Students tell of living in Germany during the fall
By NORREEN GILLESPIE
Saint Mary's Editor
Like any other student in his sixth grade history class, Luis Matos sat down with volumes of encyclopedias and began to write a report about Germany — specifically, the Berlin Wall.
Then he found out he was moving there.
The thought was terrifying to the middle schooler, who knew enough about the current events in November of 1989 to know that he didn't want to live in East Germany.
"When I heard we would be moving to Germany, I started asking, `Wait, we're not moving to East Germany, are we?'" he remembered. "Knowing that we were moving to the West was definitely a load off my mind."
Even with minimal understanding of an event which marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era for German history, Matos, now a Notre Dame senior, had picked up on a tension that still exists. While the fall of the Berlin Wall was a beginning for the political unification of Germany, tensions that have existed since before the fall of the Berlin wall still exist today — and threaten the formation of a national identity.
Before the Fall
Kellie Hazell remembers colors.
Driving to East Berlin from her homeland in Rheinland-Pfalv near the French Border, Hazell, a Notre Dame senior and nine-year resident of Germany, remembers rolling greenland and lush scenery that characterized the beauty of the West. It was the only view of Germany she had ever known.
"It was green even a half an hour from reaching the East Berlin border," Hazell said. "Germany is beautiful. I wasn't expecting [East Berlin] to be that different."
But waiting in line to cross the concrete border, the green began to fade and the impressions of a Germany much different than the one she called home began to emerge.
"I remember yellows and browns … everything was dead," Hazell said. "The green was gone, and even the buildings were this faded yellow. It was like nothing was alive."
But even the journey to East Germany marked a transition to a culture very different from the freedom that she enjoyed as a West German resident.
Before the trip, her father, a military officer, had to sit through a seminar detailing regulations about traveling to East Germany including specific directions and an initiation program.
"We only had a certain amount of time to travel [from the West to the East]," Hazell said. "We couldn't stop for gas, and they timed us. We couldn't get lost, because we would get in trouble. Being in that car was incredibly tense."
Upon her arrival in the East, Hazell immediately saw the inequalities that divided the nation just as the wall did.
"I noticed immediately that East Berlin just wasn't caught up to the times," she said.
It was the impressions of East Berlin that stayed with Hazell as the events leading up to the destruction of the Berlin Wall unfolded in November of 1989.
"The week leading up to the fall, we had heard on the military base that travel was going to be highly unrestricted to East Germany," she said. "The borders had begun to fall, and we knew that the East German border may have been one of the next ones to fall."
On Nov. 9, 1989, she awoke to a newscast proclaiming that very event occurred.
"There was so much excitement," she said. "The summer before, there was an air of excitement on the base that we had won the Cold War … that families would be reunited. This just seemed like the conclusion."
It was a conclusion that many German citizens saw as a device that likened them to America, Hazell and Matos would observe. Matos, one of the only American students in an all-German classroom, realized his value immediately following his relocation.
"I remember that the class was so excited to have Americans in their class," Matos said. "Even among the sixth graders, there was a general sense that they felt [the destruction of the wall] would make them more like America," he said. "The East-West division made them unlike America. The destruction made them closer to being completely free."
Hazell remembers the importance placed on America even in play groups she participated in as a younger child.
"The German children were so excited about showing off their English," she said. "All I knew how to say was, `My name is Kellie.' But they could explain the German version of hide and seek to us in perfect English. They were so excited to have us there," she said.
But meanwhile, the most immediate euphoria of the reunion was fading, and the economic implications of the union began to take hold.
One of the immediate implications was in housing, Hazell said.
"The East Germans began to flood West Germany before East Germany was under the new system of government," she said.
But rent laws that forbade the eviction of East German residents caused German landlords to drive up their prices — to the point where even West German residents could no longer afford them.
One of those residents was Hazell.
"[Before the fall] we lived in a beautiful three story, seven bedroom, three bathroom house with a huge hill perfect for sledding," she said. "When they drove up the prices, we had to leave."
It was a drastic transition. The family was forced to move to base housing, a significant reduction in living space.
"It was a three bedroom, one floor apartment with one bathroom for four people," rememberd Hazell. "And our only view was … trees. Trees and the apartment building next door."
Riding a bus past the newly opened border, Matos had the sense that he was witnessing something all over again.
"We drove by the remnants of the wall … one side was filled with graffiti, another was bare except for a few bullet holes. You felt like you were coming into a place where something big had happened, but at that point, it was just a memory."
And for a newly united country, Matos observed immediate inequality.
"The buildings were darker, covered with soot … the area was poor," he said. "You knew it was a significant difference."
Returning to Berlin in 1996, Hazell did not have the sense of death and depression that had plagued the city before the fall.
She had the sense of a new beginning.
Riding the newly constructed railroad from West to East Berlin, the first thing she noticed were building cranes — 20 or 30 cranes that stretched farther than the eye could see.
"You didn't feel that it was backwards, old, or dirty," she said. "I went there looking for differences. It's still a whole other culture, you can still feel East Berlin. But it's progressive."
But while East Germany chases to catch up with the living standards of the West, unemployment and crime continue to rise, alerting both the East and the West that tensions still exist. Recent polls conducted by German media have even said that there are some that feel the Wall should be reconstructed.
"There is a great feeling of nationalism … not stereotypes, but feelings both sides need to let go to be one unified country," Hazell said. "There is a feeling of resentment because East Germany — wanting the technology, groceries, and clothes that the West had — had to submit to the role of inferior. And they didn't like that."
Furthermore, a lack of acceptance of Eastern culture by the West aggravates that tension, she said.
"The East wants to hold onto what they grew from, and the West wants to stay the way they were," she said. "They're butting heads."
"Economically, Germany is wondering if they are one people," said Saint Mary's political science professor Mark Belanger. "That created fissures in people's sense of identity."
And it is the identity that may be the root of the tension, Hazell said.
"How can you relate to a country that is not sure where it wants to go?" she asked.
All News Stories for Tuesday, November 9, 1999