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In Once-Divided City, East Berliners Still See 'Us' And 'Them'

Blues musician Guenter Holwas: "They said that if I didn't stop now they would take my kids away for forced adoption. So I said, 'OK, you win.' "
Blues musician Guenter Holwas: "They said that if I didn't stop now they would take my kids away for forced adoption. So I said, 'OK, you win.' "

BERLIN -- Fritz Roedel belonged to East Germany's elite.

His status as director of Berlin's prestigious Volksbuehne theater ensured him a comfortable existence and frequent trips to Western Europe -- something most East Germans were deprived of during the communist republic's 41-year history.

Well-connected and well-traveled, Roedel knew already in the mid-1980s that the German Democratic Republic (DDR), formed in the wake of World War II from the country's Soviet-occupied territories, was on its last legs.

When the Berlin Wall came down in the evening of November 9, 1989, he just went to bed. He woke up in a new country, one that no longer needed him.

"I quit my job in 1990 because I knew they wanted to appoint a new director and I suspected they would give the leading posts to incompetent people," he says. "I didn't want to fire people and that would have been my duty, my last duty."

Just as he had feared, many of his colleagues were laid off and replaced by West Germans eager to tap into the Eastern job market.

The same happened across the defunct DDR as the Bonn government ordered staff shakeups in state-funded institutions. In universities, more than half of East German professors permanently lost their jobs.

'A Colonized Nation'

Roedel, who is now in his late 70s, has been mostly idle since the reunification. But that doesn't mean he wishes for a revival of communist East Germany.

Sipping tea at his home in a leafy East Berlin suburb, he says reunification was unavoidable. He just wishes the process could have been drawn out over several years to allow for a smoother transition.

Instead, he says, East Germany was simply swallowed up by the West and its cultural legacy consigned to the dustbin of history.

Fritz Roedel at his home in East Berlin: "We feel like a colonized nation here."

The psychological divide between the two sides -- what Germans call the "wall in the head" -- still runs deep 20 years after the Berlin Wall's destruction.

"Even in Berlin, the division between West and East is still strong," Roedel says. "It will take decades for the people to be one again."

West Germans regularly complain about footing the reunification's massive bill and find "Ossies" ungrateful for the bailout of communism. Easterners, in turn, resent what they perceive as West Germany's feeling of superiority and accuse it of making no effort to preserve elements of life in the DDR, particularly its generous welfare system.

Many feel their Western counterparts display little interest in them, or sympathy for their troubled history.

"We feel like a colonized nation here, even more than back then," Roedel says.

Waltraud Ziervogel couldn't agree more. The 73-year-old sausage vendor hardly recognizes Prenzlauer Berg, her native East Berlin neighborhood. The reunification sparked a real-estate boom in the areas that abutted the wall in East Berlin, including Prenzlauer Berg.

As investors rushed to snap up cut-rate property, she says it wasn't long before native residents were squeezed out of the neighborhood. "The old flats were cheap in East German times. After the war, large families lived here, people with five or six children," she says. "Today prices are sky-high. Most people have moved deeper into East Germany. This is now a neighborhood for the privileged."

From Workers To Yuppies

Ziervogel doesn't miss the DDR. Its failed economy, endless shortages, and brutal Stasi secret services, she says, are nothing to feel nostalgic for.

But the designer-clad youths drawn to East Berlin like magnets are not much to her taste, either.

Like many East Germans, she feels the place in which she grew up has all but vanished. She, too, has since long left the area in favor of an East Berlin suburb.

Waltraud Ziervogel at her famous sausage stand in the former East Berlin

Still, Prenzlauer Berg remains Ziervogel's place of work. For the past 50 years, she has sold sausages on the neighborhood's busiest street and has witnessed the area's transformation up close.

Her stand, the Konnopke's, is famous for its curry sausages and is credited for introducing this hugely popular snack into East Germany.

It is also one of the few East German businesses that survived the transition to a market economy.

"The good old shops are all gone," she says. "Now it's all rubbish."

The customers lining up outside Konnopke's illustrate the extent to which this once ramshackle, working-class neighborhood has changed over the past two decades.

Today, Ziervogel caters to office workers, students, and architects -- most of them West Germans.

But the "Queen of Curry" prefers not to dwell on the past. "I don't get to leave my sausage stand anyway!" she quips, blowing out a plume of cigarette smoke.

Guenter Holwas, too, tries to minimize his contact with Berlin.

The 59-year-old blues singer, born in East Berlin, lives in a quiet lakeside town east of the capital. He hasn't set foot in Berlin in almost three years.

Holwas would have been one of the reunification's staunchest supporters, had he not found post-1989 Germany so disappointing.

Political Blues

The bearded, ponytailed musician known by his fans as "Holly" was expelled from East Germany for holding opposition concerts in Berlin churches.

The first "blues mass" in July 1979 attracted more than 300 spectators and was a roaring success.

The blues masses offered what East Germany's youth had been craving: good live music and unfettered debates on social and political issues, along with a touch of spirituality through religious services.

They instantly grew into a major dissident platform that many believe paved the way for the DDR's demise.

When East German authorities finally succeeded in crushing the blues masses in 1986, they were drawing almost 10,000 people from all over the DDR.

That wasn't the place I knew anymore, two countries put together into one nation and they hated each other.

But Holwas was already far away by that time.

As the driving force behind the performances, he was summoned to the Stasi headquarters in 1981, where he was offered a successful musical career in exchange for his political loyalty.

He turned down the deal and waited for the Stasi's retaliation. It came a few days later.

"They picked me from the street and took me to the secret police," he remembers. "They said that if I didn't stop now they would take my kids away for forced adoption. So I said, 'OK, you win.' "

Two weeks later, Holwas was forced to cross the Berlin Wall, alone but for a couple of suitcases, convinced he would never again see his loved ones.

West Germany was a disappointment. After several unhappy years in West Berlin, he moved to Canada, where he soon made a name for himself on Toronto's blues scene.

In 1989, he watched the collapse of the Berlin Wall on CNN with a mix of euphoria and disbelief.

"I was a little sad, because I knew what would happen next," he says. "Car salesmen would go in and cheat everyone into buying a new car, the insurance companies would go in and rob a few bucks from everybody. I felt sorry for the East Germans."

When he came back to reunified Germany in 1990, he was dismayed to see how fervently East Germans had embraced consumerism.

"Everybody tried to make money," he says. "I remember times when money was never the big issue. Greed changes people."

Exactly a decade after being driven out of East Berlin, Holwas again left Germany for Canada, determined never to return.

In his 1993 song "I Cry," he expresses his torn feelings about the reunification.

"That wasn't the place I knew anymore, two countries put together into one nation and they hated each other," he sings. "I couldn't stay any longer. But I feel so sad, so helpless. And I cried, I cried for the last chance."

"Holly" collapsed on stage during a concert in Canada in 1995. Three years and several heart attacks later, he reluctantly heeded the advice of his physicians and daughters and moved back to Berlin, this time for good.

He says he has found peace in his lakeside retreat, close to his family and old East German friends. He rarely picks up his guitar these days and tries not to think too much about the blues masses, the Stasi, or the reunification.

And he has promised himself never to get involved in anything political again.

Revolutions Of '89

When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.