on culture, language, and memory

This is the longest I’ve ever spent in the former DDR (East Germany). I’m learning so much already, mostly through conversations with my host mom. Herr Braun is gone this week, so we’ve been able to talk one-on-one at dinner and such. 2-person conversations in a foreign language are always easier.

It didn’t even occur to me until one conversation this week that most adults who live in Dresden have probably never lived in any other part of the country, because until about 20 years ago, they literally would not have been allowed to leave East Germany. In talking with Frau Braun, I have come to understand (maybe) a little more personally this concept that I’d learned about so often in school.  The oppressive communist regime in East Germany, the general mistrust of your neighbors, the lack of freedom.

Maybe I’d romanticized this time period while learning about it in school, or watching movies like my favorite Das Leben Der Anderen. But something tells me that living here for the next year will give me a new perspective on the former DDR and the differences between here and the US, and even between here and west Germany.

Frau Braun told me a little bit about her experiences before the Mauerfall, when Germany was re-united (a day we’ll celebrate on October 3!). She told me the story of the first time she can remember experiencing “freedom”: when she was 25. She had been invited to the wedding of a cousin in West Germany, and the government had allowed her to go. (She did have to leave behind her small son, almost like a bargaining chip to ensure that she would eventually return; I can’t remember how old he was at the time, but does it really matter?)

She said that, in that short time in West Germany, she was so high on the feeling of freedom––of not having to be afraid that every person she interacted with was a government spy, of being able to buy things in the stores–that she could barely sleep.

This is something I had definitely taken for granted. Many adults I’ll come in contact with in Dresden lived through the DDR-Zeit–maybe they were interrogated by the Stasi; maybe they were spies themselves. They definitely don’t speak English as well as their Western counterparts, because even though teaching English in school was not forbidden before 1990, there were so few English teachers in the schools that many students weren’t able to complete all the necessary language requirements to graduate.

I told her about how my World Literature class watched Goodbye, Lenin! and Das Leben Der Anderen my freshman year in conjunction with a few things we read about totalitarian regimes. Her first question was whether my classmates really understood it. I responded that we’d watched the films with English subtitles, but what she had really meant to ask was whether we could actually comprehend the subject matter of the movies. We probably couldn’t, we American 18-year-olds in 2009. 

I’ve learned a lot about the Wiedervereinigung (German re-unification) period in school, and I’ve seen some of it “firsthand” in Berlin; the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Wall, etc., but it will certainly be an interesting experience to live here, in Dresden, 20 years after the fact. It’s easy to forget the oppression that happened here just before my lifetime, because to look at it, Dresden is mostly similar to other western cities (and maybe American ones, if you look hard enough). But each place has a specific history, memories of the things that have happened here and the people who have created history. 

It would be pretentious to say that in a year I’d be able to figure out the collective memory of the city, but the people in every place have a story to tell, and I guess I’m excited to see what impression this city will leave on me.

One thought on “on culture, language, and memory

  1. When we really try to see the world (or situation, or opinion) from another’s perspective our collective interactions are immediately altered. Some of the most important learning happens outside of the classroom. Thanks for blogging Annie!

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