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Stories from Germany

Dresden, Germany

New World

timSebastian's infectious laughter and fun personality drew me all the way to Germany for an unplanned stop on my European itinerary. Michelle and I met him on our Himalayan trek and after he invited us to Dresden, I couldn't say no.

He played the perfect host, showing me around Dresden's old city, the small village where his parents live, and the mountains around Saxony. He even drove me to Berlin for the weekend for a tour. We dined in nice restaurants, drank in beer gardens, relaxed with his friends and girlfriend Maret, went to a late night student disco, and barbecued on his back porch. I learned more about Germany through my talks with him than I ever could have hoped to on my own.

Sebastian grew up in the former East Germany with two dreams - the first to cross into West Berlin through the Brandenberg Gate and the second to visit his relatives in Namibia. Since the fall of Communism and Reunification, he has accomplished both and now enjoys a lifestyle that he thought would never be possible 10 years ago.

It is a new world in East Germany, a place where construction cranes hang above every skyline. Sebastian pointed to shopping malls near the center of Dresden, "That one is five years old, this one is two years old, these are three years old." You can easily see the three eras of Dresden architecture - historic pre-war monuments, Communist style apartments, and buildings from the last ten years.

Not every German feels as excited as Sebastian about the changes in their country. Thousands lost their jobs in the transition, including Sebastian's father and Maret's mother. And while Sebastian's father now works for himself producing Christmas crafts in his home in Seiffen*, Maret's mother has suffered with 10 years of unemployment. With Germany's 15% unemployment rate and the disappearance of lifetime guaranteed employment, it is easy for me to understand the success of current Communist politicians in Berlin. They run for office with slogans similar to, "Are you better off now than you were ten years ago?" The answer is just as clear for Sebastian as it is for Maret's mother - those who have found success in the last ten years verses those who have found heartache.

* Seiffen is Sebastian's home town, a village of 3000 located near the Czech border in what used to be East Germany. His town is famous worldwide for making Christmas crafts - well known items such as wooden nutcrackers and "smoking man" incense burners. Check them out. top
Dresden's old section at night, painstakingly restored after total destruction during World War II. The Semperoper, Dresden's neo-Renaissance opera house opened in 1841. It was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt forty years later in 1985.

Berlin, Germany

Growth and Healing

timThe same thought popped into my head each time I passed a vacant lot in Berlin, "What was there before the war?" The areal photos from 1945 show almost every building leveled or left as a deserted shell. I couldn't believe I stood in the same city.

The war's presence is very much alive, even half a century later.

  • The destroyed former SS headquarters was left as an innocuous grassy hill after the war. But today, Germans remember the horrible Nazi war crimes crafted there with the open-air Topography of Terror exhibition.
  • For 79 years the elegant Moorish-styled Neue Synagogue served Berlin's Jewish population, but wartime bombing and post-war demolition left only a small part of the structure intact. Just recently third of the building was restored to its former glory, including the impressive dome that graced Berlin's skyline long ago. Now the building keeps the past alive with exhibitions on Berlin's pre-war Jewish life.
  • Every historic building downtown could probably have a line similar to "Destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 and painstakingly reconstructed in 1955" somewhere in its written history. Reconstruction continues on even today, while other buildings will remain forever as memories or piles of rubble.
As my friend Sebastian points out, Berliners have lived in an occupied city for almost half a century. Post-war peace only truly came in the last decade. But memorials to the old times live on everywhere:
  • The cold war's Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between east and west, once hosted a permanent face off between Russian and US tanks. Though it is now no more than a pile of sandbags, thousands of visitors each year come to remember what was there only a few years ago.
  • The famous Berlin wall has been mostly destroyed, but a large portion was saved and painted with murals. It now too serves as a monument to history.
  • Parts of the old east was once dominated by ugly ten story apartment buildings and wide Communist-style avenues. The buildings are still there, but the neighborhoods have sprouted with scores of new cafes and have become fashionable places to live.
It is increasingly hard to tell what used to be east from what used to be west, especially with all of the construction in the former border area. Ten years ago Potsdamer Platz was virtually empty, but now it is full of new glass and steel structures, plus at the time I counted, 35 construction cranes building more. This new construction is like a suture on a wound, healing the city that has been destroyed and split apart for so long. top