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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Mödlareuth, Germany

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, September 20, 2002
From the Field
York Alan


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Pictures from the Cold War

Soviet Tanks wait at Checkpoint Charlie for diplomats and foreigners in the Friederichstrasse in Berlin, in October 1961.
Photo: AFP

A West Berlin police officer stands in front of the concrete wall dividing East and West Berlin at Bernauer Strasse as East Berlin workers add blocks to the East German barrier in this Oct. 7, 1961, file photo.
Photo: AP

Two East German workers put pieces of broken glass to the top of the 3.3-metre-high wall to prevent East Berliners from escaping in this August 1961, file photo. Some 985 people were killed while trying to escape from East Germany. Photo: Kreusch/AP

Climbing up a concrete watchtower, crouching in a tiny cement bunker, scrambling over a security ditch. They're not exactly the kinds of activities most people figure on doing during their holidays.

Then again, Grenzland (literally Borderland) is not really a theme park nor is it designed for fun. It's a museum dedicated to the memory of the armed border that divided Germany for four decades.

Situated in the bucolic hills of southeastern Germany, not far from the Czech border, Grenzland is the highlight of Moedalitz, a village of 50 souls, a few picturesque houses and ancient barns, and a stream running down its centre.

Until 1990, it also had a 700-metre-long concrete wall dividing the village in half, compliments of the German Democratic Republic (the DDR as it's known in German) and the Cold War. It left 30 residents in the east, 20 in the west, splitting families and friends. Contact over the wall was strictly prohibited by the DDR side, including any form of greetings-waves included.

Hence Möedlareuth's nickname-Little Berlin. It's a sharp reminder that the wall cut Germany in two "like an ugly scar." With endless talk about the cost of German reunification and the psychological gulf still supposedly dividing the 65 million "Wessies" from the 17 million "Ossies," perhaps it's no surprise that German tourists aren't flocking to be reminded how bad things once were.

Business was slow on the afternoon I visited the museum, whose official name is the "German-German Museum" so the elderly woman at the ticket office had lots of time on her hands to talk.

She's 66 and has spent whole life in a village three kilometres from Moedlareuth. Even though she lived on the Communist side of the border, she never visited Little Berlin until the wall fell. People who resided on or near the border needed special security permission and had to be considered "trustworthy."

I asked her whether she was nostalgic for the old DDR. Some east Germans complain that unemployment, now chronic in the eastern states, didn't exist in the old days and there was better day care for children and a more cooperative, neighbourly spirit under Communism.

"I don't miss the DDR," the woman responded. "But life wasn't bad for me in the DDR. I didn't have big expectations."

But didn't this absurd division of her country bother her? "People adjust to their circumstances. It didn't happen right away. It happened over time."

Nor was she inclined to move west as so many easterners have done and are still doing. She was allowed out to the West once in the 1970s-for five days-to attend her brother-in-law's 65th birthday party in Mainz. "I come from a village and Mainz is a big city so it was a shock. In the West, there was everything."

As the interview wrapped up, I asked for her name. Suddenly she clammed up, refusing even to give me her first name. There may be no nostalgia but it seemed as if the old DDR reflexes hadn't disappeared.

Among the few tourists around was Guenther Zoerkler, a retired West German border, who was literally returning to his old stomping ground. As a young man, he had spent 10 years stomping the border on foot and sometimes on skies. There would be fugitives who headed east, said Mr. Zoerkler, ”gangsters” who trying to run away from police in the West. When the DDR authorities found out who they were, sometimes they'd be sent back.

Ingolf Hermann also used to work as a border guard, but on the DDR side of the wall. Now he's working as an archivist for the museum. His collection includes 20,000 items including a garage full of old Russian army trucks and an Eastern-made Trabant jeep. There's also an old Russian helicoper and a tank.

Ingolf himself looks as if he belongs in a DDR museum. A balding 47-year-old with outsized aviator glasses, he was wearing a 1970s brown sweatshirt with red and yellow stripes down the arms and a big metal zipper. Very Ossie.

"It's from the DDR army sports association," he said, beaming.

Ingolf said he thinks the museum serves a useful education purpose, and not only for Germans. "They're still building walls between Israel and Palestine. It's not a solution."

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