Der Osten – “The East”

Bodo had long blonde hair and tight black jeans (long before they came back into style).  He was exactly what you’d picture a 20-something German guy would look like in 1994.  Which makes sense, because it was 1994.  He was a very nice fellow, but rather quiet.  He was also one of the people in charge of us, so to speak.  So what do I mean by “us”?

There were about 37 of us.  All American exchange students living with German host families for the year.  All about 16-18 years old.  All of us a long way from home.  So it was up to Bodo and the rest of the chaperones to keep the drinking and debauchery to a dull roar.  Not a small feat, considering the constitution of our group of intrepid travelers.

Why mention Bodo specifically?  I mention him because I owe him a beer and a debt of gratitude.  He pulled back the curtain and gave me a rare, unfiltered look at how things really were.  Here’s how it came about.

Remember that this was not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen.  The Cold War had just come to an end.  But the evidence of what life was like in East Germany was evaporating quickly.  We were in Berlin for a week, visiting the Reichstag, the Brandenburger Tor, and many other sights.  At one point, the exchange program had arranged for us to see a show in a theater.  It was called Jazzlegs, and was much like a show in Las Vegas might be.  There was dancing, singing, elaborate costumes, etc.  The vast majority of us were enjoying it.  I wasn’t in that particular majority, so was glad to get a break from it during intermission.

About a dozen of us were all standing together, watching some sort of rope gymnastics in the lobby.  It was impressive.  I watched them climb a rope two stories tall and do all sorts of intricate twirls.  It occurred to me that Mr. Crash would have broken his neck just trying to climb the rope.  Eventually the gymnasts finished their routine and the show was about to start back up again.  Just then, Bodo came around and started talking to some of us.  He walked up to me and quietly said “Would you like to see the real East Berlin”?

Damn right I would.  About eleven of us managed to sneak out of the theater.  Bodo led us to the U-Bahn, which we rode for what seemed to be a long time.  We finally got to the stop, and emerged from the subway.  It was much darker than any other part of the city we’d been to.  Abandoned Trabants lined all the streets, presumably disposed of in favor of better automobiles.  The buildings were all non-descript concrete towers, devoid of character or color.  There seemed to be dozens of these buildings around us.  These were the utilitarian housing projects of East Berlin.

Concrete Block

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We ducked into one of the buildings and climbed the stairs.  I forgot to ask if there was an elevator, but I got the impression the building didn’t have one.  Bodo gathered us together when we reached the right floor.  He asked us to be respectful and polite, knowing that we wouldn’t dare behave otherwise.  After 6 months in a foreign country, in the days before the internet and cheap phone calls home, we were used to being on our own.  One of the first things you learn is: when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.

Bodo knocked and an older gentlemen answered the door.  I don’t believe the fellow was given any prior warning that his living room was about to be invaded by American kids, but to his credit he welcomed us in with a smile.

Bodo introduced us.  There was another man there who appeared to be Russian.  He didn’t speak any English, and Bodo ended up acting as an interpreter for much of what was said.  I took a place on the couch with five other kids and we sat and listened to the Germans talk.  Bodo asked the gentlemen to tell us what it was like living in East Berlin while the Stazi was in control.  The Stazi was responsible for domestic security and surveillance for the German Democratic Republic, or GDR.  They were essentially the KGB of East Germany.  The gentlemen who lived in this apartment began to tell us what it was like.

He confirmed a story I had heard about kindergarten children being tricked into revealing their parents had committed illegal acts.  At the time, it was illegal to watch West German television programming, even though the stations could be received in East Germany.  German television has a long standing tradition.  At approximately each quarter hour (and sometimes during a commercial break) a clock would appear on the screen for a few seconds.  I guess the theory is that it was convenient to show the time and I suspect many people also used it to set the time on their wall clocks.  The clock that appeared on the West German channels was round.  The East German one was a (supposedly more modern) square.  The kindergarten children would be asked to identify the shape of the clock on television.  Was it a circle or was it a square?  The kids would answer the question and confirm that the clock was a circle, and unwittingly doom their parents to punishment by the Stasi.

This interesting gentlemen, whose apartment we’d invaded, also played the guitar and sang a few songs for us.  Since it was so difficult to talk to your friends and neighbors about the general state of affairs under communist rule, one had to be creative.  This gentlemen performed songs that had themes that were anti-communist.  The songs used symbolism so it wouldn’t be so obvious.  I remember one song was about a carnival horse that pulled a wagon.  Apparently, the Stasi caught on to this fellow’s political beliefs and kept a close watch on him.  They did this through agents, but also via this man’s neighbors.  They watched his moves and informed the Stasi as to his activities.

I was sitting there on his couch and couldn’t help but notice two very large ring binders on the coffee table.  I thought they contained family pictures so I asked about them.  The old gentlemen smiled and explained, through Bodo, that they were not photo albums.

For many years, the Stasi collected information about this man.  When the wall finally fell, a mob broke down the doors of the Stasi buildings in East Berlin.  At some point, the man also went into the buildings to find his surveillance records.  He found them.  What I was holding in my hands weren’t photo albums containing pictures of family and friends.  What I held was physical evidence of the betrayal of friends who were in fear of the Stasi.

Blick vom Dach des ehemaligen Dienstgebäudes des Ministeriums für Staatssicherheit (MfS) in der Normannenstraße in Berlin auf das dazu gehörende Haus 18, aufgenommen am 06.11.2009. Berliner Projektentwickler haben das Haus 18 als mögliche «Event-Location» für sich entdeckt. Zusammen mit seiner Geschichte, die sich vor 20 Jahren zum Topthema in den deutschen Nachrichten entwickelte. Haus 18 war jenes riesige Gebäude, in das wütende DDR-Bürger am 15. Januar 1990 zuerst stürmten, als sie die Berliner Stasi-Zentrale besetzten. Hier zerfledderten sie die ersten Akten, warfen Honecker-Bilder aus den Fenstern, traten Türen ein und sprühten «Tod dem Stasi-Pack» an die Wände. Foto: Soeren Stache dpa (Zu dpa-Korr.:

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He encouraged me to look through them.  Inside were lots of written notes that I couldn’t quite understand.  Some seemed to be accounts of conversations people had had with this fellow.  Others seemed to be drawings, one of which appeared to be a diagram of the layout of his home.  So much of the man’s life was in these binders…so many private things that were no one’s business but his own.

It drove home a very important lesson to me.  For the first time, I truly understood the importance of liberty.  I understood the consequences of allowing government to become too powerful.  I realized, for the first time, how precious our Constitution is and the importance of the protection it provides for us.  And I also realized how much that I, and many others, had always taken it for granted.

Eleven American kids sat in that living room and heard this man’s story.  An enormously valuable lesson was bestowed upon each of us that night.  What each of us got from that experience varied.  But as for me, I was never the same.

We walked back down the dark, quiet streets, making our way back to the U-Bahn and the youth hostel.  I never once wondered what happened in the second act of the show.

We saw the real East Berlin.

Here’s the whole gang, minus yours truly.  I was sitting up in the window sill, wrapped up in a blanket, with a bad cold, sipping from a dwindling fifth of Jack Daniels…looking down at my friends while they took this picture.

Berlin Newspaper pic

In Liberty and Freedom,


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