But three decades on, an increasing number are returning to their roots to seek a fresh start.
With new industries taking shape and offering a variety of career paths, better childcare options and relatively cheap housing, the former communist states are starting to look a lot more attractive to young families.
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Take the Hoffmanns for instance.
Peggy, 29, had wanted to return to the office full-time after having two children, but in western Germany, she felt a stigma associated with working mums.
Undeterred, she looked all over and finally found a job in insurance in the eastern city of Magdeburg last year.
Crucially, another key piece of the puzzle fell into place quickly — a full-day childcare spot for her two sons rather than the half-day offers in the west.
“For a woman who works, that's the dream,” said Peggy, in her apartment in Glindenberg, a village in the suburbs of Magdeburg.
A cyclist goes past Glindeburg's Saint Nicholas Church. Photo: DPA
Despite the initial reluctance of her husband Carsten, the family moved back to the couple's native state of Saxony-Anhalt.
A decade ago, she had joined Carsten in Stuttgart, where he had gone for his studies, driven, he said, by a wish to “discover something new”.
The return “was very difficult for me in the beginning,” said the 33-year-old, explaining that he had to give up a full-time job in the knowledge that wages in the east lagged behind those in the west.
But he, too, managed to find employment and without taking a pay cut.
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The Hoffmanns are the kind of family that Saxony-Anhalt and the other former communist states badly need.
While regional and federal governments have pumped hundreds of billions of euros into reviving the east, companies drawn by subsidies and other favourable conditions complain that any investment plans are often hampered by the severe lack of skilled workers.
The east “lost about 1.2 million people between 1991 and 2017”, said Nico Stawarz, researcher at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Wiesbaden.
The first exodus wave came right after reunification, when the communist-run industries collapsed.
The second wave happened in 2000, when unemployment shot up to almost 20
percent among the working-age population.
And it was the young and well-educated who fled, leaving a fast-ageing population behind.
The researcher noted the difficulties of making up for such a dramatic brain drain, but said that the positive trend was that the outflow has stopped.
'Better quality of life'
In a recent study, the institute noted that in 2017, for the first time, the number of arrivals in the east was higher than departures — even without taking Berlin into account which for years has seen this trend.
“We see positive developments in the east,” Stawarz said.
The economy is perking up, unemployment rates are falling and attractive urban centres with universities are gaining attention.
Even though there are no global statistics, several reports document a rise in the returns of the so-called “Ossis” (after the word Ost for East).
Most are between 29 and 45 years old, having spent about a decade in the
west, started a family and are returning “for a better quality of life”, said Stawarz.
Among the pull factors are more comprehensive childcare, lower property prices and proximity to older relatives.
'Not at any price'
Local governments have also pulled out all the stops to attract the sons and daughters of the region back.
Saxony state has set up an office called “Return, Saxons”, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has its “mv4you” while Saxony-Anhalt has gone with a “Welcome Centre” to help ease their returns.
An employee at the Helmholz Centre in Dresden, one of the many institutes in the eastern state attracting researchers from throughout Germany and abroad. Photo: DPA
Not to be outdone, the Christian Democrats in Thuringia are proposing to offer €5,000 as a bonus for returnees.
Job fairs are also organised annually, particularly on December 27th — a strategic date as families typically return then to visit elderly relatives over Christmas.
The regions have no choice but to roll out the red carpet, said Kerstin Mogdans, who coordinates help for returnees at the “Welcome Centre” in Magdeburg, and who took care of the Hoffmanns.
“People won't move here at any price,” she said.
“That's why it's important for the companies to know that they need to present attractive offers.”
'Wall in their heads'
A year after their move, the Hoffmanns say they feel at home now.
Soon, they'll move from their rental apartment to a house they bought in Glindenberg.
Even if they felt at home in the west, they said they were sometimes surprised to hear people say during a conversation dismissively: “You are such an Ossi.”
“It's no big deal,” said Peggy, “But we told ourselves, well the fact that this separation once existed is still in their heads,” even among the generation born after the fall of the wall.
In fact, on returning to Saxony-Anhalt, they found themselves labelled
“Wessis” for Westerners.
“But since then, we've been able to dispel the misunderstanding,” she said, with a broad smile.
By Isabelle Le Page