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Born East, bound West
(I wrote my life history considering how certain films/TV series made me reflect upon my origins and the cultural, political and social differences between East and West)
I was born on the 30th January 1980 in Potsdam in Eastern Germany. I grew up in an environment that might seem extraordinary to some people – my family and I lived on our farm in a village surrounded by Russian soldiers and army barracks – but it seemed perfectly normal to me as a child. When I was nine years old, I saw the Berlin wall come down and from that moment on, my life and that of my family changed dramatically – for both good and bad.
I grew up watching the all-time favourite of children in both Eastern and Western Germany: the “Sandman”. He was a kind of puppet that brought sand to all children in the world each evening, in order to put them to sleep. I watched it religiously. Later I found out, that West German children liked our Eastern version of the ‘Sandman’ better because he was dressed more elaborately and looked more ‘original’. In every other regard however, the West seemed the ‘promised land’ to Eastern Germans, for they could do everything we could not: Buy bananas and oranges in the stores without standing in line for hours, they could travel to any place, they could hear American music and watch American movies in short, they had what we dreamed of.
The first movie I remember watching in a cinema, was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” The circumstances under which I watched the film, really made this memory stick out. It was in the summer of 1987 in the largest GDR children’s summer camp and we waited for two hours in front of the rusty makeshift cinema to watch the film. The man who brought the film rolls, came in a huge, bulky 80’s Chevrolet from Western Germany and we were startled because most of us had never seen such a car. Concerning the movie itself, I think it was not so much the special effects which impressed me, for also the Russian movies were technically pretty advanced, but the way in which the children acted. They lived the kind of adventure I wanted to have, but their family life was not as happy as I imagined it, given the great material wealth in which they lived. Everybody in the east then imagined Americans to be half-gods and America being one big wonderland and in fact, the movie reinforced this perception, however, the emotional life of the children was not very different from mine.
In the years immediately after the wall had come down, I watched loads and loads of cartoons, Disney movies and detective series, which I especially liked. One of them had a female CIA agent by the name of Amanda King for a heroine and I remember that I wanted nothing so much as to be a secret agent one day. Strangely, I did not reflect for one moment on the fact, that I had belonged to what this TV series clearly portrayed as an enemy nation and primary espionage target of the CIA. In fact, the famous Glienicker bridge, on which CIA and KGB agents captured on enemy territory had been exchanged during the days of the Cold War, is just three kilometers from my house and the former KGB headquarters for Western Europe is just two kilometers away. In other words, my family and I had lived under constant surveillance on the Western most edge of the Eastern World.
In my teenager years I had great troubles coming to terms with both my changed self and the profound political, social and cultural changes in my country. This was indeed the end of the world as I knew it. Now it did matter which clothes you put on, what image you had etc. In those days I was entirely under the influence of American TV series like Beverly Hills 90210, showing perfect people in a perfect world. The more I watched this kind of series, the more I regarded myself as ugly and my family as poor – which, by Western standards we then still were. From the vantage point of adulthood, I now see these things in a very different light. After my year as an exchange student in Washington State, I realized that most of the things that Eastern Germans had craved, did not make you any happier, especially if you worked like mad and had no time to enjoy them. Anyway, I soon realized, that if I wanted to succeed in this new world, I would have to change both inwardly and outward!
ly, because even if this was the ‘free world’, the people in it were bound by the deep fear of failure and social exile and the unspoken law, that you have to succeed or you are looked down upon.
It was in 1995 – I was 15 years old and an addicted traveller – when I went to London for a short holiday. One evening I went to one of those glitzy premiere cinemas at Leicester Square sat next to an acquaintance I had made a few days earlier. What happened then, was one of the most mind-blowing experiences of my youth: Before the actual film started – the film was about transvestites but then I did not even know what that word meant – two drag queens gave an incredible show and one of them ended up sitting on the lap of my acquaintance, a good looking photographer, saying “Oh you don’t mind sweetie, do you?” I was dumbstruck because that woman sure looked very feminine but her voice was impossibly deep.
While watching the film called “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, I gradually realized, what the nature of these ‘women’ was. They were men who enjoyed dressing up as women and in fact, even felt more at ease as women and made cabaret shows with lots of glitz and ABBA. It was then that I realized freedom is not for everyone. Seeing how one of the Aussie Drag Queens is beaten up by drunken village chaps, who discover ‘her’ to be a man, I realized, that while it was hard to be different in the Eastern communist countries, it was not so much easier in the West either. Acceptance and tolerance were not dependent upon government doctrine in the West, but on your social status and influence. Since I saw that film, I was suddenly aware of men and women feeling attracted to their own sex and I felt that their needs were just as natural as ours, the so called ‘normal’ people.
The one movie that grabbed my heart and soul and shook me to the bone was “Schindler’s List” and to this day it has remained the most important film in my life – not just because it shows the darkest part of German history, but because it is linked to the fate of my grandmother and her family. During GDR-times, we had often been told in our lessons about the Holocaust and in fact one or two witnesses had come to speak in our afternoon classes. I knew about the Holocaust long before I knew why there were two German states.
Hearing the survivor’s horror tales in school had been hard enough already, but seeing the movie was sheer pain. Why it made me feel so strongly, would mean to relate my grandmother’s and grandfather’s sad and partly very cruel fate but since I am supposed to write my own life story here and not to present a historic experience running counter to what some call the “history of victors”, I will just tell you this much: What my grandparents and especially my grandmother went through was excruciatingly painful and partly unspeakable and when I learned grandmother’s story at age 13, it devastated me. The movie pays tribute to one man who helped the Jews at the risk of his life, however, there were many more who had helped the Jews – among them my grandmother, her parents and the father of my grandfather who provided food for Jews in hiding – whose stories are not remembered.
The last film I watched and that had a very great emotional impact on me and caused me to think, was “La meglio gioventù” (The best of youth), an Italian movie that came out in 2003. It tells the story of two brothers, their youth and adulthood beginning with the years of the students’ revolts, the era of the “Brigate Rosse” and left-wing terrorism, the fight against the all-mighty mafia and ending in our days. Both brothers are highly intelligent and ambitious and want to change the world, but while one ends up committing suicide because he has realized that his commitment had no impact, the other has become a successful psychiatrist and human rights activist, who, however, has to put up with his fate of having been left by his wife who joined the ranks of the terrorists of the Red Brigades. The film moved me and many of my friends who watched it very much. In my mind however, it not only tells the story of two Italian brothers of the 1968 generation, but the story of the after-war generation both east and west of the Iron Curtain. It may sound strange, but after watching this movie I realized, that I had gone through similar stages as the protagonists of the film: I was very hopeful about changing the world at least a little when I was a teenager and was active in the left-wing students movement. At the age of 19 however, I became disillusioned and my life suddenly seemed to lack a purpose. I have revised and redefined my aims since then – as do most of us – but I still feel that I lost part of myself when I realized, that this world cannot be changed but only influenced in a very, very limited context. Communism may have been a utopia in many regards, but if it provided a great number of people in the free capitalist countries with hopes and ideas, there must be some basic ideas in it, that are worth holding on to.
Now I am an adult and I think I grew up much quicker due to the fact, that the fall of the wall and the very hurried introduction of capitalism to our country caused social fears and imbalances, to which I became acutely aware as a teenager. In spite of being fully integrated into Western paradigms of thinking and living, I still retain a different view on very many issues. It strikes me, that most of the people I get along with best and with whom I have become friends are not Germans, but foreigners, most of whom I met while travelling and studying abroad. When I see some of the Indian Bollywood movies like “Hum Tum” (“Me and you”) in which the young Indian protagonists are set adrift due to their migratory life, I feel I can relate to their experience because I also left my country to get a better education, and thus maybe also a better job and a better life than my parents and grandparents. The people I feel most attracted to emotionally, are often Eastern Europeans and Asian people, many of whom are study and live in the Anglo-Saxon world. It is the things that cannot be expressed in words, this often subliminal feeling of shared formative experiences that unites me with people from a seemingly opposite background.
For a long time, I was unaware of my origins and was unable to determine, why I could not share all the values and ideas of my West German or American friends, but now I am conscious of these things and feel more at ease with myself and the world. The country into which I was born, may have vanished but I still carry it within myself.
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