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The Hopes of East German Refugees (August 8, 1989)

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The two busses leave the main train station in Frankfurt shortly before seven o’clock, bound for Giessen. In the gray haze of an uncomfortably clammy morning, the busses curve around the skyscrapers in Frankfurt’s financial district. “The Dresdner Bank! Look! They’re everywhere, not just in Dresden,” a 25-year-old from Potsdam tells his buddy, also from Potsdam, while pointing to the bank tower.

The people come from all parts of the GDR, from Cottbus, Potsdam, Zeitz, the district of Halle and Karl Marx City. Most of them left the GDR in the last week of July.

“I’ll go anywhere; I want a job, a workplace. The only place I don’t want to go is a small village, where the people are surely too nosy. But Bavaria supposedly needs workers,” someone remembers hearing. The skilled baker worked for years as a railroad conductor in his home district. “Now I want to work in a bread factory.”

Sitting behind him is a 21-year-old who would like to work as a sound technician or electrician in radio broadcasting. “But with my training? We’re years behind the times. I can forget it,” he says and falls asleep from exhaustion.

“Well, we call him ‘Gorbi,’ just like you do. In Karl Marx City we have great reception, and it’s easy to get [television] programs from the West. But the GDR is stagnating; nothing is moving there. You always have to fit in, always say what they want to hear. They’re hopeless. All the countries around us are opening up; only the GDR is staying the course.” In neighboring East Bloc countries, young people from the GDR are considered “the biggest jackasses,” says the young man. You even feel uncomfortable on vacation, says a young skilled craftsman from Brandenburg, shaking his head. Dressed in a leather jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes, he is hopeful in light of his successful escape, “I am independent and flexible. Nothing will happen to me in the FRG.”

The young man next to him, also from Brandenburg, agrees, even though he doesn’t hide his insecurity. “I’m a little afraid of what the future will bring. But I’ll manage,” he says, encouraging himself. His self-assured neighbor adds, “of course some people won’t make it, but it will only be the ones who can’t think on their own. That’s the way it is.”

[ . . . ]

“If anyone believes that you leave behind your life just like that, and if anyone presumes that we came to the West only for material reasons, then he’s wrong. All I can say to that is: a month in the GDR would be enough for that person, too,” asserts a young, long-haired blond man in gym shorts. As soon as he arrives in Giessen, he’ll head for a telephone booth.

“Of course” they have all realized that enough West Germans resent their coming and speak of a “flood of refugees.” “Of course” they know that there are two million unemployed in their new homeland. They also know that the golden glow of the West can be deceiving. “But when I told my best friend I definitely had to go on vacation and I had a transit visa for Hungary, he just said, ‘Make sure you don’t come back with a stamp in your passport.’ But now that’s past.”

Initially, the refugees will face with an “absolute state of emergency” in Giessen. This is how Gerald Weiss of the Hessian Ministry of Social Affairs assesses the situation. With 2,000 “occupants,” the reception camp is completely overcrowded. Some of the new arrivals will have to move into gymnasiums or trailers. “We haven’t registered such an influx of refugees since the Wall went up. We can’t work miracles. We need room for another 1,000, at the very least.” The new arrivals don’t care. “We’re not staying here very long.”

Source: Rüdiger Scheidges, “Sonderzug aus Pankow mit Umsteigen in Wien und Frankfurt; Sonderzug aus Pankow mit Umsteigen in Wien und Frankfurt: Flüchtlinge aus der DDR, Ihr Weg über die Grenze und die Ankunft in der Bundesrepublik” [“Special Train from Pankow with Transfers in Vienna and Frankfurt: Refugees from the GDR, their Route across the Border, and their Arrival in the Federal Republic”], Frankfurter Rundschau, August 8, 1989.

Translation: Allison Brown

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