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A Nerve Wracking Experience Called Freedom


Letter From Eastern Germany

A NERVE-WRACKING EXPERIENCE CALLED FREEDOM

Mounted on the wall near the front door of the Restaurant Offenbach-Stuben in East Berlin is a hand-carved, 100-year-old mechanical toy, a Ballet Automat. Drop 10 pfennigs through the slot, and the hatbox-size machine comes to life: A tiny canvas curtain rises, and three ballerinas twirl and spin, jerkily struggling to keep time to the mechanized music.

On a recent visit to Berlin and Dresden, much of what I saw evoked the Ballet Automat. A year after unification, the people of eastern Germany, like those wooden figurines, are dancing to a complex choreography, sometimes heeding the music, sometimes not. People from all walks of life struggle to find their places in a society that changes daily. For some, it's a great opportunity, but others may have been better off under the old system. For all, the novelty of having one's own decisions determine one's fate is not only exhilarating, but frightening.

The newspapers are filled with stories of skinheads beating up dark-skinned foreigners in Berlin and other cities. Foreigners, after all, are chasing the same jobs as the many Germans left without work, the residue of four decades of central planning. In a case extreme enough to warrant the personal attention of President Richard von Weizsacker, a foreign-born child was set on fire. Bystanders watched some even clapped -- dancing, in jackboots.

On a bright Sunday morning, I jog through the former no-man's-land where the Berlin Wall once stood, past an unmarked mound not far from the Reichstag building. I join a group of young people clustered on top, chatting and laughing. One of them states matter-of-factly: "This was Hitler's bunker." They've come to dance on his grave.

I am traveling with a delegation of Midwestern business and government leaders sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. In exchanges with a diverse group of eastern Germans, we discuss the unification in terms of the past and the future:

The Student. Christian David Gill displays an odd mixture of political moxie and youthful bravado. Years before the Wall came down, Gill was drummed out of school for his strong anticommunist beliefs. He found work as a plumber and liked it. Then, revolution became the talk of East Berlin coffee shops. In December, 1989, Gill became a leader of the snowballing anticommunist movement.

With the fall of the communist regime, he lent his efforts to dismantling the dreaded Stasi, the state secret police. He took charge of ferreting through confiscated Stasi files and spent the next 18 months cataloging them and rooting out a vast network of informants.

Normally boyish and warm, Gill, 21, hardens when discussing the informants. Some face criminal charges and all are now barred from public-sector jobs. "This is something we need to do," Gill says. "It's justice."

Now, he's studying politics in university to prepare himself for the new Germany. "I don't want to keep going and get to the point where someone says, 'Fine, you're very good. But you don't have enough education,' " he explains.

As a struggling student, he lives in a neighborhood shared with prostitutes, artists, anarchists, and squatters. But he's not complaining. Recently, he accomplished something he never would have dreamed possible two years ago: a visit to the U. S., on a German grant.

The Profiteer. He has come east from Frankfurt to Berlin to make his fortune. He says he's paying $150,000 for a nine-apartment complex in East Berlin that he'll unload for double that price -- before the sale closes. "I'm going to flip it," he boasts. "You want to get rid of it before you have to put up any money." Then, on to the next deal.

Catching himself gloating, he declines to have his name used. "It's very un-German," he explains. "If you have money, don't talk about it. If you talk about it, you probably don't have it."

His edge, he says, comes from his ability to dig up valid titles. The profiteer has traced a clear title to his current property dating to 1938 -- no mean feat since the records were often misplaced, altered, or destroyed by the Communists. He employs three full-time clerks to do record searches.

When he can't quickly flip the properties, he tries to squeeze a healthy rental profit. New laws protect neighborhoods against too-rapid gentrification. But he can still raise the rents. "You can't throw them out, so you just double their rents," the profiteer explains. "If they want to leave, they do. And when they leave, you raise the rents 600%."

The Politician. Until two years ago, Pia-Madeleine Garitz was a housewife in Schwerin, an industrial town in eastern Germany. After restrictions on political discourse were lifted, she discovered a gift for public speaking and ran for deputy major.

Making a start as a female politician in a conservative area was not easy. "At first, I was a novelty," she says. But she was elected on her first run. And she plans to seek reelection. Her husband, a doctor, approves. But she worries about day care for her young child.

She worries about her town, too. She says Schwerin has large tracts of developable land but is hobbled by the Treuhandanstalt, the federal agency responsible for privatization. It has refused to work closely with the towns in selling off state-owned assets, Garitz charges. And it has sometimes closed enterprises that the locals thought were viable while forcing ill-considered projects on them.

The Treuhand, though, sees no alternative but to assume control from local leaders. "They can't make decisions," says Hans Moock, head of the Treuhand in Dresden. "They hesitate until it's too late. Nobody seems to be in charge."

With that last part, Garitz agrees. But after several rounds of interminable meetings, it seems to her that it's the Treuhand that is paralyzed. So far, all the promises of change have degenerated to a string of fruitless meetings with haughty western German bureaucrats.

The Intellectual. I meet Irene Runge at Restaurant Offenbach-Stuben. She is ambivalent about the passing of the Communist regime. She still proudly carries her East German passport and she waxes nostalgic over the old days under Communism. Her apartment was in a privileged zone, restricted to people not considered a risk to flee the country.

Although her activism in a Jewish-rights group made the old regime uncomfortable, some who know her say the eastern German government allowed her special freedoms in an effort to demonstrate its tolerance of dissidents. But, Runge says, the old government was indifferent to discrimination and harassment against Jews, an ongoing problem.

Runge dislikes the changes in East Berlin. Encroaching redevelopment is destroying beloved old neighborhoods, and she feels the common people, many of whom have been thrown out of jobs at formerly state-owned businesses, are not sharing in the benefits of reunification. "Before, we had plenty of money, but there was nothing to eat," she explains. "Now, there's plenty to eat, but nobody has any money."

People still feed coins to the Ballet Automat. But for Runge, changes at Restaurant Offenbach-Stuben typify her wariness about the new order. The working-class people who used to eat there can no longer afford it. Instead, it has become popular among West Berliners out slumming and among Berlin's gay community. For many in this city the dance goes on, but the music keeps changing.DAVID GREISING; Greising is a BW correpondent in Chicago


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