Tomorrow Germans celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. German reunification. You might think it is a day early, but my friend Doreen´s story starts on the 8th of November 1989 and I would like to share it with you today.
I have just found a long lost friend again. Doreen.
Doreen and her parents left their home in Ilmenau – deep, deep East Germany – on the 8th of November 1989. They packed one suitcase, jumped in the car, drove to the Czech / West German border and escaped.
Doreen was 14 in spring 1989 when her parents decided to hand in an application for an Ausreiseantrag – the document you needed in order to leave the DDR. Ausreiseantrag meant restrictions, exclusion and fear. What if it would not be granted and if you would have to stay in a state that now knows, that you do not want to stay there anymore.
Doreen´s family´s Ausreiseantrag was not approved – and from one day to the other the former good student got bad grades, was excluded in school lectures, and old friends were not allowed to talk to her anymore. The Stasi had made sure that everybody knew about their decision to break out. Everybody should see through their example that asking for permission to leave was wrong.
Summer 1989 changed everything in the DDR and many people fled via Hungary and the embassy in Prague. Doreen´s parents were not willing to do that – what if they would be stopped and sent back or even worse be sent to one of the DDR prisons. The situation was too risky.
Why did they leave just 24 hours before the wall came down? Well – nobody knew that the wall would come down. Nobody knew what would happen. But what if they would close the borders between the Czech Republic and Germany again? Her parents were worried. Maybe the last and only chance to get into freedom. They decided to take the chance.
So on November 8th 1989 Doreen had to decide which of her things she wanted to pack. Her parents were clear that she needed to choose wisely since she would never see the things again.
The whole family put their lives in one suitcase only – they officially were going “on vacation”. Her mum packed the family documents under her sweater, they wrote good-bye letters to the family members who were truly taken by surprise – and they left.
Like many others they arrived in an Aufnahmelager in Hammelburg. Basically an old army base turned into a refugee camp. An adventure for Doreen, an amazing and brave decision for her parents.
The next day they were sitting together with a lot of other families watching the news when they heard about the borders being open and the unlimited Grenzverkehr – the opportunity to travel between East and West Germany. They were shocked. Positively for the opportunities. Negatively because their things were gone for good.
Did they immediately go back? No – they didn´t. What if the borders would be closed again?! They were worried to be stuck in the DDR again, if they would go back for a visit and the borders would be closed again. It took some time until they finally went for a visit to their old home and met their family again.
In Hammelburg Doreen got her first Barbie doll. She got it from one of the warehouses were German families and shops had donated clothes and toys for those escaping from the DDR. She still has it today.
Back then the happiness in East and West was evident. People were excited. What a miracle – who would have thought that this would ever happen! West Germans wanted to share with those who had given up everything. Doreen remembered that her mum got a brand new coat from a woman handed out of a car. “It was an honest happiness and generosity you could feel everywhere.”
Just a week later Doreen and her parents moved from Hammelburg to Nürnberg where they had some “West-Verwandtschaft” – family that had moved to the West years before and under different, and even more difficult circumstances.
They helped them find a new home. Being in this empty apartment was the first time for Doreen to realize that this was not an adventure, but reality. And the first time she cried.
The first thing Doreen remembers about the West? Like so many others it was and still is the smell. “It smelled like West-packages”, she said. ”The coffee, the Haribo, Capri Sonne – all the stuff you could only get when you had family in the West sending you a parcel once in a while. What a feast!”
I remember my mum sending parcels from the West to the East – I could never understand why my parents would pack chocolate, coffee, old Levi´s jeans, and magazines. Who would want that? I understand now that those parcels meant so much for those who couldn´t just go buy coffee and that the smell of it still is in people´s memories.
Eating a chocolate bar in 1 minute in West-Germany meant eating it in 4 days in East Germany. One bite per day – “it was such a unique moment that you wanted to keep it alive as long as possible”.
Being for the first time in a West supermarket – so much opulence and variety. It was almost a shock. Suddenly everything was available on your doorsteps. How overwhelming!
After a while Doreen and her parents went back to visit family and friends. In some of their friend´s minds they had turned into “Wessis”. People from the West in the perception of those staying behind had everything. She stopped being part of East German society. She suddenly was not one of them anymore.
But it was also difficult to be an Ossi in the West. I remember the day Doreen joined school. Probably almost as exciting for us as it was for her. The importance of that day was much different for me though.
My life continued. I just got a new friend. An exotic one for a while – not so exotic anymore after a few weeks. I never perceived her as different or even odd. But she told me today that she had this feeling of not-belonging and that there were people showing her during our school time that she was different – and sometimes not wanted. Today Doreen still feels that she is neither Wessi nor Ossi. “In East Germany I am a Wessi – in the West I am still an Ossi”.
I guess this is a general mindset we still have in Germany. We still have not fully grown together. We don´t share the same point of departure. We grew up in different countries. In some ways we are still foreigners to each other.
What if they would have known that the wall would fall for good and that the system would go down … would they have left everything behind? “Probably not”, Doreen said. “But who knows. For my life it was the best that could happen.”
For her parents it was a bit different. They separated a few years later. Her mum became restless and has made many moves in her life. She is happy now, living in Nürnberg and has also arrived in a way. What if they would not have left their home – their comfort zone? Would they still be together and what would have happened with their lives?
25 years later:
Doreen has been married for many years now, she has a beautiful apartment, she travels, and she has a job she likes. Together with her husband she has a business on the side where she consults on internal and external health. They even considered for a while to move to Norway or Dubai – but they have now decided to stay. It seems that she has arrived in her life and that she has found new roots.
Doreen said that she still finds it difficult to trust and get close to people. So many times she was disappointed and had to start all over. Therfore I am even more grateful that she shared her thoughts about her past after such a long time of not being in each other´s lives.
So what if I would not have started this blog. Would I have found her again? I don´t know – but I am happy for this interesting woman playing a role in my life and I know, that I will see her – after at least 15 years – again this christmas. And I truly look forward to our little reunification.
Happy 25th anniversary of being a re-united German citizen, dear Doreen.
For those of you who have not seen it before or cannot remember. Here is the video of the press conference where the opening of the border was announced. It still gives me goosebumps.
If you think this was an interesting story you might also like Katja’s story. Have a look here.
And meet my friends Caroline, Martina, and Christian and hear about their experiences in East Germany.