1991 – A Trip through East Germany by Carol Rist

Carol Rist

June 1991

We left the Berlin airport in a rental car with the navigator (me) totally lost. As we were trying to get our bearings, Karsten saw a sign that said “Ploetzensee Memorial.” Some 2,500 persons were put to death by the Nazis at the Ploetzensee Prison, including many of the participants in the July 2Oth, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life. On a cold and rainy day our trip to East Germany started on a somber note as we visited this grim place.

As we headed toward Potsdam, we found ourselves in Wannsee, where Karsten had spent many happy hours rowing in a shell when he was a student in Berlin. He remembers rowing up close to the Glienicke Bruecke (bridge), seeing the border guards with their guns, and turning back. His sense of anticipation was high as we continued toward the border. We crossed the former border without recognizing it, but all of a sudden I said to Karsten, “We’ve crossed the border. This place looks grim.” We were in a run-down industrial area which was in sharp contrast to the prosperous area we had just left. All of the former East Germany is not run-down. But as a whole its buildings are much in need of maintenance.

Our hotel in Potsdam was out of a fairy tale. Schloss Cecilienhof was built in 1917 in the style of an English country manor-house for the family of the Crown Prince of Prussia. In 1945, Truman, Stalin, Churchill (and later Atlee) met there to sign the Potsdam Agreement. The conference rooms where the meetings took place are now a museum. Cecilienhof is in the middle of a beautiful park – all in all a perfect place to spend a few days.

Sunday morning we went back across the border from East Germany into West Berlin. This time we recognized the border immediately. As far as you could see to the left and to the right was a cleared area about 200 yards wide. In the middle was a paved pathway for patrol vehicles. There were bright lights along the strip so that no one could take advantage of darkness to try an escape. Karsten talked to some people who were out for a walk. They told him that the road we were on had been closed during the cold war, and that there wasn’t just one Berlin wall, but a series of walls and mine fields. The no man’s land on the West Berlin side had not been touched for over thirty years, and now rare and endangered plants are found there – one of the few good legacies of a divided Germany. The West Berlin side was densely populated and prosperous. Houses on the East German side were poorly maintained. The main attraction in Potsdam is the Sans Souci Park. The Sans Souci Palace was built by Fredrick the Great as a summer palace. In the Sans Souci Park there are many other structures, including palaces which are much larger than, but not nearly so elegant as, the Sans Souci Palace.

On Sunday afternoon the Sans Souci Park was jammed with strollers, from people who looked as if they had just stepped out of a fashion magazine to people who looked like peasants. We took it all in stride until we were startled by the sight of a large group of Russian soldiers. There are still 500,000 Soviet soldiers in Germany, and many of them are stationed in Potsdam. As we traveled through the former East Germany we never quite got used to the sight of the Russians, who seemed to be crisscrossing East Germany in their trucks.

On Monday we drove north to the little town of Rheinsberg to see a palace where Frederick the Great spent a lot of time as a young man. The road we took led from one tiny village to another. It was lunch time when we approached a village and saw a sign advertising Gitti’s Grill. Gitti has a little trailer parked in the middle of the village and is selling bratwurst, potato salad and soft drinks. Her little business is an example of the return of free enterprise to East Germany. Next door was an even more surprising example of the return of free enterprise. Here, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, was a small super market with all of the products one would have seen in a West German supermarket, including sex magazines. A scanner was used at the checkout.

We enjoyed wandering around in the gardens of the Rheinsberg Palace. Then we went looking for some Raffee und Kuchen. What we found first was a monument to the “brave Russian soldiers who liberated Rheinsberg from the Nazis,” Close by was a small graveyard where 90 Russian soldiers are buried. Karsten, certain that “thereby hangs a tale,” stopped an elderly lady and asked her why so many Russian soldiers were buried in their town. She said that when the Russians took the town a Russian soldier had been killed by someone in the town, and before the fighting was over, more than 200 men, women and children from the town had been killed, taking the 90 Russians with them. I saw a sign indicating that there was a hotel down by a lake, so we headed off to see what kind of goodies they were serving in their lakeside restaurant. What we found was a big modern hotel, the biggest hotel we saw in all of East Germany. And there was hardly anyone around. There were signs that it must have been at one time a kind of Club Med. The room clerk said that they were open for business, but we suspected that if there were any cake in the restaurant, it could have been sitting there days waiting for a customer. In a country where hotel rooms are in extremely short supply, here in the middle of nowhere was this vast, empty hotel. We learned later that this hotel had belonged to the East German labor unions and had been, indeed, a kind of Club Med for union members.

We drove back into Berlin and approached the Brandenburg Gate from the East Berlin side, remembering the last time we had seen the gate, from both sides of the Berlin Wall. When we got to the gate we parked the car and walked over to see what was going on in the area. Karsten signed a petition to have the capital of Germany returned to Berlin and we walked down to the Russian Army Monument (no Russian guards there anymore). We became nervous as we realized that hundreds of police were converging on the area. We walked over to the Reichstag building and it was crawling with cops. Before beating a retreat we learned from a policeman that the police presence was due to the meeting which was to begin the following day of the Conference on European Cooperation and Security, We drove back to Potsdam through Checkpoint Charley, which has lost all of its former charm!

We left Potsdam and headed south. Our first stop was Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught, preached, nailed his 95 theses on the castle-church door, married, raised a family and is buried. At St. Mary’s Church, where Luther was married and sometimes preached, there is a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, showing Luther, his wife, and Philipp Melanchthon. It is a very special place, but there were only a dozen or so visitors while we were there. In a few years, when tourists have rediscovered East Germany, the crowds in St. Mary’s Church will probably have to be controlled. I had the feeling that the Communists have saved St. Mary’s from the Christians.

Our home for the next few nights was the Erfurterhof Hotel in Erfurt. Our room, with velvet and tassles, looked like what I would have expected in a Russian Hotel. Our room looked out on the railroad station, and one of the most curious sights was Russian soldiers arriving in a van. ‘Out of the van climbed what appeared to be a soldier’s family with suitcases and boxes and boxes and boxes of things they must have acquired in Germany and were taking home to Russia.

Erfurt was not badly damaged during World War II. Its “Altstadt” is a wonderful medieval town, much of which has been or is in the process of being restored.

We had read in the Wall Street Journal about a store in Erfurt which had been a Woolworths before the Communists took over, and had recently been reopened as a Woolworths. It was true what the Journal had said. People were elbowing past each other to get into the store to buy products merchandised in the western way. Erfurt’s restaurants were also doing quite well. We were turned away from two restaurants – they had no available tables. The price of restaurant food in East Germany, unlike the price at hotels, is quite reasonable, and the food is good. My only complaint is that the air in mast restaurants is heavy with tobacco smoke. We found only one restaurant with a No Smoking section.

We had a hard time finding the City History Museum. The guide book said it was on Lenin Street but we couldn’t find Lenin Street. That was because the street has recently reacquired its old name, Johannes Street. The information in the museum, unlike the street name, has not been changed since the reunification of Germany. It wasn’t so much that the information was wrong, it was just that the total emphasis was on class struggle in Erfurt. Before Communism, the working class was always mistreated by the upper classes. We were told that a part of the museum had been closed. We suspected that the displays there were such Communist propaganda that they will have to be changed before they can be reopened to the public,

One of the few structures in Erfurt which was destroyed by bombing and has not been rebuilt is a church where Martin Luther had preached. (We soon learned that Martin Luther preached here” is the German equivalent of “George Washington slept here.”) The placque outside the ruins indicated that it had been destroyed by an “Anglo-American” air raid and expressed gratitude to the brave Russian soldiers who had liberated Erfurt from the Nazis.

The Wartburg Castle is an absolute gem. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking Eisenach, it has inspired a lot of people, including Wagner, who made it an integral part of Tannhaeuser. It was here that Martin Luther, disguised as Junker Joerg, hid out from Charles V, who had just declared him a “notorious heretic.” While at the Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German. We saw the room where he lived and worked on the translation. It is said that the devil appeared to Luther in that room, and that Luther threw an ink pot at the devil. The inkspot on the wall disappeared years ago, removed chip by chip by devout tourists.

Eisenach is just east of the former border between East and West Germany so we headed toward the former iron curtain to see it for ourselves. In the village of Ifta we found a watch tower, the double fence which delineated the eastern boundary of the restricted zone (two kilometers east of the actual border) and then the plowed zone and tall fence. An elderly farmer told Karsten that you would have had to have lived through it to understand how oppressive it was. When farmers went out to tend fields in the restricted zone they would be stopped as many as five times to have their papers checked by the border guards.

Weimar was the home of both Schiller and Goethe so we made a pilgrimage to the museums in both their houses. Karsten also took some pictures of a soon-to-be relic, the Trabant. These “Trabies,” with their two-cycle, incredibly polluting engines, are all over East Germany, but are no longer being produced.


Outside Weimar is what remains of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Sixty-five thousand people perished at this barbarous place. It was a sobering visit.

We left Weimar on our way to Dresden. As we traveled across the countryside, we were impressed by the large, well tended fields which characterize agriculture in East Germany. Under the Communists, the traditional small family farms were forced to join cooperatives. Their fields were consolidated and some efficiencies of scale were realized. One of the challenges of returning the free enterprise system to East Germany is how to reprivatise the farms. Does each parcel of land return to the 1945 owner? What if he is dead and has no heirs? What about the people who worked the fields all those years but had owned nothing in 1945? Do they get nothing? How can you continue to own heavy machinery and plant large fields? Should you organize a voluntary cooperative? These are some of the questions facing East German agriculture today.

Dresden is a town which is still rebuilding from the February 13, 1945, allied bombing which destroyed 80% of the city and killed 35,000 people. Our first two days in Dresden were spent with Hans-Peter Gadegast, an old friend of the Rist family. Hans-Peter was living in West Germany in the 5O’s when he returned to Dresden to care for his mother, who was dying of heart disease. He fell in love with and married a star in the Dresden opera, and before they could move west, the Wall went up. He ended up managing a 300 employee pharmaceutical company for the Communists. His insights on life under the Communists, and on the transition from a Communist society to a free-market society were fascinating. On the only two warm and sunny days of our visit to Germany, Hans-Peter took us to see the countryside and palaces around Dresden. We got to know the builder of many of these palaces, August der Starke (strong), the 16th Century Saxon king who is said to have had seven children by his wife and some 357 children by his 65 mistresses. Koenigstein, a fortress sitting high above the Elbe River, would be a great setting for medieval tales. It was never captured – but then, when Napoleon came through on his way to Russia, the Saxons had just decided to become his allies. The French prisoners of war who were imprisoned there during World War II probably didn’t share my romantic vision of the place.

Meissen is a small town notable for its wonderful old buildings and for its porcelain. At the Meissen factory we watched the porcelain being made by hand and realized why it is so expensive, But we weren’t tempted to buy any at the factory’s shop. The hillsides on the north side of the Elbe near Meissen are covered by vineyards – it is the farthest north that vineyards are located. Under the Communists, every drop of wine produced in the area was bought by the government and no one knew where it went. Local people are thrilled now that they can buy their local wine and that it can be sold on the open market. Before our trip I had asked Karsten if he wanted to return to the village where he had grown up. The answer was “No,” He grew up in Silesia, which was then in Germany. After World War II, most of Silesia became a part of Poland, and there is no one in his home town who lived there when he was a boy. In 1945 Karsten, his mother, his grandmother and his sister walked from Hirschberg to Goerlitz and crossed a bridge over the Neisse River to reach territory which was still Germany. From there they were able to go farther west by train. Karsten wanted to see that bridge. So one day we drove to Goerlitz, by way of Bauzen.

Bauzen is a fantastically well preserved medieval town. It is also interesting as the center of a minority population of Sorbs, who are Slavs. Street signs in the area are written in Sorbian as well as German.

Goerlitz is in the tiny part of old Silesia which wasn’t annexed by Poland and is proud of its Silesian heritage. Karsten wanted to show me the old market square which he said was typical of Silesian marketplaces, surrounded by covered sidewalks. The only business on the square was a bakery and tea room. Inside Karsten found authentic Silesian Mohn Kuchen (poppyseed cake), just like his mother used to make! We walked toward the river – he had to see that bridge. We saw a river which was no wider than the Miami River. As we walked toward the bridge we passed a large warehouse-type supermarket. People were approaching it empty-handed from the bridge, and returning toward the bridge laden down with purchases. They were all speaking Polish.

On our way back to Dresden we stopped in Hochkirch, a village where Frederick the Great lost a major battle. The waitress at the newly remodeled restaurant, “Der Alte Fritz,” told us that the town used to be one big museum, with canons and canonballs all over the place. But the Russians took it all away. One wonders where it ended up.

It was time to leave East Germany and head toward the west to see Helmut Rist and family and Inge Krohn and family. On our way we stopped in another beautifully preserved medieval town, Quedlinburg.

As soon as we had crossed the border we noticed the look of prosperity in the towns and villages. We also noticed that there were places where you could park a car. Since reunification (die Wende as it is called in German) everyone in the East wants to own a car. There are driving schools on every corner. The only thing they don’t have is a place to put a car.

After visits with Karsten’s family we flew back home to steamy Florida, happy to have experienced a particular moment in time when people were throwing off communist oppression and relearning the advantages and disadvantages of democracy and a free market economy.

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