An opportunity to continue her college studies abroad gave Lemont resident Penny Eifrig a front-row seat to history in the making.
It was 1989 and she had plans to travel to East Germany to continue her studies at the University of Erfurt. She was going to finish her honor’s thesis on German Kulturnation, the concept of a country’s sense of community built on culture, traditions and language.
A chance encounter with high school German teacher John Mutzeck changed everything. He suggested she apply for a work and study program in Gottingen, in West Germany but near the East-West border.
“So I stayed and spent the fall of 1989 going back and forth between the East and West,” she said.
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Her thesis became “1989: Diary of a Revolution, from East to West Germany,” available today, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Eifrig said she considers herself lucky and often thinks about being a witness to history.
“When I look back at the experience, I feel like it was a movie or something,” she said. “For me it was a complete adventure, I thrived and loved my time there.”
Thanks to an academic program between East Germany and the U.S. (what Eifrig called a “propaganda tour”), she was able to travel throughout a divided Germany after paying entry fees and providing documentation of her “official” accommodation, often a campground.
At one point, she said her parents didn’t hear from her for three months due to the challenges in sending correspondence.
“It was a different age,” she said.
The circumstances were perfect for her to understand what was about to happen with the Berlin Wall.
Q: What were the marked differences in your travels between East and West Germany during this time?
A: Everything was one color, a drab gray. I wore a red jacket, so I popped out. Everyone wore grayish-color clothes and it was very drab surroundings. ... When I went back to West Germany, I was amidst the color and commercialization and consumerism. When you went back (to East Germany), (the differences) were more stark — buildings were falling apart, the roads were terrible. It looked post-war. That’s all changed dramatically. There’s hardly a place in East Germany that you don’t see that it’s a modern country now, part of a modern Germany.
Q: Based on your studies of German Kulturnation, do you think a better-off economic climate provided for a richer, more diverse culture or one just more “westernized?”
A: There was a strong culture in East Germany, things that have been lost since (the fall of the wall), a strong culture of neighbors and friends, an interdependence. They didn’t have “things.” ... It was close knit, in a way. There were so many deficits due to restrictions, they are better off now. It’s too bad some aspects couldn’t be retained.
Q: Many people might think of reform in political and economic terms. But it’s interesting that people there simply might have wanted to reform how the supermarkets were set up. Do you think the people were thinking about the big picture — reform of a united Germany — or more in terms of ways to make their lives simpler and to just get back to “normal?”
A: I think day-to-day life after the reunification got really tough for East German. (Before that) there was a lot that was simple. Things were accessible theoretically, but they didn’t have the money to do them ... due to economic decline, the loss of subsidized jobs and unsustainable industries. A lot of jobs disappeared; a lot of towns were built around (industries such as) iron works or car factories that were no longer sustainable. There are parts that are beautiful but no one can afford to live there because there are no jobs.
Q: What impression did you get from Germans on both sides of the wall, of it coming down?
A: The initial reaction was fabulous. It was so interesting to be working with NBC News at the time. ... Within hours (of the news of the opening of the wall), the city was packed with people, there was a sense of true brotherhood. ... That changed then as reality set in; Westerners had to pay to clean up East Germany, Westerners got paid more. ... There is still a discrepancy in the East German way of life.
Q: Did you ever meet anyone who perhaps thought taking down the wall would cause more trouble than it was worth, (because of the cultural, economic disparity between the two sides)?
A: Not really. There might have been a passing comment in the heat of the moment, but it’s not the underlying sentiment. ... Berlin is just as well off, but in Eastern German regions, the jobs are gone, the industry isn’t sustainable. People are happy it reunified, but it was a hard reality check.
Q: You met your husband while working in Germany, and your daughters are Casie, 11, and Saede, 15. What are their perspectives of the wall, based on what they learn in school and what they learn from you?
A: They’re aware of the history. ... When we visit Germany, we quiz them. ... We do a good job of going to historic sites and making them understand what the wall meant for (husband) Chris’ family. They have a good concept of what it meant.
Q: How does it make you feel, that you were a witness to history?
A: When I look back a the experience, I feel like it was a movie or something. ... I can’t believe it’s been 25 years, but it’s remarkable that it’s only been 25 years. It’s such a part of distant history. It seems so long ago, when you go through Berlin, it’s impossible to imagine that it was divided.