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V: East-West Wedding: How love scaled the wall

Did you know you were growing up in a communist country?” My friend leans back in her chair, genuinely curious. “I mean you were just a kid when the wall came down….”

Did I know about communism?!? I am trying not to laugh. True, kids may not care about politics but life works differently under a dictatorship. Communists pushed their ideology unapologetically, hoping to sculpt your soul in the shape of socialism from the cradle. When politics dictate what you get to eat (nothing imported) or where you go on vacation, (no-where free) you take notice of your government and its preferences at younger ages. The wall fell when I was in 6th grade, after half a dozen years of solid political indoctrination in between math and science. My early education was shaped by the convictions of the Republic.

We didn’t discuss politics over dinner nor did we complain about living conditions. My parents, born under the regime, were accustomed to empty shelves, government surveillance, plain concrete housing, not being able to speak your mind. No one discussed leaving the country. Escape would mean seriously endangering your life.

I knew we lived in the East. “East” was our preferred word for our home, probably because “German Democratic Republic” (GDR) sounded ridiculous. Nothing functioned even remotely democratic in the East. Early in life I learned that you could not leave the “East.” There is no way out of here, my parents told me.

Another world laid beyond the locked up East though. We called this forbidden paradise the West.

Perhaps grandma poked the first tiny hole into my sealed off socialist world. In the 80’s senior citizens could apply for permission to travel West to see relatives. I think the government figured older folks were more of a burden (or unlikely to revolt) and could just stay in the West if they wanted. My grandmother faithfully returned though, bearing the fruits of the West: mandarin oranges, stickers, chocolate or gum. The West tasted unforgettably delicious. I figured out pretty quickly that anything tasty, shiny, fragrant or durable hailed from across the border.

My other grandma owned a color TV which received signal from the West. People used to get fined for turning their antennas West but in the 80’s the government quit harassing people. I loved watching commercials, drooling over stuff I’d never seen and surely needed.

While grandma poked tiny holes through my socialist seal, uncle Ralph tore a decent-sized window. Uncle Ralph is my dad’s youngest brother who married a girl from Austria. Growing up, he was the cool uncle from the West, who gave us rides in his shiny, smooth, speedy car. Uncle Ralph felt a bit like a hero to me because he had accomplished the seemingly impossible: leave the country.

Ralph and his Austrian bride Theresia met in Hungary while on vacation, becoming pen pals. A year later she visited East Germany (culture shock) and at some point they fell in love. Dating a a foreigner typically meant increased surveillance, including a government informant opening, reading and copying your love letters for instance, business as usual in the East. Additional obstacles were thrown in one’s path to discourage foreign relationships. In the end, permission to get married was granted. Austria actually recognized East Germany as a real State (West Germany did not) so marrying an Austrian was more likely to happen than securing a West German spouse.

The wedding was in Leipzig and I was chosen to be their flower girl. I would now have an aunt from the glorious and mysterious free world. I felt special just knowing her and thrilled to participate in the ceremony.

Outside the church a beautiful horse-drawn carriage awaited their departure. I’d seen one before, in a fairy tale book. The newlyweds invited me to join them on their magical ride. In the East, riding in any vehicle other than the despised Trabant was considered a privilege of the highest order. I eagerly climbed in. We clip-clopped over cobblestone streets, the newly joined East-West couple and I.

Where there seemed to be no way out, love had forged a path. Love had even scaled the wall.

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This is part V in my current blog series “Behind the Wall & Under the Steeple” in which I am telling my story of growing up Christian in East Germany. Part VI will continue next week. Subscribe via email to my blog or bookmark this page. If you are receiving this post by email, any reply goes straight to my inbox. As always I welcome your comments and questions. If you need to catch up,  read Part 1 here.

Story also shared on Coffee For Your Heart LinkUp

8 Replies

  1. Astrid, these posts mean much~opening a small window of understanding.
    I sense that everything you write is an understatement. Just your statement that your parents told you no one ever left. . . the emotions and lives that were involved in that statment!
    Again, thank you. and keep writing.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Thanks Voni. I think there were a lot of restrictions we were just matter of fact about…I don’t remember a lot of emotions surrounding not being able to leave, we just accepted it as part of our reality that would have been difficult to change.

  2. Memoir, memoir, memoir. I love this!

    1. Astrid Melton

      Thanks, Suzie. Writing your story certainly refines the craft. Thanks for your encouragement!

  3. Astrid, thank you for continuing to share your story. Those like me who grew up in the U.S. really have no idea, and you are opening a whole other world and giving us glimpses inside. I am learning so much from you. Keep writing, friend! It is truly a joy to read.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Thanks for saying that. Some days I think who cares about the past or my story…I’d rather write something current or mainstream. I am sure you’ve never encountered self doubt as a writer. Thanks for reminding me of what I know to be true.

  4. My first visit over here and I’m already so intrigued, I want to read more! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s good for us westerners to see what life outside the US is like. There are so many freedoms we take for granted and don’t realize it.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Yes. Sadly there are still parts of the world that function this way. It’s hard to appreciate for what feels totally normal. Thanks for stopping by.

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