‘Go East’: More Germans returning to roots 30 years after Wall’s fall

For years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the mantra for millions of former East Germans was to "Go West" for better jobs and opportunities. But now the reverse is often the case.

'Go East': More Germans returning to roots 30 years after Wall's fall
"Work where your heart beats" reads a postcard from a welcome centre in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Photo: DPA

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.

READ ALSO: Opinion: How eastern and western Germany still differ from each other

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.

Brain drain

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.

READ ALSO: The East-West divide is diminishing, but differences remain

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

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‘All you need is love’: How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together

The Beatles famously sang "All you need is love." For Hans and Uschi Kriz, living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, both love and grit were necessary for starting their lives together.

'All you need is love': How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together
Hans and Uschi while they were dating in the Seventies. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz

Like many people from Berlin, the lives and love story of Hans and Uschi Kriz were shaped by the Berlin Wall, which fell 31 years ago on November 9th, 1989. I first met Hans and Uschi when I lived with their son’s family as part of a German language program.

I spent Sunday afternoons at their house having lunch, playing games, and exploring their beautiful gardens. I decided to catch up with them recently to learn more about their family history – and how the Beatles brought them together when Berlin was a divided city. 

Journey to East and West Berlin

Hans and Uschi look back fondly on the many photo albums documenting their life together. Photo by author.

Hans Kriz was born in 1949 in Regensburg in Bavaria to German refugees from Poland and former Czechloslovakia who, like many ethnic Germans, had to flee from their homes after World War II. His parents met in a refugee camp near Regensburg and got married shortly after. 

Uschi was born to two German parents in Ahrensfelde in Brandenburg in 1952, an area that was already under control of the then Soviet Union and very close to East Berlin.  

Both Hans and Uschi showed an early disregard for involving themselves in the predominant political movements of their times.  

READ ALSO: Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall

She was initially the only child in her school class that was not a part of the Junge Pioniere, or the “Young Pioneers,” a subdivision of the larger youth movement Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ). 

Her first-grade teacher then came to her home to encourage her parents to let her join so that she could participate in the many activities run by the organisation at school. Although they were anti-Communist, they allowed Uschi to participate.

This group, similar to scouting clubs and meant for children ages six to 14, was the extent of her political involvement in the GDR. She was six years old at the time: “What did I know of the political side?,” she remembered.

Banner aHans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.  

Hans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.

He did not want to be a part of the military and found a way to ‘flee’ to West Berlin, where the occupying powers did not allow the German army to exist. 

Thus, Hans and Uschi both found themselves in Berlin — he in the West, she in the East. 

A shared love of radio

Uschi had grown up watching Western television at home, and her love of beat music followed. Western beat music was officially banned in the GDR in 1965 and the signal from American radio stations in West Germany was suppressed.  

However, Uschi and many others were still able to find a signal from the BBC and loyally sat by the radio every week to hear the program “Eine Kleine Beatmusik” at 9 pm. 

Hans also listened to the program and decided that he would love to meet young people in the GDR who also loved Beatmusik to learn about their lives behind the Berlin Wall. He wrote a letter to the BBC in London, asking them to broadcast his address and request. They agreed. 

READ ALSO: Berlin Wall fall: 'It was like Easter, Christmas and NYE rolled into one.'

For two weeks there was no answer. Then, Hans received a box full of letters, probably from “everyone who heard it in the whole GDR,” he speculates.

At first he thought he would write back to all of them, but he realised that he must choose a few to answer; Uschi’s was one of the letters he randomly selected. 

“I wanted to connect with a Beatles fan from West Berlin,” she explained.  

Love and music across the border 

Thus began their relationship over a shared love of the BBC, Beatmusik, and the Beatles in 1969. 

The letters they exchanged began as a friendly discussion about music and their lives on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Uschi was happy living in the GDR at the time. She had her friends, her family, a garden, and her education. 

Hans would visit her as often as possible, even though doing so was difficult with the high fees and strict rules to return to the border by midnight.

Hans and Uschi's photo book shows many of the famous sites of divided Berlin. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Over time, they fell in love and decided to get married. Uschi remembers how risky this choice was for her: “I still had a lot of questions. What was the living situation?…I couldn’t meet his family.” It is “very complicated when one is blind and in love,” she said.   

Hans arranged for a lawyer in the West to help Uschi obtain a pass to leave East Berlin. She was working at the library of the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin when she received an unexpected phone call telling her that her pass was ready and where and when to pick it up. 

“Basically, one could say the GDR practically sold me to the West,” she explained. 

Only four weeks later on July 20th, 1975, she joined Hans in the West. Many dates are blurred in her memory, but Uschi said, “I know this one exactly.” 

They honeymooned in London, in honour of the BBC. 

Watched by the Stasi?

I asked them whether or not they felt the GDR Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, was monitoring their correspondence from 1969-1975.

Hans answered without hesitation: “I have a very thick Stasi file.” 

The file revealed that he was followed by members of the Stasi in both East and West Berlin. 

Uschi said she has also read her file, but much of it was nonsense to her: “I don’t understand it at all.”  

READ ALSO: How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments 

The Mauerfall 

One of the photos in the Kriz family album shows a view of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz with the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Hans was near Checkpoint Charlie working the night shift for his job at Axel Springer when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

He returned to their home in Frohnau and woke Uschi, who like many slept through the surprise “Mauerfall.” She had worked a long day and was so sleepy that she didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until she saw the television coverage the next morning that she realised what had happened. 

Both Hans and Uschi were delighted when the capital of the reunified government returned to Berlin. 

I asked them if they still experience the Mauer im Kopf, or “Wall in the head,” that many German politicians and intellectuals describe as existing to this day. 

Hans immediately answered “Yes,” while Uschi said, “The Wall fell quickly for me.” 

She said that many people still view differences between the East and West very strongly. 

“My neighbour says I’m a Wossi, more Wessi [West German] than Ossi [East German],” she said, “I feel like more of an Ossi.” 

However, Uschi always viewed Berlin as one city, even when the wall still existed. She never thought of it as the capital city of the GDR, regardless of what the state authorities said. 

“I’ve always seen Berlin as one, Berliners together. For me, Berlin was always Berlin.” 

Remembering the Wall 

In Frohnau, right along the border of Brandenburg in northern Berlin, one can visit the Postenweg, the former path of the Wall that has been converted to an open bicycle path. There are still Wachturms, or ‘watch towers,’ standing. 

Hans and Uschi's son helps chip off some of the remaining Wall in Frohnau after its fall. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz.

Both Hans and Uschi wish that more parts of the Berlin Wall were left in place, “Perhaps even in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” said Hans. They worry that young people have no idea where the Wall was and therefore forget the history. 

Hans sighs, then quoted the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”