Flensburg Files Accepting Stories of Christmas’ Past

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While Christmas is over five months away, it is the season that creeps up faster than any of the other holiday seasons of the year. It is also one that is laden with stories of presents, families, friends and lots of surprises.

 

Christmas also means learning about the history of how it was celebrated and this year’s Christmas  Market Tour Series will focus on just that- History.

 

During my Christmas market tour in Saxony last year, some recurrent themes came up that sparked my interest. In particular in the former East Germany, this included having Christmas be celebrated with little or no mentioning of Jesus Christ. In addition, we should include Räuchermänner (Smoked incense men) that were a rare commodity in the former Communist state but popular in the western half of Germany and beyond, traditional celebrations with parades honoring the miners, and lastly, the Christmas tree lit with candles.  Yet despite the parades along the Silver Road between Zwickau and Freiberg, a gallery of vintage incense men in a church in Glauchau, church services celebrating Christ’s birth in Erfurt, Lauscha glassware being sold in Leipzig and Chemnitz, and the like, we really don’t have an inside glimpse of how Christmas was celebrated in the former East Germany.

 

Specifically:

 

  • What foods were served at Christmas time?
  • What gifts were customary?
  • What were the customary traditions? As well as celebrations?
  • What did the Christmas markets look like before 1989, if they even existed at all?
  • How was Christ honored in church, especially in places where there were big pockets of Christians (who were also spied on by the secret service agency Stasi, by the way)?
  • What was the role of the government involving Christmas; especially during the days of Erich Honecker?
  • And some personal stories of Christmas in East Germany?

 

In connection with the continuation of the Christmas market tour in Saxony and parts of Thuringia this holiday season, the Flensburg Files is collecting stories, photos, postcards and the like, in connection with this theme of Christmas in East Germany from 1945 to the German Reunification in 1990, which will be posted in both the wordpress as well as the areavoices versions of the Flensburg Files. A book project on this subject, to be written in German and English is being considered, should there be sufficient information and stories,  some of which will be included there as well.

 

Between now and 20 December, 2017, you can send the requested items to Jason Smith, using this address: flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. 

 

The stories can be submitted in German if it is your working language. It will be translated by the author into English before being posted. The focus of the Christmas stories, etc. should include not only the aforementioned states, but also in East Germany, as a whole- namely Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Berlin and Mecklenburg-Pommerania, the states that had consisted of the German Democratic Republic, which existed from 1949 until its folding into the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October, 1990.

 

Christmas time brings great times, memories, family, friends and stories to share. Over the past few years, I’ve heard of some stories and customs of Christmas past during my tour in the eastern part, which has spawned some curiosity in terms of how the holidays were being celebrated in comparison with other countries, including my own in the US. Oral history and artifacts are two key components to putting the pieces of the history puzzle together. While some more stories based on my tour will continue for this year and perhaps beyond, the microphone, ink and leaf, lights and stage is yours. If you have some stories to share, good or bad, we would love to hear about them. After all, digging for some facts is like digging for some gold and silver: You may never know what you come across that is worth sharing to others, especially when it comes to stories involving Chirstmas.

 

And so, as the miners in Saxony would say for good luck: Glück Auf! 🙂

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Und Täglich Grüß die Bahn (Groundhog Day with German Railways)

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The lounge of the train station in the town of Zeitz, located in Saxony-Anhalt. Its charm resembles the German Democratic Republic, yet it has seen its better days with peeling wall paper, empty platforms and even the lounge that is empty, with the exception of two people talking about the better days before the Wall fell. Yet despite its emptiness, the trains are still running- ableit privately.

Two rail lines are owned by two different train companies with no affiliation with the German Railways (Dt.: Die Bahn), one connecting Weissenfels and Zeitz (via Burgerland Bahn) and another between Leipzig and Saalfeld via Gera (via Erfurter Bahn). Private railways, like the buses, are becoming more and more competitive because of their attractiveness and the ability to get passengers to their destinations in a timely manner. With the German Railways striking again, it will become obvious that once an agreement is finally made, they will lose more customers and most likely, more rail lines will become privatized.

As this goes to the press, the train drivers (or engineers) who are operating the trains are on strike for the seventh time. 60% of the long-distance InterCity and ICE trains have slashed their services until Thursday evening, the regional trains by 50%. This is the second time since November that the state-owned rail service is on strike.  The latest strike is starting to resemble the scenes from an American film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, which was filmed in 1993. For those who don’t know the plot of the film, the sneak preview below will help you:

The German public TV station NDR, based in Hamburg produced a parody of Groundhog Day in connection with the strike in 2008. While it has been awhile, the latest strike is becoming like the film that has found a place in American culture, used in the classroom to refresh one’s English skills and provide a whiff of what American life is like:

If you want to learn German, this is the place to do it.  😉

The main question lingering everybody right now is: How many more strikes like this will we have before an agreement between the worker’s union GDL and Die Bahn is finally made and sticks like concrete. Will the workers be happy with their new contract, or will we have more strikes? If the latter, we will see more privatized rail lines and buses going through communities in Germany and less of Die Bahn, resulting in (near) empty train stations and platforms like this:

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Think about it……

 

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In School in Germany: Talking about the Berlin Wall

November 9th 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. 25 years ago on that date in 1989, after several weeks of protests, combined with the exodus of thousands of East Germans to West Germany and  changing of the guard from Erich Honecker to Egon Krenz, the announcement was made to open the gates of the Berlin Wall to allow East Germans to flee to West Berlin. At the same time, the borders separating East and West Germanys also opened for others to pass.  Tens of thousands of people who fled to the western part embraced in the western culture that was once forbidden. Many of them did not return nor decided to not talk about  life in East Germany prior to 1989.

To this day, these people still refuse to talk about it, going by the monkey mentality of “See no good of the GDR, Hear no good of the GDR and Speak no good of the GDR.” By doing so in this day and age is dangerous, for the people born in the years 1985 and up are missing out on the truth behind the Berlin Wall and the two Germanys that had existed. In the days teaching English at a university in Bavaria, no one knew about the Vita Cola, the East German version of Coca-Cola until I introduced that in one of my sessions. Very few knew about Sandman, the character that starred on East German television every night at 6:50pm, and still does to this day. Even the well acclaimed traffic lights were unknown in the eastern part and many were used to the generic traffic lights that are simply European. But by the same token, the emergence of “Ostalgia,” the mentality that East Germany was not as bad as it once was, is becoming very common thus increasing the danger glorifying the former times and degrading the western part of Germany because of  different mentalities and conflicts of interest.

During my time in the gymnasium, the topic of the Berlin Wall was brought forward to students in history, for we needed to know how good or how bad the GDR really was. The students were asked to interview their parents and grandparents to collect whatever stories they have on life in the past and compare them with their lives, in terms of childhood, culture, family and anything that would be useful for the topic. The results were surprising. The responses were short and to the point, but there were little details about the former times. If they were short, then it was the fact that the country did have some good points and that was it.  But the question is: was life in the GDR really that bad or that good to begin with?

Growing up in a large family in Minnesota, I became accustomed to storytelling, done by my grandma and her children, including my father. Many of them were detailed and enlightening and provided some morals for us to learn by. This included stories of how my grandparents survived the Great Depression and being separated because of World War II. Many of these stories I can still remember to this day. Yet the younger generations don’t seem to care much about their own history, thus putting the teachers of history, social studies and culture (including foreign languages) in a position where they have to dig up their own history and ideas to share with the students. We are facing a neglect in history, not knowing the key facts and the stories behind them, and the consequences will be fatal in 25 years time. No matter how painful or joyful, one needs a storytelling session about certain events in time from the older generations so that one understands the gravity of the events and think about them on one’s own.

And this is where we return to our subject of the Berlin Wall and how it divided Germany into two in a physical sense for 28 painful years. Nobody wanted the border but it happened. Yet life was not as bad as it seemed, as long as the Stasi did not spy on you and you faced hours of torture, examples of which can be seen in the TV series Weissensee. But nevertheless, if one wants to know more about the Wall, the divided Germany and how people came together to tear it down and bring the two countries together, one needs to find the facts. The best facts are not in the books, but through oral history.

So for all teachers talking about the Divided Germany and the Wall, challenge your students to collect facts from relatives and friends who have lived in both regions, witnessed the Wall and tried to jump it, took part in the Leipzig Demos as well as took turns with others to tear the Wall down. Interview them, ask them any questions that come across your minds- even if they are most painful. Then share them with your teachers, student colleagues and friends (here and abroad), to ensure them that the Wall was the biggest deal and despite having a decent lifestyle in both countries, it was much better with one Germany and not two. Then make sure that future generations know about it to better understand life between 1945 and 1990 and how it has shaped today’s world, in one way or another.  By doing so, we will preserve our history and better understand Germany and its role from the eyes of others.

BTW: In case you were wondering where the author was at the time of the Fall of the Wall, he was watching the coverage from home in Minnesota, writing a short summary about it for a 6th grade social studies class. Little did I realize at that time, that the Wall was one of many factors that lured me here, aside from the most obvious reason. But with the advancement of technology these days have produced recordings of the events of the Fall of the Wall. Some examples to follow soon. 🙂

Joachim Gauck is President of Germany. Who is Mr. Gauck?

Discussions about Gauck at supper time.

 

We all have our political discussions at the dinner table this evening. In the US, many families are talking about the elections of 2012 and the direction the country is going regardless of the outcome. In the Middle East, many families are talking about creating a new government after overthrowing the dictators in the Jasmine-Spring of last year. Here in Germany, our latest discussion is about Joachim Gauck. Apart from the fact that he was officially elected as the 11th President of Germany (Bundespräsident) thanks to the majority vote of 991 to 237 at the Federal Convention on 18 March, and that he originated from Rostock in Mecklenburg-Pommerania, there is very little information that we know about him right now. Even when I sent a questionnaire around on facebook a couple days ago, the response was blank, assuming that no one knows much about the man at all.

Therefore, I decided to do some research about Mr. Gauck and set my own predictions about how he will run the country and support Chancellor Angela Merkel. The results were amazing. Here are some fast facts that one needs to know about Joachim Gauck:

 

Flensburg Files Fact File- Joachim Gauck:

 

1. He was born on 24 January, 1940 in Rostock. His family consisted of sailors, one of whom was his father, who was a distinguished naval officer and ship’s captain. However, his father was taken away to Siberia by the Soviet troops when he was 11 and was never seen again afterwards.

2. While he grew up behind the Iron Curtain, he opposed the East German government and the ideas of socialism to a point where he refused to join the Free German Youth (FDJ) and joined groups that opposed anti-communism. Even the state security police (Stasi) considered him a natural-born opponent and had mentioned his actions in their reports. A good part of that had to do with what had happened to his father.

3. Because he was considered by the Stasi an “incorrigible anti-communist,” Gauck was denied entrance to his studies in German and Journalism and instead studied theology at the University of Rostock and became a pastor at a church in Mecklenburg-Pommerania. At that time, the East German government looked down upon Christianity and had the Stasi spy and harass the church. Gauck was no exception to the rule.

4. At the time of the revolution in 1989, Gauck joined the New Forum, which was a democratic opposition party to the socialist party. He was very active in the organisation, later becoming spokesperson and in March 1990, being elected to the People’s Chamber. It merged with two other democratic parties to form the Alliance 90 party,  and upon his departure from the party in 1990, he was elected Special Representative of the Stasi Archives. Since 1990, he has had no affiliations with any of the political parties in Germany.  The Alliance 90 party eventually folded into the Green Party in 1993.

5.  Gauck worked as Federal Commissioner of the Stasi Archives from 1990 (as Special Representative) to 2000. During his time at the archives, he uncovered thousands of people, mostly in the eastern part of the country, who had worked for the Stasi and exposed the activities of the opposition. Many of the people who had worked for the Stasi lost their jobs in the public sector as a result. In addition, he advocated for human rights and stressed the importance of ensuring that the history of communism in central and Eastern Europe is not overshadowed by the era of the Third Reich and remembering that both National Socialism and Communism were equally bad and thus the history of the two should not be forgotten. He has written about communism which included a chapter in The Black Book of Communism (published in 1998) and was one of the signatory fathers of two key declarations: of both the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism (2008) and the Declaration on Crimes of Communism (2010). On his 70th birthday, Chancellor Angela Merkel commended him for his tireless work of advocating the education about and elimination of communism and other forms of totalitarianism.

6. Gauck was narrowly defeated by Christian Wulff in the Presidential elections to replace Horst Köhler in 2010. Yet Wulff’s scandals resulted in his falling out of favor with the government and the people and subsequentially had to step down from his post. However, many people believe that because of his honesty and tolerance to and acceptance of other people regardless of background, he was touted by many as the “better president.”

 

Keeping these facts in mind, the next question will be what impact will he have for Germany and the rest of the world? For Germany alone, he will bring the country into calmer waters and provide a fresh start for a government marred by a series of scandals that has resulted in the loss of credibility from the public over the last two years. One of his goals will be to win the hearts and souls of the public and ensure them that Germany is a country that prides itself on high quality, honesty, and transparency. This is something that is rarely seen these days as many countries are paralysed by politicians who are hypocritical and defer responsibility onto others instead of taking them. While Gauck may not be Harry Truman and his policy of “The Buck Stops Here”- where he bore the responsibility of the policies that were burdened by Congress during his administration (1945-53), given his religious background, combined with his past during the communist times, Gauck will ensure that the best way for the country is to be honest, help others in need and have tolerance.

Gauck will definitely provide the government with some much-needed weight with regards to cracking down on right-wing extremism, which includes eliminating the NPD by declaring the party unconstitutional. However, despite years of attempts to make the party unlawful according to German law, Gauck may want to consider rewriting a section of constitution which calls for eliminating any political parties that focuses on any sort of national socialism, socialism/communism, and xenophobia, while at the same time, try to reach out to the youth who are exposed to the right-wing influence, by discouraging that type of behavior.

His last goal will be to improve on international relations with other countries including the US, something that was almost non-existent during Wulff’s short term. He will have the advantage of being an independent and thus having strong relations with the other political parties supporting him, including Merkel’s CDU and the opposing Social Democrats, and even having an influence on their work as he will not have to worry about being influenced by one party or another (like it would have been the case had he been a member). A president who influences the government instead of the government (and in particular, the political parties) influencing the president is something that I hope we see in the US once the elections are completed in November of this year and perhaps if Gauck does a grand of a job in his first six months in office, the presidential candidates and the incumbent, President Obama, should look to him for reference and see what a person can do if he is independent of all the external influences, like it is the case in Washington.

While Gauck may be considered a grandpa by many, after looking at his past through research, I do believe that he is the right man for the job. If he can remain independent and work together on achieving the three primary goals mentioned here, he may end up becoming one of the best presidents in modern German history. But success can only be dependent on two important variables, the ability to take action independently and the ability to lead rationally and responsibly. We have seen the likes of Wulff ignoring the two and paying the price for that, but perhaps Gauck can change that and set an example for other politicians to follow, both in Germany and beyond.

 

Deutsche Welle also has an analysis on what Gauck will do for Germany and the rest of the world and you can see the report by clicking here.

50 Years of Genuine Traffic Lights in Eastern Germany

 

This year has been the year of the roaring zeros in the eastern part of Germany, as many universities, private firms and organizations in the former East German states of Mecklenburg-Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia are celebrating 20 years of existence and the nostalgia that had existed prior to the Revolution of 1989 managed to make its way to the main stream of German culture and international prominence; especially after 50 years.
Strangely enough, the pedestrian traffic lights in the eastern part of Germany happen to fall into the category of international prominence. 50 years ago this year, Karl Peglau of the Ministry of Transportation got a bit creative and tried to present the then German Democratic Republic with a mannequin figure, who stretched its arms out in red to alert the pedestrians to stop and waltzed across the street whistling his favorite tune in green, as seen in the photos taken below:

The Socialist Party eventually approved the introduction of the mannequin figure traffic light for the pedestrian crossings, and the first one was installed in Berlin in 1969 in the suburb of Mitte.  It became a ‘household product’ typical of East Germany afterwards as the drivers of the Trabant automobile (another East German product one can still see on the streets today but in fewer numbers) and pedestrians alike were awed by its appearance in the streets of Weimar, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Rostock, Potsdam, just to name a few.  Even more so is the fact that Peglau and later others did not stop there with their creative mannequin figure as it presented itself in many different forms; especially in green, which made it even more popular among the residents and visitors passing through the country- from the east, that is (the borders to the west were closed the same year Peglau invented the beloved mannequin figure).    Over the years, more than 30 different green mannequins appeared on the traffic lights ranging from a small girl carrying a Valentine’s heart to her sweetheart to a small child carrying a lantern at night to celebrate St. Martin’s Day (which is celebrated in November) or St. Nicholas carrying his bag full of toys to fill in the shoes of small children on St. Nicholas’ Day (which is celebrated on 6 December).  A gallery of examples the author photographed while in Erfurt in October of this year is provided below for the reader’s enjoyment:

 

The lady and the purse
St. Nicholas with his bag of toys for the children

 

Don't bike or walk unless signaled to do so!

While the mannequin was not popular in the western part of Germany and therefore not adopted after 1989, a person from Baden-Wurttemberg decided to market the beloved mannequin and today, one can buy a T-shirt with the  walking green mannequin figure on it, drink coffee in a cup with the red mannequin figure on it, or buy a poster with a drunken green mannequin on it as it tries for another bottle of beer (believe it or not, it exists.) But those are just to name a few.  It is highly doubtful the pedestrian traffic lights in western Germany or even the ones in the US would stand a match against the ones in eastern Germany and therefore be marketed in a way that people will buy them.

Typical western German traffic light with a bike signal. This is go....
....and this is the signal to stop!

But despite its popularity that exists in the eastern part of Germany and the fact that people elsewhere are embracing it through merchandise and photos, in the eyes of many people still (after 21 years), it is considered an “Ossie” product from the former Socialist regime, which stressed the importance of Marxism and Leninism and is therefore considered “evil.” More alarming is the fact that many people (even in the USA) believe that there are two Germanys still, even though they have been reunified for 21 years (3 October is the anniversary of the reunification of Germany and is declared a national holiday).  On the contrary though, despite our thinking of a “Wessie” (as the eastern Germans considered the westerners before and after 1989), many countries have embraced some of the products and structures that had existed before 1989. In particular, the Scandanavian countries  (Finland and Sweden) adopted the education system of the former East Germany because of its clear structure and learning levels that students can achieve in 13 years. Many countries still have government-owned health insurance and/or obliges the residents to have health insurance so that they do not have to worry about paying out of their pockets for the most important operations that can save their lives. And even in the western half of Germany, the people are embracing some of the TV programs that originate from the eastern part, like Sandman, the Fox and the Elster (a black and white bird found mostly in the eastern part), and other cartoon shows. During my trek to the Christmas markets last year in Nuremberg and Frankfurt (Main), one can see eastern German specialties there that are worth tasting, like the famous Thuringian bratwurst.


It is time that we crack open the books, travel to these regions, and put aside the differences that apparently still divides East and West and embrace the cultures of one another, perhaps even adopting them for the good of oneself and the rest of society.  Learning something new once a day will not harm the person but will make him/her more informative than before. This was the mentality that the late news anchor Peter Jennings took when he learned something new everyday and found ways of informing the public about it in his newscast World News Tonight, which he hosted for 23 years until he succumbed to cancer in 2006.  While the mannequin traffic light is the tiniest aspect that one would even dream of writing, it represents a fraction of the culture and history that is worth reading about, even if it came from the former East Germany. And with globalization dominating every aspect of life, one should embrace rather be inclusive, for learning about something every day will make a person more open to the world and wiser than the one who is ignorant.

OK, you can cross now- even by bike.

 

Link to the story (German): http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/Ampelmann100.html