I just had the most surreal experience ever. Really, ever. It's made Berlin as a living city seem so much closer to me, so much more accessible. We read about the crazy history of this city in classes all the time--but that's just a history book. So because we're working on this theme in my German class, we have to work in pairs and conduct interviews with random East and West Berliners and then write a paper on it. My friend Bristol and I put some questions together, and today we went out to Friedrichshain Park, right by where we live in the East, and accosted some random people to interview them.
Our first person was a West-German man who also happened to be a history teacher. He gave such good (well-rehearsed, i might add) insight on what it was like in West Germany, how the DDR was a completely different country and no one concerned themselves with it a whole lot. He clearly covers the subject with his students because he knew just what points to hit.
The second lady we talked to was just chilling on a bench by the ping pong tables. She was 70--born in 1938, she told us. She had so much to say! Her family was split when the wall went up in 1961. She and her mom were trapped in the East while her dad continued living in the West. When we asked her if the wall was ever a topic of discussion at home, she just said no. They never talked about it because there was nothing that they could do. They just--and i quote--cried about the wall because it was the only option for them. She only saw her dad twice over the forty years of the wall. He came over once for her wedding and once for the birth of her child. She was never allowed to visit him, even though she applied many times for a travel visa to the West. She could even still list the years that she applied! 1967, 73, 74, 81, 82, 88. Isn't that incredible??? We went on to ask her about shortages in the East, whether the command economy worked out well. She said there were no paper tissues, no jeans, no rain jackets. Baby clothes were hard to find, she said. Finally we asked her if the 9th of November (the day the wall came down in 1989) still meant a lot to her. At this point she began to cry. She said "der tag wird immer zum heulen." That means, that day will always make me weep. I asked her to explain why, and she said because it was the first time her family was together after 40 years. Her mom never saw her dad again after the wall went up--she died before it came down.
So here Bristol and I were, standing in the park with a crying old lady. We felt really, really bad, but at the same time, the lady had seemed really happy to tell us about her experiences. Almost as if it were cathartic to tell the whole story to two outsiders like us. She seemed actually relieved. We thanked her very, very earnestly, and went on our way.
After that, we needed a few minutes to recover. That was the first time either of us had ever seen anyone so affected by their past, by the history that we've been learning about in class. My hands were actually shaking!
It took us both a moment, but we managed to get it back together and continue on our quest for interviews. Our last interview was with a red-faced old guy, also about 70, who was sitting on a park bench smoking cigarillos. In contrast to the old lady, he was very bitter. He quickly got quite worked up, saying (with surprising passion) that all the Stasi and SS agents should have been hanged in 1989 and that the DDR was a prison, a real prison for 70 million people. When we asked him about books written about the fall of the wall, he said they're all shit (his word, not mine!). No one can describe anything like East Germany in a book, he said, and why should he read them anyway if he lived through it all himself. We also asked him about shortages in the East, and he informed us that the only two things one could get with any regularity were beer and bread, but "what more does a man need, though?" Finally we asked him whether or not he fells that Germany has been truly reunited. He said no, a strong, fervent no. According to him, the politicians that say all the time that Germany is growing together are full of shit (again, his words!). He added that all politicians are liars and cheaters and they should all be done away with, all of them. Then he showed his true colors when I asked what the new German government should look like. "There's nothing wrong with Socialism. We would do well now with Socialism like we had in the East. The problem in the DDR was what they did to enforce it, they just took it way, way too far." So there you have it, a bitter old Socialist smoking in the park on a Sunday afternoon.
So that's what I did today. I made an old lady cry and I pissed off a geezer. And I'm about to get an A on my German project.