Last Monday, October 3, was a national holiday: the 21st German Unity Day. Tomorrow is the Festival of Lights here in Leipzig, commemorating the Peaceful Revolution that took place here, when tens of thousands of people met every Monday evening in 1989, holding candles and marching through the city under the barrels of military sharpshooters.
The local people of my generation don't have too much to say about that time: they were kids, life was great. Free schools, free daycare, a low crime rate, plenty of milk and potatoes and lard, and maybe even an orange or a banana once or twice a year. There were lots of sports activities, summer camps, and "solidarity field trips" to other Eastern bloc countries Their parents sheltered them from the harsher realities of their Soviet-controlled society.
I work as an ESL teacher for adults. Most of my students are around my parents' age, in their 40s and 50s, old enough to have been much more directly effected by the political turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s. From the most confident career woman to the most neurotic welfare recipient, every single one of them has a story.
I met a new student today, Silke, who introduced herself as a psychotherapist. My first thought was, "It's about time!" I work with people from all walks of life, but this was my first psychotherapist. My mind wandered to the staggering, bulbous-nosed alcoholics loitering outside the grocery stores, draining their 3rd flask of schnapps at 11 a.m., the people who scream at me on the street when they're cycling on the wrong side, the cashiers who shove my groceries right off the counter as soon as they've been scanned, the occassional students who burst into tears and start muttering accusations at themselves the second they forget a vocabulary word. "Yes, PLEASE, get these people some therapy!"
As it turned out, Silke herself had an astonishing story. In the early 1980s, she was a professional handball player and a member of the East German national women's team. The members of the GDR's prestigious sports teams were among the elite allowed to travel extensively abroad--except for her. Her sister had an Austrian boyfriend--"Westbeziehung," connections to the West--which was enough to place the whole family, even a professional athlete, under a travel ban to Western countries. After her sports career, she started university, studying to be a teacher. That lasted three years, until her sister applied to emmigrate to West Germany. That was enough to get Silke kicked out of school--the state couldn't tolerate a turncoat in the family of a future educator. She was sent to work in a chemical factory for the next five years, until the revolution came in the fall of 1989. After studying again to be a kindergarten teacher in the 1990s, having 3 children of her own, and later going back to university for a third time, she eventually found her way to psychotherapy.
After 6 years of hearing such stories every day, I'm as convinced as anyone that, "Not everything was bad." I would love it if there were as few housewives in the West as in the East, if every college and factory still had a free daycare attached to it, and if "International Women's Day" were still a public holiday (which, btw, Men's Day is). But there's no question that the emotional strain of living in an authoritarian society and the struggle with changing paradigms, on top of the even older trauma of two world wars, mass murder, and population transfer, have left indelible scars.
For some, their lack of English skills is just another symbol of their "otherness" in German society: whereas most West Germans of that generation speak English fairly fluently, the vast majority of East Germans had 10 years of obligatory Russian lessons in school, of which they now remember about 5 words. If they were lucky enough to have learned any English, it was sometimes taught with intentionally poor-quality instruction. Even if they still have ties to Russia, English is now the "in" language of big business there, as well. As a passionate linguist, I'd be the last person to claim that "everybody should just learn English." But in my current role, I can empower people to integrate into their own society, improve their careers, broaden their horizons, and live out unfulfilled dreams. And that's a great feeling.