Good Life

Excerpts from Penny Smith Eifrig’s journal ‘1989: Diary of a Revolution’

In Leipzig, a crowd at the Karl Marx Square studied an information column covered in fliers calling for meetings and suggestions of change.
In Leipzig, a crowd at the Karl Marx Square studied an information column covered in fliers calling for meetings and suggestions of change. Photo provided

Editor’s note: Below are excerpts from Penny Smith Eifrig’s journal, “1989: Diary of a Revolution, From East to West Germany,” in which she documented her travels and studies in East and West Germany before and after the existence of the Berlin Wall.

November 4, 1989, Erfurt

What an odd feeling, seeing East Germany now through Western eyes again — so grey and drab, Trabbis (cars) filling the bumpy roads. These very concrete impressions clashed hard against my excitement of visiting my good friends in Erfurt, a town I know and enjoy. After 14 hours on the road, and almost 200 Deutsch Mark lighter (for my visa and mandatory exchange), I finally crossed the border last night. I hitched a ride to Eisenach with a young West German woman who is visiting her cousin, whom she hasn’t seen in eight years. Upon entering the drab town, she expressed some of the most typical responses, many of which I also felt.

Despite the similarities and commonalities which Germans on both sides are continually stressing, the two states are worlds apart. One cannot separate the economical and political from the cultural. The environment in which one lives plays a phenomenal role in the development of one’s culture — how one thinks, acts and is entertained.

The environment in the GDR is, however, undergoing incredible changes. Nina Hagen, the exiled GDR pop singer (“99 Red Luft Balloons”), is on Jugend Radio DDR! People are reading the East German papers, and rightfully believing what has been written. Politicians throughout the GDR are stepping down. Things are indeed changing. Now comes the question of what path they should follow.

As I arrived in Erfurt, a public discussion was beginning at the Domplatz (marketplace square). The people were heading toward this square to hear what was to be said. Unfortunately, instead of first listening to the party people speak and then making a judgement, the judgement had already been made — several were booed and whistled out before they had a chance to begin. This is discouraging for those who realize the need for creating an alternative, rather than simply destroying the old. I’ve been told that in Leipzig, where much of this whole movement was initiated, responsible dialogues and demonstrations are taking place. (Dialogues are also taking place here; while shopping this morning, I came across a sign announcing that Wednesday evening would be a dialogue to discuss what can be done to improve the supermarket situation.) Reform is taking root. It is indeed a much different atmosphere now than in August.

Nov. 6, 1989, Leipzig

Early Sunday morning, I took a streetcar to the Karl-Marx-Square, the cultural and intellectual center of Leipzig, surrounded by the opera house, the university and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. My eye was first drawn to the university entrance, where a small crowd of people was glued to the information column like flies to flypaper — attracted by the sweet news of reform and dialogue. Hand-scribbled scraps of paper were pasted up, with quotes from newspapers, calls for meetings, suggestions for change, and the latest from the oppositional organization, New Forum. All day long there was a constant hum and hustle in the main square, new ideas being shared and discussed.

I joined another crowd in front of the Gewandhaus, to listen to a dialogue organized by the Leipziger artists. For four hours, we stood packed in the foyer, as the interest to participate exceeded the capacity of the auditorium. Via eight TV monitors, we watched in amazement the discussions taking place. The Minister of Culture of the GDR, Dr. H. J. Hoffmann, suggested the stepping down of the entire Politburo, which was greeted by enthusiastic clapping and hooting. I took a gasp, thinking back to middle August, when a bad joke about Honecker spoken in the wrong company could have cost one his job. The moderator, a very intelligent and able man, Prof. Dr. H. C. Kurt Masur, assured those who stepped up to the microphone to speak, that there would be no repercussions for their statements. He also wisely led discussion toward suggestions for the future, rather than dwelling on errors of the past. In four hours, there was much cheering as well as considerable booing, and several worthy suggestions for the reconstruction of the collapsing socialist state.

In Leipzig, Sunday stands for Sonntagsgespräche (Sunday dialogues), and Monday stands for taking to the streets.

At four o’clock, I tromped through the cold mist outside my apartment and got in the streetcar, already full. Slowly the masses moved into town, joining the others who had spent another day gathered in discussion. (This society is ideal for organized discussions, as on every level of work, administration, and leisure, there is a responsible organization.) Four weeks ago, the first demonstrations were met with police and their shields and sticks. One month later it looked much different. With calm and order, a set pattern of movements were initiated: these led us from the peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche to the Karl-Marx-Square, where loudspeakers and a platform had been set up for official speeches, through town past the train station and the Stasi (Secret Police) headquarters, and finally looping back to the main square. Even in the middle of a “revolution” the German stereotype of obedience and willingness to be organized seems to be obvious.

... The astounding mass exodus to the West can only mean problems for both countries — East Germany is sick with anemia, while West Germany is experiencing the effects of an overdose. Now that West Germany has become intrinsically involved in the affairs of their eastern neighbors, they should share some responsibility for the alleviation of the flow of East Germans out of their homeland into the FRG. This would include leaving the “Unification Question” alone for the time being and allowing the GDR to develop its own new model for democracy in Germany.

Nov. 12, 1989, Gottingen

Three days ago, the impossible happened, a miracle, a wonder, some have called it. The 29-year-old wall around the “Zone” has crumbled. For hundreds of thousands of East Germans, this weekend meant a first, long-awaited personal glance into the West. The roads to the border are in many places backed up for kilometers, a steady stream of Trabants and Wartburgs pouring into the West.

The scene is one of open arms, brotherhood, Gastfreundschaft and humanity. Greeted everywhere with flowers, presents, free lodging and food, and 100DM from the Federal Republic government, many are overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill. The question of whether West Germans consider East Germans to be fellow countrymen, and vice versa, has been fairly clearly demonstrated this weekend, as well as during the last two months of GDR exodus through third countries. Germans are not famous for their hospitality towards foreigners — such a welcoming would not be expected for any other Volk.

On the other hand, these past few days have resembled a trip to the circus. Or rather, a visit from the circus. The East Germans trudging through town in their out-of-fashion clothes with freshly filled plastic bags bulging out from under each arm and filling their hands, heading for their little cardboard Trabis are like a rare breed in a show, gawked at by the spectators. These creatures, meanwhile, are also gawking, but at the wealth of goods and colors here in the West. It may be a while until the situation normalizes, after the drastic changes of this past week.

What does that mean, the normalization of the situation? Undoubtedly it means that the majority of the East Germans will make the decision to remain in the GDR. This decision-making is something that for the last 28 years was not possible. In the development of an identity, however, it is essential that those who are in the GDR are there because they, themselves, made a choice to stay there.