My miniscule role in the GDR’s final socialist summer came about because of a stubborn determination to be different from the rest of the backpacking tourists, and to spend as much time as possible in the Soviet Bloc during my months-long European sojourn in 1989. I’d become fascinated with the countries behind the Iron Curtain, and ideology was no consideration for me.
In fact, as an abortive attempt to visit North Korea earlier in the year proved, none of their Parties would have me as a member – but I never felt safer than when wandering through a police state as a simple onlooker.
For budget travelers like me, the GDR was one of the tougher Communist nuts to crack. With the sole exception of turncoat Yugoslavia, a passport alone usually was not sufficient to gain entry to the countries comprising the Bloc. Official permission in the form of a visa, either obtained stateside prior to departure or approved at an embassy somewhere in Europe, also was required.
However, merely possessing a valid passport and official visa still did not constitute final approval. Upon arrival, the traveler customarily was required to register with the governmental authorities, and the most common way of doing so was to report to the state bank and engage in the ritual of the mandatory currency exchange.
A specified number of dollars per day of one’s approved duration of stay was swapped for useless local currency, which was even more worthless – literally not worth the paper it was printed on – if carried out of the country afterwards, and which could not be exchanged back into dollars before leaving unless the minimum required exchange had been exceeded. That’s assuming someone could be located to perform the exchange function while a train was parked at the border being inspected by angular uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns.
In effect, the entire territory of the East Bloc was tantamount to the company store, and you had to use company scrip to buy most items. In large measure, eating and drinking proved fabulously cheap, as were hostels and home stays in “private” rooms available in slightly more liberal Bloc locales like Hungary (I use the “L” word with due caution).
As you might expect, the notoriously hardline GDR was little interested in budget travelers, backpackers, hippies and other forms of decadent Western life, even if it desired the hard currency we carried in our money belts. Prepayment of expensive hotel rooms was the norm in East Germany. The question for me was this: How to spend time in the GDR without breaking the bank?
The answer came from Vermont.
Volunteers for Peace was, and remains, an organization dedicated to the principle of international volunteer exchanges between all willing nations, and generally speaking, among people of all ages. During the Cold War, VFP provided numerous opportunities to evade the restrictive entry requirements outlined above in return for a modest registration fee and two or three weeks of volunteer work toward a specified project, which might be assisting at an archeological site, or helping rebuild a house for use as a daycare center, or agricultural work.
Problem solved. A $100 registration fee was mailed to VFP, the requisite visa paperwork completed, and the GDR was penciled into a summer’s itinerary that included June in Czechoslovakia with my friend Jiri’s family and three July weeks in Moscow dedicated to studying the Russian language — although as it turned out, used primarily to roam the streets in search of glasnost-level excitement.
With almost two months of adventures behind me, the last week of July offered a few recuperative days of decadent R & R in West Berlin, but first I had to get from the last stop on the East Berlin side to my destination in West Berlin. I was encumbered with booty gleaned from the USSR, which proved to be a challenge getting past East German border control; having succeeded, it subsequently cost far more to mail all of it home from West Berlin than it had required to amass through swapping Marlboros and logoed university t-shirts.
A few bureaucratic prerequisites later, the S-Bahn train rolled into Zoo Station on the west side of the Wall. I was keeping company with several Americans who’d been in the Russian language program with me. Collectively we met Professor Donald Barry, my cousin, and quickly embarked upon a five-day alcoholic binge, with my new friends gradually peeling off for their own adventures elsewhere until only Don and I remained for a final evening at Dickie Wirtin’s for goulash and lager.
The next day, still in West Berlin, I followed instructions to a cold-water flat where several of the Western volunteers had been asked to meet, including my Louisville friend Jeff. We prepared a communal meal, drank a few bottled beers that I’d packed, and chatted about the month to come. The evening was spent curled up on the wooden floor, with occasional interruptions as our hostess tended to her baby. Bread, jam and tea was for breakfast, and then we rode the subway back to Zoo Station, and over the Wall to Friedrichstrasse station, itself located in East Berlin, but also serving as a West Berlin public transportation stop and the control point to East Germany.
Later that afternoon, joined by others who’d come from different directions, we had our first glimpse of the place that would serve as home for the coming three weeks. Some distance from the epicenter of East Berlin, in a wooded park by a lake, and only a short distance from Treptower, location of the grandiose Soviet WWII memorial, was a fenced compound not unlike the M*A*S*H encampment on television. It was constructed entirely from surplus East Germany military tents and equipment, and there were showers, latrines, a commissary, a stage and a shop. We were divided eight to a co-ed tent, in which there were bunk beds, blankets and little else.
Roughly two thirds of the campers were East German college students, members of the Frei Deutsche Jugend – FDJ – in effect, the Communist youth organization, and the pathway to career advancement. Each summer, the FDJ’s stalwarts “volunteered” to do socially useful work for the Fatherland. I was among roughly one hundred Westerners permitted to do the same, and naturally, we were deemed useful for propaganda purposes, although I must say that the impending exhaustion of the GDR’s ideals probably should have been evident from the absence of intensive propaganda instruction. They seemed positively bored with the whole idea.
Had I considered it, there was another clue as to the disintegrating state of the East Bloc. Whereas the FDJ’s annual Planterwald international volunteer brigade was supposed to include representation from the entire Soviet-controlled expanse, there were conspicuous absences in the summer of 1989. The Poles, infected with the contagion of Solidarity, had not been invited. Neither were the Hungarians, who unbeknownst to us had opened their border with Austria earlier that same summer – enabling the belching Trabants to stream through.
Granted, there were Bulgarians, Czechs and Romanians, and quite a few Cubans, the latter being among the most sought after targets on the part of unattached East German girls, of which there were many.
Me? Lie always, I was just happy to have a bunk and a beer.
(Part Three is tomorrow)