The Past Is A Different Country Altogether
Dreading the moment my time of magical thinking will come to an end and my bank account will tell me to look for a job, I’ve been thinking about my CV. All 100 versions of it. I also thought about all the places who offer help in presenting me in the best possible light and advise on what to put in and what, most importantly, leave out. How in the past I squeezed and distorted my past experiences to fit some kind of job description, usually ending up feeling diminished and not wanting a job at all.
Now, still not wanting to be employed but simply be a Mensch who gets paid for writing, I can finally pen a more comprehensive, less glamorous but ultimately, more realistic account of my life.
I was born in 1973 in a town on the Polish border to a father who was born in Zagan, Silesia, in what is now Poland. In the gruesome winter of 1945 his mother, fleeing from the Russians and her past, carted him together with his two siblings in a trolley all the way to Thuringia where she sold the little jewelry (and other non-material things) she had in exchange for food and worked in semi-slavery for a farmer. That was the story of bravery and survival she told us and the one she had decided to live with, conveniently leaving out the nasty bits of what happened before, during and after the War.
My mother’s family had been brought to Thuringia by my grandfather from Teplice in Czech. After ’45, with all the so-called anti-fascists and communists remaining in the Russian sector, what was to become East Germany after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, my grandfather became chief of the local agricultural production cooperative (LPG).
My parents, possibly brought together by a shared past of immigration and displacement, fell in love in their teens and later moved to Frankfurt/Oder where I was born. My mother was appointed judge overseeing company law, thus circumventing more political and therefore treacherous judicial appointments and resolved herself to resolving petty conflicts between socialist companies who generally didn’t meet their targets according to whatever 5-Year-Plan had been concocted.
However, after the Fall of the Wall in 1989 when DDR-citizens were allowed to view their Stasi-Files, it became apparent that she also was an IM, which stands for ‘Informeller Mitarbeiter’ (informal collaborator) for the secret service Staatssicherheit. To show you how short memories are, she was allowed to continue working as a judge regardless and later sent into retirement with flying colours.
My father, a surveyor without a proper degree, in the meantime managed to lead a somewhat Bohemian life, working as football trainer for kids and a few other things. And because he lacked professional ambition and the required mindset he got away with not joining the Workers’ Party.
According to government policy, everyone was looked after, had a flat and a job. Some merited the job they had, some didn’t. Mostly, the lowly jobs generally available didn’t merit the people doing them. A career, even though that word was not part of GDR vocabulary, was only possible if you kept personal opinions to yourself, informed on friends, family and colleagues and were a member of The Party. Being a dictatorship of the proletariat (that term in itself as absurd as it was fictitious) everybody was meant to be equal. There was no class-system; wages were not that different whether you were a dentist or factory worker. So far so Animal Farm.
As most things, apart from the basics, were in short supply, a culture of exchange and swapping deeds was thriving. Car parts in exchange for a sack of cement, Germina trainers in exchange for a bottle of Czech Schnapps. The carpenter swapped his services with the plumber, the builder who got you the bricks for your Dacha was paid in-kind. People depended on one another which brought about a sense of solidarity, ingenuity and, not always voluntary, mutual appreciation.
And thus Ossis went about their daily lives, keeping their hopes low and horizons small, which was aided by only being allowed to travel within the Eastern Bloc countries and having limited access to Western media. Knowing all the time that Big Brother Stasi was watching and keeping meticulous records to later use for blackmail, intimidation and, most importantly, to assert power and control over its unruly citizens.
The dismay of knowing the watchful eyes and keen ears of the Secret Police were everywhere was so inherent in the people’s psyche that the Stasi’s means of mass surveillance became a quasi urban myth. In order to cope with its abstract and at the same time real threat and to go on regardless, the Stasi and its functionaries became something to make fun of with the people one trusted.
It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that Ossis dared to hope for some light at the end of the tunnel. Words like Perestroika and Glasnost were radical not only in the sense of utter change and renewal they implied but also in the magic they subtly weaved in people’s blocked and brainwashed minds. What a man. What a politician. I still wonder how a quiet revolutionary like him made it to the top of a corrupt and deeply reactionary political system. I had the fortune to see and hear Mr. Gorbachev at the Cinema for Peace Gala at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 and knew there was the man who not only changed the course of history but also the course of my life in myriad ways. I cried.
If I want to cheer myself up and feel boundless gratitude, I think about what would have become of me if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down.
I was 15 years old in 1989 and for various reasons not selected for A-levels. The only possibility to get my A-levels anyhow and not end up in some factory polishing metal parts for electric fence energisers for the rest of my life, was to take up an apprenticeship as Storage Technician and do my A-levels on the side.
Trying to picture my impending future brought up Kafkaesque visions of huge storage facilities filled to the brim with boxes and me on a forklift going around and around to nowhere. An adolescent sense of doom descended and I envisioned my life as a grey mass of imprisoned nothingness.
But history had different plans.
As tectonic plates were already shifting in the summer of 1989 and new opportunities sprung up left, right and center I managed to get a place at the local Lyceum, and surrounded by old class mates who had made it as well, the two best years of my life so far commenced. Although the tough East German exam-system was still in place and I almost failed math and chemistry, I remember laughing and joking with my best friend so much that one of us was regularly asked to leave the classroom. Looking back I think it was the hysteria of never-before tasted freedom and possibilities which made us giddy with joy.
Throughout one thought was festering: I NEED TO GET OUT. Leave my home, my hometown, my former socialist-realist home country, to see and become part of the WORLD.
Consequently I did what all American tourists do when they come to Europe – see as much as possible in as little days as possible. And off on an inter-rail adventure my bestie and I went: Paris, Marseille, Arcachon, Rome, Venice, Athens, Corfu, Istanbul. Wide-eyed natives staring at the Eiffel Tower and throwing up in a bistro, sleeping rough in Italian train stations, passports tied around the waist, riding horses on the beach, suffering sun stroke and diarrhea on the ferry, encountering our first proper West Germans in the form of fellow travelers, smoking our first dope, learning from an American girl how to use toilet paper to blow our noses, schlepping our backpacks through Venice in the August heat looking for Marco Polo, drinking apple tea with carpet sellers in Istanbul and wondering briefly whether it would be a good idea to take a bus to the Middle East.
By then well versed in the art of prioritising and survival, culture was taking a backseat and we opted to stay put and for a tourist meal rather than visiting the Acropolis once we got to the top of the hill.
Then I turned eighteen and my life truly began.
Of course, just like my CV, this is an abridged and polished version of my experiences. I left many more things out than I put in. But for now this has to do.