The Old GDR Today

Soon after I arrived in Berlin, my German friend suggested I go with her to Frankfurt Oder, a town about an hour north of Berlin, once part of the GDR. While she met with union members at the local hospital, I could wander around, exploring and even walk across the border on the bridge to the small town of Slubice, Poland.. Dropping me near a shopping mall, I wandered into a fast food café bakery, ordered a cappuccino and bread and sat down. I noticed how quiet people were, their clothing seemed drab and outdated. The interior reminded me of a 50’s luncheonette in the States. Everywhere I walked, I felt all eyes on me. Glancing in a mirror, I realized my style of dressing, and my clothes made me feel as if was a time traveler. Frankfurt Oder felt as if it were still part of the GDR; blocks of colorless buildings,  unkempt gardens and parks with untamed grass and a silence in the streets.  The German government had tried to modernize the town,  and hoping to attract a younger generation here, opened a branch of  University in town. They assumed students and professors would relocate to Frankfort Oder. But instead everyone traveled to and from Berlin each day. Instead of trying to change the town, it would make an unusual tourist destination..” experience life in the GDR”.

When I asked the woman sitting next to me on the train to Dresden if she had grown up in the GDR, she said yes and added conditions were better for East Germans than in the rest of the Soviet bloc countries. East Germany had factories and were able to get stuff from the west through the black market. Since she been able to set up her own business as a landscape architect, she had more freedom and was able to travel to all of the Soviet bloc countries (private businesses were allowed in the GDR).  In 1989, when the Berlin wall fell, she was 28 years old. Like most young people in the GDR, she was ecstatic that a new world was at her doorstep.  But for older people like her parents, their world collapsed. Suddenly the State, that had taken care of them all their lives, was gone and so were their jobs in schools, offices or factories, having become irrelevant or obsolete.  Many middle aged and older people suffered a loss of self-esteem and identity when the Soviet Union collapsed. While I was in Dresden, my hotel in a residential neighborhood, I noticed many of the elderly people seemed depressed and poorly dressed. English was spoken by teens and twenty somethings.

Arriving in Dresden, the landscape architect explained her husband was picking her up and they would take me to my hotel, not far from where they lived. Located in an upscale neighborhood filled with almost mansion like houses built in the early 1900’s, most were now converted into apartments or offices. Her husband confirmed what I was thinking. Many of the homes had been owned by Jewish families that had left or died during the Holocaust. After the war, some of the original owners or extended family had reclaimed them. Their office and home was in a building bought by a German friend from the original Jewish owner. He was adamant when he added that it was purchased legally by his friend.

On my own, two days in Dresden encompassed visiting the historic buildings, churches and museums, built in the 18th century, and destroyed by Allies bombs in 1945.  Reconstruction began after WWII and continues today, with scaffolding cluttering the square with the famous Frauenkirche church. The city has become an important and very crowded tourist destination, a first stop for west Germans who have never visited the east of their country. As I wandered and walked for miles around the town, everywhere I looked, people sat in cafes eating ice cream concoctions and decadent desserts. After glimpsing a huge chocolate shake pass me by as I was sitting at a table waiting to order.I succumbed and ordered one. I regretted that the rest of the evening; it destroyed my appetite for dinner and left me with horrendous indigestion.

Embarrassed to admit it, one of my favorite activities is searching for unique, interesting and beautiful things; in other words, shopping. In the town of Hasselt in Belgium, we had found beautifully designed shops with interesting merchandise. The mall in the new town of Dresden was bright, busy and overwhelming, with huge amounts of people wandering around, eating, shopping and passing time. Reminding me of an upscale mall in Newport beach, I lasted about an hour but not before purchasing an beautifully crafted red leather bag.

In 1990, visiting the eastern bloc before it entered the modern world, we had taken a train from Frankfurt to the town of Erfurt, part of the GDR. It had been a little over 6 months since the Berlin wall fell, so Erfurt was still a wasteland of grey, soot colored buildings, and empty dim lite streets.  My friends in Berlin suggested I visit Erfurt now and see how it had been brought back to life. A two hour train ride from Dresden and I was deposited at a small central station, opening on to Willy Brandt Platz, lined with bars and cafes. My hotel, a seven minute walk from the station, reminded me of an Ikea showroom. Each room had a different door combination, a simple wood veneer clothing rack and a tiny table with a stool. The rooms had bold colored prints hanging over each bed of fluffy white sheets. And a stainless clad bathroom. All for $67 a night.  The town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Germany, the home of Martin Luther and the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe.  Cobblestone streets lined with so many outdoor cafes, ice cream espresso bars, restaurants and amazing stores that can keep one shopping for days, have made Erfurt a perfect tourist destination. A river runs through the center of the old town under the famous Krämerbrücke bridge, lined with shops on ground level and apartments above.  As the  guidebook to Erfurt states, this bridge has the longest series of inhabited buildings on any bridge in Europe. And I added,as well as one of the best homemade ice cream shops in the town. It was as if a fairy god mother had come to Erfurt in 1990, waved her magic wand and transformed the town from a dreary dirty industrial center to Camelot.  But in retrospect, arriving back in Berlin, both Dresden and Erfurt, away from the tourist centers, still feel as if they are still stuck between the past and the present.


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