Sunday, November 4, 2012

Weimar, the Second Time Around (Spring 1990)

Following the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989, and the opening of the border between West- and East Germany my friend and colleague working at the Nuclear Research Center near Karlsruhe invited the Professor for Radiation Protection Physics at Dresden's Technical University.

She arrived for the usual semi-annual meeting of our West German working group on the measurement of ionizing radiation at the beginning of December. We had long and good conversations feeling strange for in previous years when we met East German colleagues at international conferences they were not allowed to talk to us. We all were overwhelmed by the new German-German togetherness. So, in a follow-up, Professor D. invited three of our working group to her annual International Symposium on Radiation Physics at Gaussig, a cozy castle east of Dresden used by the Technical University (TU) for meetings and on other occasions.

During the winter I prepared my paper: Personal Neutron Monitoring in an Accelerator Environment and was eagerly looking forward to my visit to Germany's heartland. At the end of March I called my host in Dresden and asked her whether she needed something I could take along: Well, the participants of the seminar organize at least one party and any contribution would be welcome.

A Bocksbeutel, half full
An empty Bocksbeutel
 (©Wikipedia/Prince Grobhelm)
So I decided the best would be to furnish some wine they possibly had not tasted behind the iron curtain. The day before I crossed the now open border into the still existing German Democratic Republic (GDR) I stopped at Iphofen's winery and loaded the trunk of my car with six boxes of Frankonian wine bottled in Bocksbeuteln.

Then I took a night's rest at Bad Hersfeld and heading east reached the border in the gray of dawn. I approached a wooden shed lost in the middle of nowhere bordering a tared strip as an ersatz for the non-existing road. Two sleepy border guards looking out of a window rounded up the surrealistic scene when they, completely bored, nodded at me to pass. Border guards under the Ulbricht regime would have taken my car to pieces. Apparently shocked by the lift of the iron curtain they even refused to ask for my passport.

I am on my way to my first stop: Eisenach, place of a German myth, the Wartburg. The oncoming traffic was heavy with one two-stroke engine Trabi after the other heading west filling the air with the typical smell of burned oil. People suddenly were free and eager to travel to the capitalistic enemy territory buying goods that they do not find in the GDR. Entering the town of Eisenach the smell changed to the typical taste of sulfur dioxide caused by the burning of lignite, the only energy source the GDR had plenty of. I parked my car near one of the ascents to the Wartburg and climbed up the hill in beautiful sunshine. It still was early in the morning but already streams of people flowed in both directions.

German History on Wartburg Stamps

Weimar Republic

1923: Inflation, a stamp of 5000 marks
1932: Great Depression,
a semipostal of 4+2 pfennigs

Nazi Germany

1933: Wagner's Tannhäuser or the Wartburg song contest
(Der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg), a semipostal of 3+2 pfennigs

Divided Germany

1966: Agnostic GDR commemorating
the 900th anniversary of the Wartburg
1967: Religious FRG commemorating the
450th anniversary of the Reformation.
Luther concealed at the Wartburg
translated the Bible into German

I wanted to buy some picture postcards. The vendors only accepted western currency. How did they know that I am not a Bürger der DDR (citizen of the GDR)? I rushed through the historic site: Luther's study, the Kemenate (Cabinet room) of Elizabeth of Hungary, the with mosaic overdecorated hall (19th century) of the Wartburg song contest.

I tried to be in Weimar at lunchtime but potholes slowed down my progress while Trabis ignoring them overtook me flying by. Eventually, at noon I parked my car near Weimar's central marketplace on an abandoned bomb site and walked over to the Elephant Hotel to have lunch at its famous Elephantenkeller, the basement restaurant. Entering the place a doorman stopped me: We are jam-packed. I asked for the second service: There is none. I handed him over a 10 DM bill. Becoming friendly he told me to come back in twenty minutes.

Warmed by the April sun outside I suddenly felt hungry for the smell of Thuringian bratwurst filled the marketplace. I could not describe my feeling taking my first bite. Still overwhelmed by my first all-German food I approached the entrance of the Elephant in time. The doorman guided me to a single seat on an otherwise fully packed table.

When I sat down all conversation stopped for the men around the table smelled the westerner. I greeted them friendly starting to talk about this year's early spring. Slowly they became confident and suddenly I listened to an argument: who of them following the Wende (political turnaround) had taken off his United Socialistic Party (SED) party badge first. They took me into their political discussion so that I do not remember what I had for lunch.

In the evening I reached Dresden and the following morning Professor D. showed her three West German invitees around her TU institute. Two facts immediately were obvious: too many people were working on research projects of which half would never have been funded in the West. What followed over the following years was a dramatic reduction of staff doing useless or socialistic research. Now we know that one of the reasons for the fall of the Berlin wall was that the GDR was bankrupt.  No wonder, for no capitalist government would have paid the relatively high salaries to so many "researchers".

The symposium in Gaussig developed into an extraordinary experience wet with tears and wine. I will spare you the scientific details but will mention two nostalgic moments:

1. For the first time after more than twenty years of abstinence, I tasted salt potatoes (Salzkartoffeln) whereas Elisabeth always boils potatoes in the skin (Pellkartoffeln) to conserve their natural taste and nutrient.

Salzkartoffeln (Photo Wikipedia)
Pellkartoffeln (Photo Wikipedia)

The change in food culture was obvious. While in the East potatoes were still considered as Sättigungsbeilage (staple food in GDR-German) potatoes in the West had made the transition to a vegetable bought at the grocery in selected varieties and small quantities on a daily basis.

My teacher, classmates and me peeling staple food potatoes
during a fortnightly stay at a youth hostel in 1948.
Red Baron is just in the middle (the fifth from both left and right).
I still remember those men carrying potatoes in sacks of 50 kilograms (one Zentner, i.e., hundred German pounds) into our basement in fall filling up aired wooden boxes. Although these potatoes were stored in a cool dark environment their quality in the following year had deteriorated so that they had to be peeled taking off nearly half their mass in cutting deep.

2. In 1943 I spent the summer in a small place near the Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains) called Lichtenhain famous for its artificial waterfall.

Lichtenhain's waterfall (Photo Wikipedia)

Bastei panorama in the Elbesandsteingebirge

Driving my host and colleagues to the Bastei on the free afternoon of the International Symposium we made a detour to the place of my youth. We found the house where I once stayed easily:

During the summer of 1943, my friend Dieter and me lived in the house located on the photo
 in the lower right corner

On the photo from left to right Dieter and me. You recognize our house in the distance.
Dieter was stricken with myatrophy and therefore? a precocious child.
I drove my parents crazy always talking back, putting their words into question:
But Dieter said ...  Dieter's father, a lawyer and highly decorated First World War veteran
looked with his white mustache  - my father being just 37 - like an old man to me.
He took the above photo and some more with a Leica, developed the films,
and made the prints himself. During the war, I lost track of Dieter and his family
Entering the house where I had spent a couple of weeks of my early youth everything including the room where I once slept seemed so small, but nothing had really changed. Even the water faucet half way up the narrow staircase where I had my morning wash was still in place. I knocked at a door and from the inside somebody said: Herein! I opened the door. There the whole family was sitting around a table manufacturing Easter decorations. I knew that in the West people were already working on decorations for Christmas. I bought some Easter bunnies paid them with Western currency and handed them to my colleagues as souvenirs.

It's all history.

1 comment:

  1. I usually read all your blogs but hadn't read this one until today. Very interesting history and memories for you. I'm not sure what had sparked my interest in the Sachsische-Schweiz but I knew I wanted to visit the area already back in 2006 on my first visit to Dresden. After hiking up from the Elbe and getting my shoes soaked from a rain storm, I knew what you had meant about driving to the Bastei! Thanks!