped out of line there were reprisals, always. When I was fourteen I talked to West Germans at the Trade Fair in Leipzig—and the Stasi took me in for questioning overnight. In Prague, I had the chance to meet other people until the hotel where I worked was told to break off that contact, and I was demoted. The hardest thing for me to bear was that the Stasi came often, suddenly. You! Come with us, we have questions, about you, your friends. I was always in fear. And I said nothing, I said always that I knew nothing.
I made the acquaintance of a man from West Germany and we applied to get married. I had to wait two years for permission and during this time we were not allowed to meet. I lost my job. In the DDR you had to work or you went to prison. There was no ‘unemployment’. I was fortunate to find small private jobs or things would have gone badly.
I still lived with my parents. Everyone did. You only got an apartment if you were starting a family. You had to wait forever for these things, for a telephone, or a car. And there was no choice: you took what you were given.
My parents lived in a beautiful apartment in Leipzig but the State felt that it was too large, so an elderly couple were brought in to live with us. They were nice. I don’t think they were spies. You can never be sure. Every fourth or fifth person had some link with the Stasi. It was an efficient system.
The building was in a state of disrepair because no one felt responsible. It belonged to the People. Everything belonged to the People. And the sanitation was bad. There were street cleaners but the streets were dirty. There was a river in front of our building and this river was black with waste; even old furniture was thrown into the river.
My parents live in Dresden now, in what used to be my grandmother’s home. My mother loves plants and now, in their eighties, they have a little garden.
You take the prison with you. My parents also. Everything that in West Germany is taken for granted—the freedom to think and speak independently—we never learned that in the DDR. We were led by the hand from birth to the grave. It is hard later to change. Even if you had stood against the system, even then it is hard. The people in Europe are confident. I find that East Germans underplay who they are, what they are capable of. For me, it was always important to go all over and to be free. But I feel not free! It’s ironic, I stay here, I don’t do so much.
I can say one good thing from my life as an East German. In the DDR we learned to make something from nothing. Some days there were no vegetables, other days no bread in the shops, and still somehow I learned how to prepare a good meal.
I miss my family. I am quite alone. No brother and no sister. The marriage only lasted a few years. But I have music, and this is the most important thing in my life. And there are friends with whom I have learned to be open.
Nobody can imagine how it was, this life in the DDR. There is a film that shows it: The Lives of Others.
© Norton Rose Fulbright LLP 2023