As we drove up to the East German border in 1983 we were both somewhat nervous--but excited, too. This was the first time in 31 years that Hans would be back in his Heimat (homeland) since he had left as a boy of 14 with his aunt. Hans had been born in Magdeburg but had grown up beside the Werbellinsee, a beautiful lake in the Schorfheide forest area in the State of Brandenburg (about 100 kilometers from the Oder River, which is now the German/Polish border).
(The picture above of the old border crossing between West and East Germany was being dismantled at the time I took this picture in 1990 just days after re-unification. In 1983 I wouldn't have dared to take such a picture as guards and police were everywhere!)
The picture below is of Hans with his Aunt Gerda in 1952, a few months before escaping from the DDR (East Germany).
A few months later both would emigrate to Canada by ship, entering Halifax at Pier 21 in December of that same year (1952). That was followed by the long train trip west to Westlock, Alberta, to where his aunt's son Heiko had already emigrated to work on a farm. (In those days, to enter Canada, you had to have a sponsor, or you had to agree to work on a farm or another work place for two years where hard work was required. This Heiko did and then sponsored his mother and Hans.) Three years later, in 1955, Hans joined the Royal Canadian Army. He retired officially in 1983, which meant that he could at last, as a civilian, return to the Heimat he had never forgotten.
I was privileged to accompany Hans on that journey into the East. On that day in 1983 I became more nervous as we started going through "no-man's land," leaving West Germany behind. We had to go through three check points, giving up our passports at the first one and not having them returned until the final check point. All I could think was, "What have we gotten ourselves into?" I feared we might never see our passports again and thus would never get back to our side of the infamous Wall. We were entering the communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the DDR) or, as we called it in the West, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The picture above is of that same border crossing.
The moment we arrived on the other side, it was as if we had entered a different world. The grayness is what first was so noticeable: the meadows were green and the sky was blue, but the towns and houses were gray and rundown, as everything had been neglected for so long. We found out later how little money people had and how difficult it was, even with money, to buy such things as paint and building materials. The entire infra-structure was in total decay. The picture below right is of a former mansion in ruins; no money nor materials available to keep it up.
(One West Mark was worth four East Mark. As well, we had to pay in West Marks for our room, any dining or shopping in the hotel. At that time we paid the equivalent of $110 a night. We also, of course, had had to apply and pay for visas to enter East Germany itself.)
We drove the 1000 kilometers to East Germany in an Italian Innocenti mini and were amazed at the reaction it received. Our car was identified by the Canadian Forces Europe (CFE) licence plate as we were part of the civilian work force with the Canadian military in Europe. We had, as well, the Canadian flag emblem on the rear of the car. Passengers in other cars, mostly Trabants--better known as Trabis--often waved out their windows as we or they passed, yelling "CANADA!" in their excitement.
The oak tree at the right is over 600 years old, some say as old as 800 years. This is in the town of Eichhorst, close to the Werbellinsee.
The house, situated across the road from the lake, included the land on the lake side as well as acreage behind the house and a large piece of the forest--about four hectare total (ten acres). The house had been bought by Hans' grandfather shortly after World War I. (He had been a shipbuilding engineer for the Imperial Navy during the Great War.) We found out later that the title to the house was still held by Hans' aunt. In many cases, houses had been taken over by the Communist state, but fortunately theirs was not one of them. That would prove to be hugely important after re-unification. Hans' house is shown below.
The Schorfheide has been the home of many famous and infamous individuals, including Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Reichsmarschall (Air Marshal) Hermann Göring and Erich Honecker, the last East German Head of State. The Schorfheide, a beautiful forest area with many lakes, is just an hour or less from Berlin, making it a favourite haunt of many, including weekenders from the city.
Each afternoon one of the families in Hans' old house invited us for coffee and cake and told us about their lives. One afternoon Hans and I went for a walk in the forest with Wolfgang. When talking about politics, his voice lowered to almost a whisper: "The Stasi (secret police) are everywhere," he told us, "and you cannot trust anyone except for your family and close friends." Though we were the only ones there, it was almost as if he thought the trees were listening!
The region was close enough to Berlin to receive West German television signals; although it was against the law to watch western TV, many did. That meant that the people could see what life in the West was like compared to theirs. One young couple we met told us, "Our dream is to visit Canada. We feel marooned within our own country. We can travel to the Eastern Bloc countries but those countries do not really want us or our East Marks." One of the reasons they were so poorly off in the DDR was that most of the best products from East Germany went to those other East Bloc countries, including the Soviet Union, making much unavailable within the their own country.
A simple grocery store at left.
It was almost impossible for the ordinary people to buy those consumer goods we take for granted, such as citrus fruit, walnuts, decent coffee, chocolate or cocoa, for example. Other products were so expensive the common person could not afford to buy them: colour or even black-and-white TVs (which most did have), stereos and cars. Ordinary goods such as winter boots and coats cost half a month's salary. We visited the families many times and on each subsequent visit we took supplies with us for Hans' friends, ones that we bought at the hotel in Berlin (always including coffee!). After that 1983 trip, each year at Christmas we sent each family a parcel of food products until the Wall fell in 1989.
Two typical country roads, quiet and peaceful, but bumpy!
Below, a typical small village
We drove down many country roads and into many small villages. Grocery stores carried mostly the basics with fresh produce from the area. The only flowers we saw were the ones in gardens; we never saw a florist shop or nursery. Police were everywhere. Many roads in the vicinity of military areas were off limits to us and to most locals as well.
Once away from the grayness of the border and city, the countryside was beautiful and tranquil. Although houses had no paint and were often in bad shape, they added to the feeling of an earlier era. With few cars around and fewer stores, it was quiet and peaceful, though we wondered how we would manage living in such a closed society and country. I always felt the lack of freedom while we were in the DDR and truly realized the difference in our own lives when we were finally back on West German soil.
The moped was a typical way for getting from place to place.
Below, the small, quaint village of Werbellin, just off the Autobahn in the Schorfheide and close to the lake. Time stood still here.
Below, the Werbellinsee at the southwest end, just outside Altenhof. A typical past time for many, including us: Watching the swans.
We saw a lot on that trip and found it to be emotional and thought-provoking as well as rewarding. It had been a memorable journey. We had hoped to go back soon again but bureaucracy, increased costs and a busy life had deterred us. But three days after re-unification, in October1990, we drove back again, the first of many such visits after the Wall had fallen.
A Note: All the photos were snapshots taken in 1983 except for the two border crossing pictures, taken in 1990. I then took pictures of all of them with my digital camera. I kept a journal of our visits to the Werbellinsee, thus the reason for the conversations still remembered and our impressions at that time. I plan to write about our 1990 trip and a little from other trips there, showing the changing times.