My Holiday Beyond the Broken Iron Curtain

Last Curtain Call for the German Democratic Republic!

Written by Jonty Stern on 28 Sep 2020 22:48.

This is an account I've pieced together from my memory and from one of my old diaries of a holiday I went on in East Germany just before that country ceased to exist 30 years ago!

In the 1980s and '90s the map of the world was a very different one from the one we know today. Sometimes one of their countries translates into several for us (like their Yugoslavia which is now seven different countries for us). Other times two of their countries are just one for us. That was the case with Germany. It is one country for us and it has been since 3rd October 1990. It'd been two countries - East Germany and West Germany - since 1949.

My East German holiday was in the late July and the early August of 1990, i.e. just a couple of months before that nation ceased to exist.

I had been to Communist countries before. My father had taken me to Albania a couple of times. On both occasions we had travelled through Yugoslavia. Both of those countries were unusual for Communist countries - Yugoslavia wouldn't align herself with the Soviet Union because she thought the Soviets were too strict; the Albanians wouldn't align themselves with the Soviets because they felt that after Stalin's death the Soviets had become revisionist - they weren't strict enough!

East Germany, however, was one of the aligned countries - she was in the Warsaw Pact; her leaders had always been approved of by the Kremlin; her students learnt Russian as a foreign language and often went to the Soviet Union to study.

However all that had changed in 1989 when the Berlin Wall had come down. The East Germany I visited was an ex-Communist nation having her first and last democratic government and trying to change herself into a suitable bride for West Germany with whom she would soon merge to form today's single Germany. (For instance they were accepting West German currency when I visited; lovely West German chocolate co-existed with its rather grim East German counterpart; the goose step was abolished during my holiday there!) It was a fascinating time to visit a fascinating place.

This is the edited version of my diary entries for that memorable holiday of 30 years ago when I was 19 years old.

Sunday, 29th July 1990.
Our coach crossed the border from West Germany to East Germany and we eventually arrived in Buckow, halfway between East Berlin and the Polish border. It was an absolute paradise! Our delightful hotel was in a wooded area and had a massive swimming pool and somebody selling some amazing West German chocolate next to it! What more could one want out of life? Our place, it turns out, was a number of hotels in this beauty spot for East German trade union officials. (I think it also served to tell the faithful from other countries that this was how everybody lived in glorious East Germany, which was not, of course, true.)

Our group were the Britain-G.D.R. Friendship Society (G.D.R. being what East Germany called herself.) Most people were elderly British Communists who just couldn't quite believe that the game was over. A few of us, like me, had simply joined the Society out of interest. A lot of conversations between people revolved around things like, "Are you C.P.B. or C.P.G.B.?" (The Communist Party of Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain were two different parties which had fallen out.)

I made friends with two Scottish Communists and their ten-year-old son, Andrew.

Monday, 30th July 1990.
My first encounter with Tony, a Yorkshire miner and fierce Communist. We had an argument about nuclear weapons. I had grown up in a divided house - my mother was on the front of a CND pamphlet in 1964; my father was always pro-nuclear. It was the Brexit of its day - everybody argued about nuclear bombs! I took my father's side on the topic in those days. That didn't make me terribly popular with Tony.

We visited Strausberg today. The enthusiastic young man who came to visit us said, "Welcome to the G.D.R.... or, as I should say now, welcome to Germany." He must have expected that that would go down well with a British audience... but not this British audience! There was a lot of tut-tutting at his utterance.
It was today that we started playing ten-pin bowling on the rather uneven tarmac outside the hotel. We all got rather good at compensating for it.
Many of the evenings we had a dance. We always had the same handful of tracks. I remember we had "I Am the Music Man" by Black Lace every time. It was lovely to see some of the elderly British Communist ladies with their serious faces letting their hair down and pretending to be pianos and aeroplanes during that song!

Tuesday, 31st July 1990.
Tony and I had another discussion. He said I mustn't use Western terminology to talk about East Germany. Instead of "East Germany" I must say "The German Democratic Republic" or "The G.D.R.". Instead of "East Berlin" I must say "Berlin, Capital of the G.D.R." and instead of "The Berlin Wall" I must say "The Anti-Fascist Protective Measure". Tony, like all the old Commies, had deluded himself into believing that the East German population had demanded that the Wall be put there for their protection from West Germany.
He was more shocked at my being a Liberal than if I'd supported Mrs. Thatcher! He could understand Thatcherites because they were the enemy... but a Liberal??!!

"So you half agree with the Communists and half agree with Mrs. Thatcher?" he asked me.

"Well, yes, I suppose I do," I said.

"You want straightening out, you do," he said.

Wednesday, 1st August 1990.
I walked to Waldsieversdorf station. It was a delightful station in the middle of a forest with a tiny little electric train going through it which took you through beautiful coutryside. I remember thinking, "I hope they don't throw the baby out with the bath water when the West Germans take this country over - they have a superb rail network and West Germany is very car-orientated."
I've literally found out today, 30 years on, that that lovely little station has, indeed, been closed for many years. I'm sad about that.

Less than an hour later I was in Berlin. Unlike my previous visit to Berlin in 1987 when it was two different towns and I'd got shouted at by the East German police (and looked scared enough to make all the West German teenagers around me laugh most heartily) Berlin was sort of one town. Sort of. The Wall was still there but people - myself included - were chipping bits of it away as souvenirs.

Peggy, one of the elderly Communist ladies, was really lovely and a good sport. She joined me and Andrew and Pat, a young man who'd also become part of the gang, at bowls.

We were really worried when we heard she'd fallen in the bath. She was rushed to hospital. They were phenomenally good with her and she was back with us, right as rain, within a few days. Again (forgive the pun) I was hoping they'd not throw out the baby with the bath water when West Germany took over. East Germany had a brilliant health service and I was hoping that that could make the transition to the new united Germany.

Thursday, 2nd August 1990.
The Communists in our party went to the Soviet War Memorial in Buckow. It was very near our trade union hotel. They all stood, doffed their caps and nodded respectfully in the picturesque woods at the memory of fallen Russian comrades.

I think it was today one of the elderly gentlemen said "Last night there was someone laughing and crying. I thought to meself - there's someone getting a bit hysterical here. One minute she was laughing. The next she was crying - I thought to meself someone's getting a bit hysterical here." He said it several times and I was having to bite my lip to stop myself laughing! It became a catchphrase of mine for many years to come, probably much to the irritation of all!

I said in the diary that I met someone called Tina and fell in love with her.

Friday, 3rd August 1990.
I think it was on today's trip to East Berlin that I took some photos of some of their democratic posters for their new political parties, so recently formed and yet soon to be swept away when they became one with West Germany. East Germany's equivalent of the Liberals had one I rather liked: "Links hatten Sie. Rechts wollen Sie nicht. Wählen Sie die starke Mitte." ("The left you've had; the right you don't want; vote for the strong centre." It didn't work - that party didn't prove terribly popular with most people.)

There was also a rather striking cartoon by another party of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, enormously fat, sitting on a thin man and squashing him representing West Germany sitting on and suffocating East Germany. The message was clear: don't vote for the C.D.U. (Kohl's conservative party) as you'll be selling East Germany down the river when the two Germanys unite.

It said in my diary that I met a young guy with glasses and fell in love with him. I don't remember him or Tina whom I mentioned the previous day. These must have been fleeting teenage fancies that obviously felt very real at the time!

Saturday, 4th August 1990.
Andrew, Pat and I had made friends with some of the East German teens and children. We were all getting on so well that I did something which I am not proud of.
Ronni, one of the boys, seemed like the most switched-on 13-year-old I had ever met. He could talk about politics like an adult and really knew his stuff. It then became apparent, though, what his politics were really about... he said there were Black people in East Germany. The Socialist government had brought them in. Couldn't they go back to Mozambique? And there were Jews in East Germany. Well, they had Israel, didn't they? Why didn't they go there instead of staying in East Germany where they didn't belong? Ronni told us proudly that his father worked for Schönhuber, an extreme right-wing politician in East Germany.

Pat must have decided that the best way of conquering prejudice was to let people know that someone whom you actually like is from a particular group that you're prejudiced about. He told Ronni that I was half Jewish. Ronni giggled and looked at me, assuming it was a joke. To my shame I said that Pat was, indeed, joking. Pat continued and said that I had a special hat that my grandmother had got me that I wore for religious services. Again Ronni laughed - he had a cheerful disposition and was always laughing. Again I denied my own ethnicity. It's one of those moments in my life which I sometimes replay and I imagine my behaving differently but it's such a long time ago and I was very young. I was just enjoying all the ten-pin bowling and the swimming and everyone of all ages having a laugh together in what felt a bit like paradise. I didn't want to do anything to rock the boat. I didn't attach the same level of importance to diversity issues that I would now.

Somebody in our party later explained the Granny Syndrome to me. Apparently in the Communist era the teachers would favouritise children of Party members and sit them at the front of the class and be mean to other children who'd sit at the back. Those children would go home and their lovely granny would sit them on her knee and give them some chocolate and say, "It was a lot better before the Communists took over. There was a lovely man called Mr. Hitler who used to run things then..."

Sunday, 5th August 1990.
There was a very posh gentleman amongst the elderly Communists.
"I don't want to get into a political argument with you," he said, "but the Berlin WALL was a good thing."

I loved the way he emphasised WALL! That became another catchphrase for a long time!

Monday, 6th August 1990.
The posh man had some alcohol in the 'fridge. I made some jokey comment about it.

"You'd like a drink, in other words?" he said.

I realised I had put my foot in it! I was virtually teetotal and didn't want to offend him but I found most alcohol so disgusting in those days. I was keen not to end up having a drink to be polite.

(It's funny how things come full circle - I ended up drinking rather more as time went on, usually because socially it was the thing to do, and earlier this year I returned to somewhere close to where I was at the age of 19 and am feeling great!)

There was a service (non-religious) to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and to wish for that never to happen again. I think we all agreed on that.

Tuesday, 7th August 1990.
Andrew's parents were keen I should eat up all my food as an example to their son as they didn't believe in waste. I did try... but I discovered another interesting difference between West Germany and East Germany this week which was really brought home today - the West Germans were alive with vegetarians like me; in East Germany it was almost unknown. East Germany had discouraged it as it was a form of individualism.

I asked for something vegetarian and, as ever, it caused great confusion.
Andrew's mother said in her perfect German, "Er wartet auf seinem Gemüse-Teller" ("He's waiting for his plate of vegetables").

Eventually a plate arrived with three different flavours of cabbage and some vinegar poured liberally all over it. I did my best... but I just couldn't finish it!

Wednesday, 8th August 1990.
I discovered another difference between West Germany and East Germany today. In West Germany I had pressed all the buttons in the lift for a joke. Their sophisticated technology was well capable of coping with the antics of 19-year-old boys. In East Germany, however, the big wooden box which they called a lift juddered to a halt. All the elderly people had to walk downstairs to their dinner and I felt very bad.

Andrew decided to drop me in it. He'd seemed rather more grown-up than me in the lift and had declared, "You're nutty, you are!"

Now, full of Stasi-like zeal, he had told his parents who the ringleader of today's jollity had been.

"You know who screwed up the lift?" said Andrew's Scottish father to his mother, "It was him!" and he pointed accusingly at me. I had had some good political conversations with Andrew's parents. I felt I had let capitalism down and wouldn't be taken very seriously again in any future discussion!

Thursday, 9th August 1990.
Andrew, somebody called John, someone called Jo and I went into the woods to take one last train ride to Berlin.
We saw the M-Bahn, which is sadly there no longer. It was a maglev train - surely the future - and ran on the Western side of the Berlin Wall, really to show off to the East. It's long since been taken up, which is rather a shame. I remember thinking that the West showed off to the East by having a maglev train; the East showed off to the West by having their Funkturm; both sides showed off to each other by having wonderful zoos... competition was good for Berlin.
I always remember a woman with a beautiful but rather haunting voice singing the Lambada and playing it on the guitar outside Gleisdreieck M-Bahn station.

Friday, 10th August 1990.
Alan and Carol were woken up by Tony hammering on the door. Alan fell over during football. Howard got stung in the mouth by a wasp. Of course - it'd been a holiday full of dramas so that was all par for the course... but all dramas have to come to an end.

Andrew's mother wrote the words for me to say as I gave a presentation in German (hers was way better than mine) to the staff to thank them for looking after us so well in Buckow.

The Heimmeister was a little tipsy and pointed at a man who was well out of it and who had collapsed on a bench.

"Sehen Sie? Kapitalismus!" he ranted. Capitalism was clearly responsible for all the ills in the world, in his book, including people getting so drunk they pass out on a wooden bench in a holiday resort. I nodded sympathetically.
Ronni and his friend Udo waved goodbye to us.

A lady called Erika fromthe Party of Democratic Socialism (the new name for what had been the governing party in East Germany) took some photos of a man called David in our party. She seemed rather sad. It was the end of our adventure but I realised it was also game over for Communists both in East Germany and in Britain. There must have been so many holiday groups like us before but I should think there never were again after us. I think everyone knew that this was, indeed, the end of an era.

We went to West Germany and then Holland for dinner.

Very late at night we arrived in Calais ready for the boat back to England.

Saturday, 11th August 1990.
The next day we all parted at Victoria Station. Andrew cried but I promised I'd stay in touch which I did for a while.
Memories of a great holiday 30 years ago.

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