Visiting the Homeland

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Remembered History --> Visiting the Homeland

States of the GDR 1949

Germany 1961

Visiting East Germany in 1983

Reading all the experiences of others reminds me of our visit to the DDR [German Democratic Republic or East Germany] in 1983. The government was allowing Luther Tours, since this was the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther's birth. They even taught tour guides to lead some tours in English and supposedly at least one became a Christian after learning about Luther.

During the tour we were able to visit the Regler Kirche in Erfurt where my husband’s great-grandmother had been baptized. We even took part in a choir rehearsal. A large room in the under croft of the church was filled with singers. The four voices, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, sat in a large square facing each other. They were preparing for a big concert to be held that fall in the Domplatz. (View photos of Erfurt).

Luckily for us through some round-about connections, we were able to be invited as guests by two families who shared my maiden name of TELLE, although we’re very distantly related. After the formal tour we rented a car in Berlin and visited my ancestral villages of Paitzdorf and Beerwalde in the former Sachsen-Altenburg. Our TELLE hosts lived in Mennsdorf and Löbichau. Our Löbichauer TELLEs had arranged for a special church service for us all, since my husband is a Lutheran pastor. Much to the disgust of our hosts, we had to check in with the Löbichauer “mayoress.” But we also had to appear in Schmölln at the police station to prove that we were spending the required $25 a day.

Like so many of you, my American parents and grandparents never taught me German, although my father’s Lutheran school education was instructed in both German and English. He learned the catechism in German. Two World Wars made folks cautious. My husband’s family spoke German only when the children shouldn’t understand the conversation. But he did study it in school, and his German was good enough to convince the police that we were not breaking any rules. But that police station gave us a different picture of Germany. There the waiting room was utterly silent as no one spoke to anyone else. This was far different from what we had experienced in restaurants and on the street. And the Löbichauer pastor managed to avoid us in Schmölln by turning down a side street.

We didn’t ask questions that we thought might be a problem for our hosts. But they did make jokes about certain conditions. They were still living in their ancestral farmhouses, and were able to raise pigs and geese that they could sell on their own. However, they worked as part of a collective. One son was laughingly called the “Capitalist” because he had his own roofing business. He has since visited us and bought blue jeans and a cowboy hat because now that they have their land back, he raises cattle. And the grandmother in the family was a fan of the TV program “Dallas”, which evidently aired from West Germany.

Before leaving the DDR we returned to Erfurt on our own, where we were awoken on Sunday morning by all church bells ringing, one after another. This was something that we hadn’t expected to hear. Here we met young people who were going on a church-related weekend. I don’t think that these young people are given enough credit for helping to bring about the changes that later took place.

Memories are part of genealogy, as is history. Just putting my ancestral families in the perspective of the Holy Roman Empire, Confederation of the Rhine, German Confederation, North German Confederation, etc., helps me to understand their lives. And although they didn’t move, sometimes they were part of Sachsen-Altenburg, and sometimes they were part of Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg.

LaVerne T. Boehmke (ltboehmke@sbcglobal.net)


Life in East Germany

We had the same negative experience with a lot of folks in Blankenberg, Saxony, in what used to be East Germany (the former so-called German Democratic Republic). However, one of them was ultimately more willing to share his stories with us than the others. We went there because we knew that my husband’s ancestors were from there. We visited with each of the same surname carriers and were pretty much told that there are a lot of them but that they're not related.

I spent about a week researching the records in Blankenberg and Berg to prove to them that they were all related to each other and that they also were related to my husband. It was interesting to see the shift in a few of the people after that ... they were more willing to accept us.

One of them shared a lot about what their lives were like. He said that you could not trust your best friend, your neighbor, or relative. In order to “get on the good side” of the Stasis, people would drop comments about others. It was not permitted to listen to radio channels or view TV stations broadcasting from the Western side. They kept their curtains shut to avoid being spied on. They kept radios and TVs at the lowest volume so nobody could hear. They were not allowed to go freely where they wanted to, and there was a curfew. You had to have a special permit to be out past the curfew, and it generally had to be a work-related excuse. Food was not scarce, but specialty foods were. You had coupons to buy your allotment, and if you ran out, tough luck.

Blankenberg was very much separated from the rest of the world, because just across the river was West Germany, and there was nothing for miles on the eastern side. People who were self-employed suddenly were facing the fact that they could not work on the other side of the river anymore. The plumber in town was basically limited to the little work in his community or nearby villages, but Berg, Lobenstein, and Blankenstein, where he had done all his business prior to the Wall, were off limits to him. Relatives would watch a bride running across the meadow by the river, just to see her in her wedding gown because they were not permitted to visit even for a wedding. The fence ran right through the backyards behind the homes. Mines kept the people off the green. They were living in constant fear. No wonder they learned not to trust anyone.

It was sad to hear the stories!

Monika (monika@quixnet.net)


Family from East Germany

Yes, these stories need to be preserved in our genealogies. But, we should remember that they work both ways. [Author: what do you mean?] I research in Germany often. It’s my favorite “vacation spot.” It’s my “Kur.” But I must say that the Germans who live near Dresden – and who remember – still have feelings about Americans.

I’m writing a book on my family from Germany. I have copies of SS records and Stasi records. I do NOT cite them as sources. I think it’s VERY important for a genealogist to remain nonpolitical. When we mix politics with genealogy, sometimes things become clouded.

I have had difficulties in getting “older” people in eastern Germany to talk about the times of WWII. Being an American AND a genealogist (to many this often means “NOSEY,”) I have difficulties. I want to hear oral histories of the days of the bombing of Dresden and Chemnitz. I can see in their eyes that some feel I’m intruding. I also want to know about the years before the Wall came down. It’s still too soon and most people do not want to talk. I’m an American and for many years we were the enemy.

We Americans also feel discrimination. Not so much from the very young but from the older people. Of course, the older ones are the ones I wish to interview, so it is a problem. Many of us have ancestors from eastern Germany, so it is just something we have to deal with. Because I love Saxony and Thüringen, I try to make it a very “little” problem.

Marilyn (AbigtM@aol.com)


Suspicion in East Germany

If you’ve spent a lot of time in the former East Germany, you’ll have noticed that the East Germans are very reluctant to talk. Prior to the Wall’s coming down [1989], most of them were scared to death of the Stasi. Just about everyone was somehow connected to them. If people wanted to get a refrigerator a bit quicker than waiting 5–7 years, they cooperated with the Stasi. If you wanted a car part for your Trabant, the same. Now you have most of the top Stasi in political positions because they have data on just about everyone that they ever dealt with and as a result they’ve managed to coerce people’s votes in the electoral process. So the working stiffs in East Germany still keep to themselves.

I own a piece of property about 50 km north of Berlin, and the folks around there won’t talk to me either, even though I speak fluent German and after a couple of days in Germany my English accent is gone. It’s going to take a lot of years before things will open up. Even after all the years since the fall of the Wall, East Germans are still suspicious of even other East Germans.

Peter Kreutzfeldt (sunvale1@sbcglobal.net)


Visiting the Homeland

I grew up [in Texas] with photos of my relatives in Saxony and pictures of the farmhouse where my grandfather was born and grew up in the tiny village of Naundorf. I tried many times to get a visitor's visa for East Germany as a kid growing up, but it was either denied (without valid reason) or granted after the planned trip to Germany had already taken place.

In the late ’70s when I was going to college in Austria, I applied for a visa to visit my relatives during Easter. Two days before vacation was to start, I got a notice that my request was approved! One of my cousins near Dresden was a veterinarian and had a telephone. I called her to say that the visit was ON. I was very excited and nervous. After arriving by train in Dresden and being met by cousins, they took me to the police bureau where visitors were interrogated and processed. I was alone with several officers in a room and answered questions for over an hour. I was sweating!

Finally I was “approved” and allowed to go with my relatives. It was quite a visit, but I'll spare you the details of all the hoops that one had to jump through to visit East Germany at that time and to stay with family instead of at the approved InterHotels or whatever they were called back then.

I wanted to go see the farmhouse where my grandfather was born. The cousins with whom I was staying had never been there and had no clue as to where the farm was located. I told them to get me to the village of Naundorf and I could find the house. We climbed into the Trabant and puttered down the potholed streets to the Autobahn.

After getting to the small village, I was like a kid in a candy store, looking closely at each farm as we drove past. Soon I saw the farm and KNEW that this was the one! It no longer belonged to our family and so “strangers” were living there. My cousin said that it would be best to not go to the house and make contact. So we stopped at the road and I got out of the car to take some photos. The lady who lived there saw us, came into the garden in front of the house, and started shaking her finger at us. Luckily, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I knew that she wasn’t pleased with me taking photos of HER farmyard. I quickly got into the car and we drove away.

Just a little way down the road there was another farmhouse with folks standing in the front yard. I asked my cousin to stop the car and let me ask them to make sure that I did have the correct farm and if they maybe knew if there were still any Poenitz relatives in the area. I got out of the car and walked toward the people. They were friendly and asked how they could help me. I asked if the farm (pointing in direction whence we had come) was the old Gottlob Poenitz farm. They asked why I wanted to know, and I said that my grandfather was born there and that I came from Texas to visit. They then asked me if I was Bruno’s grandson! It turned out that they were my grandfather’s sister’s youngest daughter and family. I couldn't believe how great a coincidence that was! We had a very nice visit.

Soon after the Wall came down, I went back to the farm and this time I went to the house and knocked and introduced myself. The family living there was very friendly and have since almost adopted me as their son. I never told them that I was the one who was taking the photo of the house a few years back.

It’s true that the East Germans were/are suspicious of anyone from the West or from America. It takes a while for them to learn to trust and to open up, but once they do, you have a friend for life. Thanks for listening; it’s good to share our stories.

Floyd Poenitz (f.poenitz@comcast.net)

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