Family Ponders Future in a Germany Without Walls
Hans Hoffmann sat on his patio in the late June twilight, savoring fresh tomatoes from his garden and listening to his family’s merry chatter.
Fifteen-year-old Sabine thinks Western chocolate tastes better. Monika, 17, is remembering the time the secret police confiscated their Monopoly game. Twelve-year-old Volker wants an American pen pal but stops short when rattling off his address for a visitor.
“What do we put for country now?” the boy asked in bewilderment. “Germany?”
“No,” one of his sisters chided. “East Germany. We’re still the German Democratic Republic.”
“Not for long,” someone else added.
“Germany,” Volker decided. “Just Germany.”
Hans Hoffmann never permitted himself to dream that his children would someday witness such history, that they would live in a Germany without walls.
All that changes after Sunday, when East and West Germany merge their economies, social benefits and monetary systems.
For the past 30 years, there has been a dull predictability to the Hoffmann family’s world.
It was a world where people kept their heads down, a plod-along world, heavy and claustrophobic, where the slightest misstep could send a person to prison for decades.
In this world, life always just meandered by for the Hoffmanns, like an aimless stream--no urgency, no thrill, no special destination.
Each day, Hans would go to work at the collective where he raises house plants. His wife, Ingeborg, stayed home to raise nine children. Their 120-year-old house was always in need of some repair, but materials were rarely available, and they learned to live with leaky roofs and unreliable heating.
It was tight on one income. With government supplements for the four children still at home and Hans’ overtime, the Hoffmanns take in about 1,100 marks a month--worth about $730 when the East German currency is merged with West Germany.
But they have always managed. The garden is bountiful, and heavy state subsidies kept necessities such as milk, bread and shoes for the children ridiculously cheap.
Over the years, with help from West German relatives, they even bought such luxuries as a car and television.
But now, the current of change has suddenly turned life’s lazy stream into a roiling river, and, like other ordinary East Germans, the Hoffmanns are wondering whether they will stay afloat.
“Everything hangs on Monday,” the first business day of the union, said 52-year-old Hans.
Come Monday, Hans might not have a job.
Come Monday, Ingeborg will probably pay twice as much for groceries.
Come Monday, the phone bill will triple.
Come Monday, the life that the Hoffmanns have always known will be gone forever.
“It can only get better,” declared Hans. “All we can do is hope. Hope, and wait until Monday.”
Monday took 40 years to come to East Germany, where the inflexible Communist regime was toppled by a peaceful grass-roots revolution last fall.
Back then, there was little talk of reunification. Instead, the demonstrators spoke of creating a socialist system without corruption or mismanagement.
Anita Hoffmann was one of the early protesters. At 20, the middle sister of eight Hoffmann girls and one boy could not understand why so many young people were fleeing East Germany instead of staying behind to rebuild it.
“These are my people,” Anita said simply. “Too many who go over there--to West Germany--end up lonely. This is home.”
One night in October, when, it was later revealed, Communist leader Erich Honecker was planning a “Beijing solution” to end the demonstrations, Anita left the family house on a hilltop over the Elbe for downtown Dresden, 10 minutes away.
Around 9 o’clock., a friend of hers knocked on the door and told Anita’s parents that the demonstration had turned ugly and that police had hauled Anita away.
Her parents spent a sleepless night worrying, knowing they were virtually powerless.
Political dissent was mercilessly punished in East Germany; a lifetime in prison was a possibility for Anita.
The next afternoon, Anita surfaced, exhausted but unharmed. After four hours in jail, the authorities had let her go, first making her sign a statement swearing that she would never join any gathering involving more than 10 people.
“That was the joke,” Hans Hoffmann said with a laugh. “Anita was outlawed from taking a walk if the rest of the family went along.”
Anita became disenchanted with politics soon after that and is content now to make pastries in a small, private bakery nearby. She lives across the street from her parents in an illegal sublet with no hot water or bath. But rent is only 22 marks ($14) a month, and she doesn’t complain.
Anita has faith that her bakery will survive the free market even though its machinery is 20- to 30-years old.
“The nearest competition is two streetcar stops away,” she noted.
Her father doesn’t have the same confidence. Western nurseries flourish under high technology that regulates how much fertilizer and water to give the plants. At Hans’ collective, everything is done by hand, and it takes 650 workers to produce what half that number in the West can do.
Some co-workers are talking about going into business for themselves, and if he loses his job, Hans might work for them.
“My biggest hope is for fast unification and for workers to really get back a will to work,” Hans said. “Now that there are materials, we can see what we can really achieve.”
Of his nine children, ranging in age from 9 to 29, five are working. There’s Anita at her bakery and Monika, who is an apprentice in massage therapy. Elke, the eldest, is a nurse. Doris, 28, tends handicapped children. Ewa, 26, sings in a theater chorus.
Ruth, 25, stays home with her two babies. Like Monika, Kristina, 9, Sabine and Volker live at home.
Monika, an outgoing teen-ager with close-cropped hair and a sharp wit, shakes her head ruefully when she recalls the encouragement she got from a West German to enter her profession.
Massage therapy, the Westerner predicted, was going to be a hot field, what with the soaring accident rate in East Germany due to the heavy traffic and fast Western cars on the decrepit roads.
Reunification has been something of a disappointment so far, Monika says she believes, because West Germans “know nothing about us” and don’t seem to want to.
Sabine says she feels intimidated by the “self-assurance” of her West German peers.
“It doesn’t matter to them what others think,” she marveled.
In many ways, her life is far more innocent than that of a typical West German teen-ager. Drugs are alien to the Hoffmann children. They have heard of Dresden youngsters getting high on household chemicals, such as window cleanser, but such behavior strikes them as stupid rather than adventurous.
“I wouldn’t know marijuana if I saw it,” Monika admitted.
The social nuances fascinate her. She knew from her West German relatives that capitalists weren’t all evil, as her teachers proclaimed. And she found it amusing that geography books pictured socialist lands in vivid color, and capitalist countries in harsh black and white.
When the relatives sent a package that had included a Monopoly set, Monika wasn’t surprised that it arrived open. The secret police had seized the game.
“Obviously capitalistic,” Monika deduced with a grin.
The precious link to West Germany probably saved Hans’ life seven years ago, when he needed major intestinal surgery.
“But the doctor said he wouldn’t perform the operation without sutures from the West,” Ingeborg recalled. “The kind available here would just fall apart. The doctor wrote out a prescription and our relatives were allowed to send them to us.
“Everything turned out OK, but that was the worst crisis our family ever went through,” she said.
The Western presents often troubled the children as much as they delighted them.
“It was embarrassing when they would give us all these wonderful things, and we didn’t have anything as good to send them,” recalled Volker, who describes reunification as “all of us being together again.
“They’re people just like us,” he added. “Totally normal.”
The family crammed into their eight-year-old car and drove three hours to West Berlin soon after the Wall opened last November.
“Quite frankly,” said Hans, “we only went so we could get the welcome money.”
Back then, West Germany greeted every East German who visited with a one-time gift of 100 marks (about $75).
Shops had already closed that day, so the family peered through store windows “for about 15 minutes to give the children a glimpse” and headed home, Hans said.
“We don’t need to go West,” said his 51-year-old wife. “The West is coming here.”
Aside from a summer vacation planned in the Black Forest with their West German relatives, the Hoffmanns are quite content to stay where they are.
And wait until Monday.