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OPINION

Once strangers in a divided Germany, now brothers

By FRANZISKA HOLZSCHUH | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: November 7, 2014

One day a new girl entered our classroom. I don’t remember her name, but she must have been 7 or 8, as we were.

I still recall the way she looked: Very fair skin, dark curly hair, a bright red coat that had been fashionable several years ago. She spoke with an unfamiliar dialect and smelled strange.

She was different, we noticed at once. That girl came not only from another region but another country; she originated from the German Democratic Republic, often referred to as East Germany.

We, born and raised in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), felt uncomfortable and were not sure if we liked the newbie. Rather not.

It was 1989. A couple of weeks before her arrival, on the evening of Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall had been torn down. Thousands of East Berliners had marched to the Wall and made the surprised and overwhelmed border guards open the gates.

At a moment’s notice, two nations — that once had been one — met, elated, on the streets of Berlin, and soon the same was happening in other places of the two German countries.

But, over the previous four decades, they had become strangers. And people soon realized how far apart they were.

West Germans were startled by Easterners who invaded supermarkets with eyes wide open, did not know what a honeydew melon was, and loaded their carts with exotic fruit and vegetables. It sounds like a myth, but some of my friends witnessed this: Not long after the Wall fell, bananas were sold out in many supermarkets close to the border.

For East Germans the Wende — the collapse of communist East Germany and the creation of a reunified German state in 1990 — meant more than cleared grocery shelves.

They gained freedom but had to cope with a new system — politically, socially, and economically. Soon, in the East, the unemployment rate hit the roof, especially as the well-educated moved to the wealthy West; those who stayed feared to fall behind.

This happened in most former socialistic countries.

I will never forget my first journey to Eastern Europe. My parents took me as an 8-year-old on a day trip to Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. They wanted to visit Mariánské Lázne, a spa town famous for its 19th-century noble mansions and beautiful parks.

It was a gray and rainy day, the bumpy streets did not deserve to be called streets and dark smoke poured out of the chimneys to the sky. Buildings were run-down, more ruins than glorious houses. Everything — including the people — looked incredibly poor.

I started to cry, desperate to get back to my clean, prosperous West German home.

Since then, I have returned to the East several times.

It has changed a lot over the years. Though it has not yet reached the level of the West — the unemployment rate is still higher, as is the decline in population, and the average income is lower — the economy in East Germany is steadily catching up.

East cities like Dresden, Leipzig, or Weimar are spruced up, beautifully renovated and a popular destination for many tourists. Berlin, the once divided city, is the place to be — not only for Germans but international hipsters. Some of the hottest areas, like Prenzlauer Berg, used to be in the GDR.

The reunification has not been easy: Both, East and West Germans, had to contribute their parts. The achievements were costly — financially and emotionally. But it has been worth it.

Twenty-five years after the Wende, when I meet someone from the East German states, I sometimes can still identify the origin by listening to the dialect — just as I would recognize a Bavarian or Swabian.

I know my counterpart might have another background and other experiences, habits, likes, and dislikes. But that does not make him a stranger.

Despite all the differences, we are both Germans, part of the same nation. Finally.

Franziska Holzschuh is a reporter at the German daily newspaper Nuernberger Nachrichten who was recently on assignment with The Inquirer as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. She wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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