Robin Oomkes hears personal stories from two former East Berlin residents who left for the West…
On the 9th November 2014, the route of the former Wall through central Berlin was lined with transparent balloons filled with helium gas to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.
The project, called “Border of Light”, was a fantastic display, especially at the end when the balloons were released into the misty air.
The atmosphere in the streets was great; my personal highlight was standing in the crowd at the Brandenburg Gate, where Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and singing along to “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” with a stranger from Norway.
The celebrations around the 25th anniversary of reunification on the 3rd of October were much more demure—and for good reason. From a Western perspective, German reunification is often seen as a heartwarming reminder that those pesky Communists were banished and the Cold War is over. But things are not quite so straightforward for everyone.
Differences in social circumstances and the political cultures between East and West Germany persist, and although both the country’s president, Mr. Gauck, and prime minister, Mrs. Merkel, are former East Germans, not everyone from the former GDR is convinced that merging East into West Germany was such a good idea.
A few days after the Maurfall celebrations, I chatted with two people who voluntarily left the GDR in the 80s, before the Wall came down, yet still reminded me of this: Solvey Drees (50), who lives in Mitte, and Wolfgang Zinn (57), who lives in the United States.
Their stories have some striking overlaps: both got in trouble with the Stasi, received criminal ID cards, and were eventually bought free by the West German government; both of their stories also involve rock bands.
But where Solvey came back to the East after 1989 and until recently ran a coffee shop in Mitte, Wolfgang works in Denver, Colorado as a sound engineer and an agent for a motorhome rental business—and has no intention of ever living in the city again.
“There was a point at which the GDR could no longer deny that their antifascist state actually harboured Neo-nazi skinheads. This was the Zionskirche raid by skinheads on October 17th, 1987. Unfortunately, this was also my wedding party…”
Solvey Drees, 50, is telling me her life story in her cafe in Berlin-Mitte the morning after the 9th of November 2014, the day on which balloons that formed the “Border of Light” had been let up all along the inner city stretch of the Berlin Wall.
Solvey is something of a local character. Until recently she ran a pastry-and-cake coffeeshop on Elisabethkirchstrasse in the Torstrasse area. She always had time for a chat, but was also very clear on the kind of guests she liked: well-behaved people, no hipsters, spoiled children or their parents.
Over an espresso, Solvey told me how touched she was by the number of “East people” (as she called them) that she’d seen at the ceremony on the Bernauer Strasse stretch of former wall near her home.
“With my ‘Eastern eyes’, I could tell from the look on their faces, their age, the way they dressed, that they weren’t tourists, that they’d come to this part of Berlin to celebrate that the wall was gone. There was a strong bond between people that evening. I got very emotional”.
But then so would you, if you’d had her kind of life. Raised in Frankfurt/Oder, at the Polish border, she was always a rebellious child. At the age of 19, she felt so oppressed by her tiny home town that she left for East Berlin. She ended up in the “LSD quarter” of Prenzlauer Berg (named after Lychener, Schliemann- and Dunckerstrasse) – at the time a kind of no man’s land, a free for all of ramshackle apartment blocks inhabited by artists and dissidents.
There were plenty of opportunities for ‘black living’ as it was called—squatting apartments in rear courtyards—easy, because even the council didn’t know exactly how many apartments there were, and who was living in them; quite extraordinary for a surveillance state like the GDR.
But then authorities preferred to focus on the new Plattenbauten settlements of prefab apartments on the outskirts of cities, not the old, hard to maintain Altbau buildings like those in Prenzlauer Berg. These were seen as symbols of capitalist exploitation of the proletariat – their ‘rental barracks’ nickname from the late 1800s casting a long shadow into the Workers’ and Farmers’ Paradise.
19-year old Solvey Drees, meanwhile, blended into the dissident punk scene, and put in a request to emigrate to West Germany. This was enough to get her a criminal record, and a PM-12—a special ID card which didn’t allow travel outside Berlin.
Solvey recalls that at the time, she and some friends made money by selling home-made punk tee-shirts, dyed with wood stain and decorated with metal studs smuggled in from West Berlin. They’d travel to country towns like Rostock to sell the t-shirts, as they were more special there and made more money. She never thought of the consequences if she would be caught.
The famous raid on the Zionskirche, a well known centre of resistance against the GDR regime on the edge of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg near Kastanienallee, happened when she celebrated her wedding party in the church. But in fact the wedding was fake: Solvey was marrying a West German to be able to leave the country and go to West Germany. The wedding party and unofficial concert served to say goodbye to all her East Berlin friends.
There were bands playing: East-German punk band Die Firma (a nickname for the Stasi – ironic as it later appeared that the band was actually infiltrated by the Secret Service) opened for West German outfit Element of Crime.
It was one of the band members of Element of Crime that she wanted to escape to the West for, but as she recalls, “when the skinheads raided the church and started beating people up, my fiancé never lifted a finger to protect me, he just ran off and left me to take care of myself”. The VoPos (East German ‘people’s’ police) present at the church didn’t make any effort to protect revellers either.
In the aftermath, the regime—which knew every detail about the concert, thanks to the spies in Die Firma—initially convicted the skinheads for ‘rowdiness’ but after popular protest, and much press exposure in the West, prison sentences were upgraded to up to four years, and the Stasi started monitoring Neo Nazi groups.
Today, the Zionskirche raid is still quoted as the first sign of the frequent occurrence of extreme right-wing violence in eastern Germany; seen against this background, the popularity of anti-foreigner groups such as Pegida in the East comes as no surprise.
Solvey Drees was able to leave the GDR a few weeks after her fake wedding, and took her two suitcases, a backpack and a smuggled work of art to the Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears), the GDR’s “departure lounge” at S Bahn station Friedrichstrasse. She made her way to the suburban area of Schöneberg in West Berlin, where she worked as a waitress at Cafe Swing. She says that after figuring out details like health insurance and phone bills, she found life in the West incredibly boring.
“You could buy anything, without any effort,” she says in her colourful language. “In the East, we were able to make gold out of shit!” A few years later, on the 9th of November 1989, she was working an evening shift at Cafe Swing. Except for one drunk regular in the corner, the bar started emptying out. Then suddenly she heard and saw Trabis driving by. The news about the wall hadn’t yet reached the bar, but then her boyfriend arrived to pick her up and the manager, who knew Solvey’s background, sent her off to join the festivities.
Solvey and her boyfriend were the first to scale the wall at Brandenburger Tor, from the Western side. She remembers standing there, in the no man’s land, facing border patrol soldiers and GDR citizens watching the wall from the inside. “They stood there so passively, it looked as if they were waiting for permission to revolt”. A camera crew for NBC News came up to her and her West German boyfriend; she’s still angry with herself that she let her Western boyfriend, whose English was better than hers, do the talking. The footage must still be in the NBC archives somewhere.
In 2001, with a new partner (also a musician), Solvey moved back to the Eastern half of the city, and now lives near Ackerstrasse in Mitte. She doesn’t often think back to the past, but at celebrations like last year’s ‘Fall of the Wall’ festival in Berlin, she can’t help herself, and memories of those confused years in the late eighties come flooding back.
She’s lost contact with most of her friends from the 1980s punk years. They think she’s become arrogant after her years in the West, and she still doesn’t know exactly who of her friends were Stasi informers. She filled out a form to request access to her Stasi files a long time ago, but she hasn’t submitted it as she is still not sure if she wants to know all the details.
Wolfgang (57), meanwhile, grew up in East Berlin, as the only child of a chauffeur and car pool manager in a government health institution. His parents never were Communists, but his father, now an old man, still meets his former employer, then a senior government official and a card carrying party member, at birthday parties.
Wolfgang never conformed to the limitations set by life under a Communist regime. He completed his training as a mechanical engineer but was able to let off steam by playing bass guitar in a heavy metal band called Regenbogen (rainbow).
I met Wolfgang at the Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse in December 2014. He tries to make his way back to Berlin every Christmas to visit his elderly parents. As we talked on the lookout tower that looks down on the piece of reconstructed wall there, he recalled that he used to meet the band’s guitar player, Andreas, in his apartment on Swinemünder Strasse, just a few hundred metres to the East.
From Andreas’ 2nd floor apartment, they could look over the wall, into Brunnenstrasse in West Berlin, and they’d sit there, wondering what life would be like in the West. But Wolfgang’s ambition stretched much further than West Berlin. He didn’t want to see West Berlin: what would be the point of that? He wanted to see Paris.
Like Solvey, Wolfgang put in a request to leave the country and ended up with a criminal’s PM-12 ID card. But Wolfgang managed to beat them at their own game. When would-be emigrants were summoned to a Stasi office for an interview, they would be made to wait endlessly; so Wolfgang always brought some reading material or musical scores that needed transposing, and would set to work in the waiting room.
If a Stasi officer appeared, he would tell them “Take your time, I have all the time in the world. I know you guys are busy”. They didn’t like that, and they would quickly get the interview over and done with.
East Germans like Wolfgang experienced some kind of freedom when they travelled to fellow Eastern Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia or Hungary for their summer holidays. In those countries, for a few weeks you could count on not being spied upon by the Stasi.
At campsites in Hungary he made western friends, from the Netherlands, who at the time never really understood why he couldn’t come and visit them. All the same, he used his Dutch friends as an insurance policy. He asked them to contact Amnesty International if they wouldn’t hear from him for more than a few months. This in turn he told the Stasi when he was interviewed there.
As in the case of Solvey, Wolfgang was eventually bought free by West Germany. Thousands of East Germans were sold to the West by the GDR government: a cynical win-win. The dissidents would gain their freedom, and the GDR made some much needed hard currency and got rid of troublemakers.
Wolfgang left for West Berlin on 22nd March, 1986. When the border authorities asked him what he was going to do in the West, in a final snub he told them “play rock music and smoke pot!” When he got to West Berlin, he immediately found work as a mechanical engineer. He is still proud that when he showed up at the reception centre for eastern immigrants at Marienfelde, which is now a memorial open to the public for visits.
“I didn’t need anything! No work, no housing, I arranged everything myself. They had never seen someone like that!” Wolfgang is still grateful for the generosity shown by West Germany, also after buying him out. “They gave me everything as if I’d been working in the West all my life. I got a full social security history and pension rights”.
Still, life in West Berlin wasn’t what Wolfgang wanted. “I felt oppressed. I was so sick and tired of the whole East-West business that I didn’t want to stay there. I was still much too close to the wall.”
On 31 August 1987, he emigrated to the USA. He first lived in California, and now calls Denver his home. I also asked Wolfgang whether he’d be interested in putting in a request to consult his Stasi files. But he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. “It’s not important for my life today. I’d just get mad, and there’s no point in that”.
Wolfgang still gets passionate when talking about his reasons for leaving. He says it wasn’t about money. “I didn’t care about money or getting rich. I wanted to be free. Even when people talk about the security, jobs, housing we had in the East, it means nothing to me, because there you couldn’t be free”.
I asked him what he would say, now he’s back in Berlin after 30 years, to all the people who are nostalgic for the days of the GDR. “I can understand that – but with freedom comes personal responsibility and it’s not for everybody. I understand that too. But you have the freedom to make of your life what you want. If you don’t like what you do, go to school. That’s hard, in Germany and in the US too. But freedom is more important than anything. Freedom is everything.”
After some thought, he adds “the Eastern Bloc became free through the power of thought, not by guns. If we want to promote freedom, we should supply books, not guns”. After talking at the Bernauer Strasse Memorial and at Stargarder Strasse for so long in the December cold, we made our way to Solvey’s Café to get some warmth into us and eat some of her excellent cakes.
Wolfgang and Solvey compared their experiences – “Ah, so you had the criminal ID card too! What did you do to fool the Stasi?” – and philosophised on what had changed in the 25 years since the Wall came down.
Wolfgang thinks people in Berlin still haven’t really opened their minds. The people are still the same, which politicians exploit. People are still very narrow-minded. More could have been made of the change. Solvey says that East and West Germany should have remained two different countries. She feels East and West Germans don’t understand each other because of the 40 years the countries were separated.
Which brings us back to why 2015’s anniversary of German reunification felt so different than 2014’s celebration of the fall of the Wall: not everyone feels truly happy about reunification, which certainly didn’t bring the same sense of liberation as the fall of the Wall did.
Die Firma was founded in 1984 and disbanded in 1993. But two members went on to play in prominent German rock band Rammstein.
Element of Crime was founded in 1985 and still plays today. The lead singer and the lead guitar player have been with the band since the beginning.
Regenbogen was founded in 1977 and disbanded in 1991. It got restarted in 2006 and still plays under the name today.