During 7 days in November 2020 and as part of the sociocultural project "Schwalbenjahre" I was allowed to share a few thoughts and memories of things that I associate with my home country the GDR, my home town Demmin and my family.
Here they are, snippets of my thoughts, my history and an insight into the life of my family.
I am Mikkels Tante, Katha, born 1983 in Demmin (Mecklenburg - Western Pomerania).
It was here, in Demmin, that I had my first day at nursery and in the kindergarten. Later, in 2003, I graduated with my Abitur (A-levels) from the Goethe Gymnasium Demmin, which if you were to compare is similar to a grammar school in England.
However, my first day in school I had somewhere else, in Blankenfelde (just outside Berlin) in August 1990. So basically just after the Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989 and just before Germany would reunite in October 1990.
The reasons we moved were that, firstly my dad had got a job as a stoker in the NVA Blankenfelde (the GDR army) and my mother (actually trained medical technical assistant MTA) worked in a nursery. Secondly we were the lucky ones who were able to move into one of the brand new 2 1/2 room apartments that had recently been built. This one here comes close to the one we lived in.
Below you can see how these Plattenbauten look like in Demmin now in 2020. They were all very similar and portray a certain GDR building culture.
Luckily, and to my great joy in 1990, just after the Berlin Wall had fallen, and just after we have had our first West Berlin experiences, buying my "first day at school dress" (Einschulungskleid) with real "West money" Deutsche Mark, we finally moved back to my family in Demmin.
So I am one of those born in East Germany who has now lived abroad for a long time, more precisely first to Henley on Thames in the UK so to a place that was literally the opposite of basically anything I grew up in. It more often than not made me feel uncomfortable but was still a hugely interesting place to live. Now, and to what feels more like home I live in Norway, in Balestrand.
Until a few years ago, my “GDR background” wasn't even on my “identity radar” at all and it was only through a Norwegian book that dealt with mass suicide in my home town Demmin that I started to look more into this place, and also its people and how they have been dealing with their past. Then suddenly it was also my own story, because I too come from the country that had never allowed discussions about the atrocities committed by the Red Army at the end of World War II. A country that left its citizens alone to deal with the trauma they had experienced.
Since then I have been fascinated by the time around 1945 and also the GDR period that followed. It has undoubtedly shaped me and my family. The physical distance to my home country and especially the discussions with “non-Germans” around the questions “where do you actually come from” - “how it was living in the GDR” helped me a lot to deal with these questions more closely.
I can only guess whether it is the actual language of English in which I try to use an appropriate English word for a GDR term, where I try to also explain the general circumstance, because I cannot expect that as a given. Or if it is the mostly inexperienced and highly interested counterparts I talk to who have seen little of the so-called “Ossi Wessi discussions” themselves and hear of many things the first time in their lives..
In any case, these cultural differences and this being "lost for words" are incredibly exciting as I suddenly started seeing my own history with totally different eyes. I needed to look things up because I did not know the answer and suddenly realise how few arguments and knowledge I had about certain things. But also how little of my naturally existing knowledge is known to others that come from a different society than Germany.
I've been living here in Norway now for more than 5 years - a little longer than I've lived in Great Britain - the latter had I always felt strange to me, and was a place I had never fully arrived at. Now and here I feel as if I have. Norway and its people are now my second home. A home that reminds me so often of my first home - the GDR and Demmin.
Here, and by living remotely in a small village by the Sognefjord, I learned a lot. The Norwegians taught me to slowly become a little more proud of my home country, my origin and my family without taking the pride to an unhealthy level, if you know what I mean. My friends here found my origins exotic and the conversations were always filled with positive interest, something that I had only rarely experienced in Germany and when talking to people there.
But what is much more exciting is that I realise so many things that remind me here somehow of the GDR and the ways of living. I need to add that this is of course not an empirical study or has been scientifically proven, nor do I want to say that this does not also apply to other Scandinavian countries or other small villages even in Germany. I am very much aware that comparisons like these are complex.
What I would like to put across is that I searched for a long time and found my home here in Balestrand, and I do think this is because the country and its people also remind me of my origins.
The people here trust each other, are warm and helpful. If you miss your wallet in the grocery store, the postwoman will put it in your mailbox. Front doors are open and neighbours help each other. So what I can offer in "IT skills", my neighbour will "pay back in" helping me with his craft work skills. So it's not about money here and paying each other, but about helping out.
Young mothers work. Childcare is affordable and available from the age of 1 years old. Children go to nursery, then kindergarten and are taught the idea from an early age that no child is better than another, which can be traced back to the unspoken “janteloven”. Norway is therefore often seen as a country where individuality and being different and better than others is of less importance. But it is more about being part of a group, making sure everybody feels comfortable and the community and the sense of community is strong.
This “janteloven” is of course for many families here a discussion point, as people want more individuality for their children and feel it restricts them. Personally, however, I find it enriching and see little negative in it, especially because it feels as if I myself grew up and was raised in exactly the same way. I feel that this idea of being humble is something that has served me well.
Oh, and funnily enough, the choice in shops and groceries is limited. There is no such thing as Amazon or Ebay here (we do have Finn.no though - which I love) and exquisite items are expensive. Sounds like a simple comparison, but the appreciation of good, local food and limited mass consumption is also something that you grew up with as a GDR child.
And an interesting point is that the state, if it had to, could “monitor” every single Norwegian. With my "Norsk ID", a kind of social security number, the state has access to taxes, medical records, all cash flows, my telephone bills, my creditworthiness, etc. This is not to everyone's taste, because you can also see the salaries of every single Norwegian at the same time. Just imagine that in Germany or even the UK!
I, myself, do not object to this transparency as I love the fact that I just have to check my pre-filled tax return online and can basically pay everybody everwhere without my wallet just using my phone. And particularly how the access of my medical files is handled so it allows all my doctors to look at them at any time, similarly I have access to my medical history, to prescriptions etc.
But, I guess in the end it is each to their own. You either like it or you don't.
Due to my newfound interest in my hometown Demmin and its history, I happened to become part of a film team working on a documentary that deals with one of many tragic German family histories. This documentary deals extensively with the events in East Berlin in the 1940s - 50s and with the trauma that this generation had to deal with. As part of the research, I muddled through letters, books and hundreds of Google searches, and then suddenly I was faced with the question, what do I actually know about my own family?
What do I know about my own grandparents and their parents. Did they agree with the GDR system after the war? Were they just followers and have come to terms with the situation? Oh, and how can you actually get access to the old Stasi files.If so, do I even want to look at them?
My two grandpas were refugees from the former German areas of Silesia and West Prussia. One settled near Seelow in Brandenburg, the other in Demmin Mecklenburg Vorpommern. Both had lost part of their siblings while fleeing and built their home in the GDR in the years after 1945. Neither of them fought in the war themselves, but they both witnessed it.
So how did they live in this kind of “satellite” of the Soviet Union, the more or less same Soviet Union from whose Red Army they and their families had fled from? Did they agree with the politics in the GDR? Would they have preferred to live in the west?
I never asked these questions directly. Never brought it up to this day, but what I could assume from their stories was that they found their home in the GDR and therefore had no urge to move further west. They were happy and satisfied where they were, saw the good sides of the new political system and just wanted to live a quiet life in which they could raise their children in safety, without fear of another war.
Still there was no time to deal with their trauma, the same trauma that they can hardly talk about even now.
And yet, even if they weren't the cuddliest people, for me they were the best grandparents I could imagine.
Only now, and with more experience and distance, do I see that the relationship with their own children was completely different ...
The first time I went abroad without my parents was in 8th grade (aged 14) - a school trip to England. I can hardly put into words how excited I was and how much I had tried to absorb this experience.
Until then, every year holidays did not mean for us the Baltic Sea, not the Balaton, not Dresden or the Harz Mountains which were the most common regions to travel to in GDR times. No, our holiday destination was Lebus in Brandenburg, a tiny place a few kilometers outside of Frankfurt Oder. There, with my aunt Moni, we stayed for several weeks in the summer every year, and what can I say? These are the most memorable and funniest memories one could wish for, those that are still associated with many “can you remember when” moments.
When I was still an only child, the trip in the Trabant was a real experience, because grandma and grandpa often joined us. Here in Lebus and with his brother and his wife and children, my grandpa felt completely at ease. Not only grandpa, but we did too - my parents and me. The Skat (card game) Rommé and Canasta nights were long. Sometimes tables and cards flew through the air when somebody felt they lost unfairly, but the next morning everything was forgotten again.
Later, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this remained our travel destination. A place were not a single day was boring. No day like the other. There was no boredom. Neither were their arguments. Everything a child's heart desired was there: a huge barn, kittens, a hayloft, a shed with 6 rabbit bays, a chicken coop, a huge creepy cellar. Meadows and cherry trees full of thick, fat cherries. "Inne Kirschen" we went “into the cherries”, so were picking cherries when they were ripe. Otherwise we converted everything that we could find into a toy we could play with. There was dancing, singing, playing music and laughing. More than anything there was laughter.
The family and the awareness to have them behind you, those people who help you out any time without asking for anything in return. Those whose door is always open, may it be night or day. Those people who understand you without any words spoken and who also have the same sense of humor, which is mainly reflected in not taking themselves too seriously. It was this extended family that had made these holidays so special. And if I have one single memory of my early childhood’s holidays, it's the roaring laughter of my entire family around the dinner table. Laughing until everybody’s stomach hurt.
And if we all meet again now, that has not changed.
The laughter continues.
It was no coincidence that I started playing handball at the local SV Einheit Demmin, and continued to do so until I was 25 years old. Playing in a club ran in the family.
There was my mother, who had played handball from childhood on in the same club and was taught by the same trainer as me. My dad was right striker at Demminer VB (now Demminer SV91) and managed to win the title with his club to be promoted into the district league (Bezirksliga). My mum and her team were even district champions.
No question, sport always played a big role in my parents’ youth, as well as in mine and in my sister's. My dad knew his high and long jump records while I tried in vain to break them. Certificates from sports competitions were just as welcome as a good end of year school report.
From my parents to my great-grandmothers - sport was a motto in life and was practiced, watched on television and or followed live. If someone in the family was playing in Demmin or nearby it was not uncommon for the entire extended family to stand in the stands and cheer loudly.
This tradition was continued even after the reunification and is something that has shaped me and my family.
A refugee child from Bromberg, who first arrived in Berlin with his mother and brothers and was sent further on from there. Final destination Demmin.
And what do you do as a teenager in Demmin, a town that had been completely burned down by the Red Army? You have a hobby.
Others played football, went to wrestling clubs or athletics. My grandpa however wasn't interested in any of it.
His passion was and still is to have racing pigeons.
When he was young, he kept them in the basement of his rented apartment on Bahnhofstrasse. Later and when he owned a piece of land with a house, he cobbled together one pigeon loft after the other. In this loft he was and is still to be found today.
But it was not just to have fun. It was actually about tough competitions.
Almost every Saturday he drove to place the pigeon. Pigeon placement means selecting the best pigeons from the loft and then putting them in a (of course, self-made) wooden box ready for collection.
Punctually on the same or the next day (depending on the distance), a transporter loaded with hundreds of pigeons drove across the whole of the former GDR. When the driver arrived at the agreed destination, the pigeons were then released and, equipped with rings around their feet, should find their way home to my grandfather's pigeon loft as quickly as possible.
So on these days he looked up into the air nearly every minute, and waited with pure tension on their arrival. As soon as he then saw a pigeon, he whistled a certain melody to lure the pigeon into the loft, because he was only allowed to record the arrival time and ring number once the pigeon was in the loft. The fastest pigeon is then crowned the winner, as is the racing pigeon owner who was the first to have all his pigeons back in his or her loft.
The list of winners were then announced in the monthly racing pigeon magazine.
Grandpa took part in pigeon shows to which I was often allowed to join him. He won several prizes, bought sacks of corn and all sorts of grains so that his special racing pigeon would win the next flight.
He recognizes his pigeons even when they are still metres above him flying through the air. He still gives them names and waves huge red flags through the air to drive the hawks away. Because hawks were the greatest enemies of his pigeons.
I've never had another friend who had such a cool hobby as my grandpa, and I wonder how many grandpas there will be in 20 years, that are taking care of his pigeons and are watching the air like my grandpa.