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Teaching English in Germany: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall
Written by: Jacob Arthur
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
If I hadn’t taken my Online TEFL course with the International TEFL Academy, I might still be working in a restaurant in Virginia, and I wouldn’t have had the possibility to land a job in Berlin, Germany. If I hadn’t taken the chance to move to Berlin, I never would have had the opportunity to teach and get to know so many people who lived behind the Berlin Wall. The Wall was the concrete manifestation of the Iron Curtain between the East and the West during the Cold War. Before moving to Berlin, it was a chapter in a history book to me. But what about the people who lived on the other side of it?
Never did I think that I would get to know these people, countless, wonderful people, who lived for decades behind that wall, and who have experienced life in very different ways than I have.
They are called the Ossis (Ost means East), or people from East Germany, who were citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Germany we know now, with its culture of cars, beer, sausages, mountains, history, technology and so on, was split into two countries for 40 years after World War II. People who lived in the East couldn’t go to the West; not to Paris, London, the U.S., and not even to their families in West Germany or the western part of Berlin.
These people, the Ossis, also didn’t have the same luxuries that we all take for granted today. Simple things like “exotic” fruits like kiwis, oranges, pineapples, and bananas were rare or nonexistent. Bananas were so infrequently available that a student, Beate, said her family of seven bought seven bananas once a year, one for each person. If you saw a line at Christmas time it meant that oranges were in stock. Ossis were happy to queue for them. Two students told me the first time they saw a kiwi was after the wall fell, jokingly saying that some people thought they were hairy potatoes. Popcorn couldn’t be found in a cinema. Chinese restaurants were only eaten at for special events, where one had to reserve a table sometimes months in advance.
Different kinds of Western music, films, and books were often prohibited. Annett was 16, and she threw a party playing Western rock music, but the police shut it down and she spent a night in jail. Jeans were highly valued commodities, and Katharina joked that a pair of jeans cost the same as two month’s rent for her. There was no good coffee except for the elites. The same went for Swiss or Belgian chocolate. Western cars were not available. Instead people had Russian or East German cars like the Trabbant, a small car made of plastic with a whopping horsepower of 26. But after registering for one, students had to wait years or even a decade or more before getting a car. My students told me these stories with smiles, because they didn’t see themselves as being deprived or that they lived harsh lives, except for when it came to the common freedoms that we have today which were absent back then.
The State of East Germany carried out one of the most widespread surveillance operations in the world. It was so pervasive that every person knew they could be or were being watched by someone. Silke said she was sure she was being monitored because she was one of the lucky ones to travel abroad. She never talked about any potentially contentious issues in case her apartment was bugged. Sometimes the secret police, the Stasi, came to her apartment under the guise of a salesman to inspect her apartment. Ursula, a physician, said some of her patients were spies, but she never knew which ones. Annett, a photographer, was probably under observation, and several of her politically outspoken friends were jailed and some were prevented from working in any kind of creative or artistic field.
The freedom to travel was perhaps the biggest freedom foreign to East Germans. Germans love to travel. I have been to 25 countries in my life, and I have met at least one German in every one of them. Before the Wall was opened, people couldn’t even go to the other part of their own city to see relatives, friends, or boyfriends. Gisela told me she had a boyfriend in West Berlin, but she could never go to him. West Berliners were allowed to go to the East for 24 hours, after going through extensive security checks, paying for a visa, and exchanging currency, which is what her boyfriend did every time he wanted to see her. Everything changed when the Wall fell.
My favorite homework assignment to give is to write a story about Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Wall was opened. A commonality among these stories is that it took everyone by surprise. Many were at home, as it was a Thursday evening. Some drove immediately to West Berlin for the first time. Some drank beer with people they had never met to celebrate. Some didn’t believe it. Some thought that the wall would be re-closed, so they stayed at home fearing they would be trapped on the other side of the wall. Andreas was in the middle of a move to his new apartment. Brigitte was working in a hospital through the night. Steffi came home from work and saw a note on the door from her husband saying he was shopping in West Berlin. She thought it was a joke. Some students heard the news on the radio, some on TV, and those who didn’t believe it found out the next morning when half of their colleagues were missing from work. Petra said she went to school the next morning and the teacher didn’t show up, so the whole class went to West Berlin together. Beate lived in a city two hours away and drove to West Berlin, but so many other people with the same idea caused major traffic jams and a 2-hour drive turned into14 hours.
My students were very happy to tell me their stories, but some couldn’t hold back the emotions. Margit worked at Alexanderplatz, the Times Square of East Berlin, which saw almost daily protests in the months leading up to Nov. 9. She saw people being brutally treated by police trying to quell demonstrations. Even as she told this story 27 years later, she had to hold back tears. Many students were finally reunited with their family, and almost no one with a relative in the West hesitated to visit them after the fall.
In the years leading up to the fall, some students had gotten special permission to visit the West, but requests were often denied and some people had to wait years. One way to visit the West was for a family member’s birthday, but it had to be an important one, like a 40th or 50th birthday, not a 43rd. Visits could be no more than a week, and the ones leaving had to have collateral in the form of family members that stayed behind to ensure a return.
For Gisela and Stefan and a few others, their children were the collateral. Stefan and his brother went to West Berlin, but once there his brother said he wasn’t going back to the East. Stefan went back, and the German police interrogated him and his family incessantly. The security checks at the border were very intimidating. Renate was detained for over an hour for having a newspaper from West Berlin. Andreas, a West Berliner, had to wait hours while they inspected every inch of his car at the border.
Before 1989 a select few were allowed to move to West Berlin, but could never return to the East. Thomas’s parents waited five years for their request to move, and after being accepted had 24 hours to leave the country forever. Thomas couldn’t see his parents until the Wall was opened. Diana’s brother had the exact same experience. She thought she would never see him again. This is why the opening of the Wall was such a momentous occasion for them, not because it signaled the end of the Cold War, but because it meant you could see your family.
Before I moved to Berlin to teach, I had been here twice, once for a study abroad trip, and another time for fun. During all that time I had only met one person who was actually from Berlin—my host mother during my study abroad. That is because Berlin is now a magnet for people from people all around the world, and the real Berliners are now hard to spot. Now, I know dozens of them. I’ve lived with one, eaten Christmas goose with some, celebrated birthdays with many, and now I’m dating one. These connections to a unique history, to incredible stories, and to these people were only made possible by teaching English.
Jacob Arthur is 27 from Lynchburg, Virginia with a BA in history from Virginia Tech University in 2012. He was a waiter in a family-owned restaurant before deciding to get TEFL certified with International TEFL Academy and fly off to Berlin, Germany to teach English.
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