Tuesday, March 26, 2024

2300 Letters from East Germany

This is not a typical post, but it provides some background to my interest in the German Democratic Republic. After ten years of studying Nazi propaganda, I broadened my interests and began looking into East Germany. I made a brief visit to East Berlin in 1986 and subscribed to East German magazines and newspapers. They were cheap. I got Neues Deutschland, the daily newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party, airmailed to me for $22 a year. I also subscribed to the Wochenpost, Eulespiegel, and Sonntag at equally friendly rates.

The GDR also ran Hochschulferienkursen, three-week summer courses for foreign teachers of German, which I am not. Anyone was welcome, however, if they paid in foreign currency, They provided a cheap way to visit East Germany and provided an open visa. I attended the first one in July 1988 in Leipzig.

It was a fascinating experience. I lived with a family. I got their daughter’s bedroom. One of her proud possessions was a bottle of American tabasco sauce. She had what looked to be a telephone, but it only connected to another pseudo-phone in the house. There was a very long waiting list for phones at the time.

I felt guilty about displacing her, so toward the end of my stay I asked her parents if I could take her to the Intershop. Many coveted items were available only there — for foreign currency. The waiting list for a car in East Germany was around ten years. With foreign currency, one could get a Mercedes almost immediately, along with Japanese television sets and other such products.

In retrospect, I should have been more generous. I gave her a budget of 40 West German Marks. She thought long about what to get, finally deciding on some Western clothing and a Coke.

I was interviewed by East German television and had a moment of fame on the national evening news.

Since my German is good, if heavily accented, people immediately recognized that I was American. They wanted to talk. People would invite me over, we’d talk into the night, and they’d ask when could I come again. People felt safe talking with me. Finally I had found a place that recognized what a fascinating person I was…

Still, there was nervousness. During one conversation a man paused, then said: “Ten years ago this conversation would have meant ten years in Bautzen [a GDR prison]. With certainty. Those times are past. [Pause] I hope.”

Now and again I needed East German currency. The official rate was one East German Mark to one West German Mark, but the black market rate was around 10-1. I’d surprise my acquaintances by (illegally) buying Marks from them at the official rate. I’d explain that I liked to be law abiding, but I preferred to deal with them rather than the Staatsbank der DDR.

The experience was stimulating and I decided I needed to know more East Germans. How to do that?

The Wochenpost had a penpal column. Everyone listed was from the Soviet bloc or from countries like India or Egypt. I never saw an American (or other Western) address. But, I thought, it’s worth a try. In January 1989 I sent in my address. I expected that nothing would come of it. Since my issues of the Wochenpost came by surface mail I didn’t realize my address had been printed until a day in April 1989 when five letters arrived from East Berlin. I was puzzled until I opened the first one. Wochenpost had published my address. All people knew is that I was 38, married, and could write in German. Mine was probably the first such address in the history of the GDR. Things in early 1989 were beginning to loosen.

The letters kept coming. A dozen the next day, twenty the day after. One day, the postal carrier came to the door with tray of 230 letters, curious about what was going on. By the time the flow of letters ended I had received about 2300 missives from East Germans eager to write to an American.

My prospective correspondents realized that I would receive a flood of letters. Many said they realized I’d probably not be able to write to them, but hoped I might have a willing friend. The local newspaper ran a picture of me behind a stack of letters. I found about 400 people who were interested in writing to an East German.

I picked about a dozen people who wrote particularly interested letters, including a few with some involvement with the GDR media. But what about all those people I couldn’t write to? I’d asked them to write to me. I couldn’t ignore them.

I decided on a “form letter.” I wrote a four-page letter to the people I’d heard from by June 1989, explaining that I couldn’t write to everyone, but thanked them for their interest and told them something about myself. I gave all the letters to my secretary to type into a list and ran mailing labels. She never quite forgave me.

Now, mailing that many letters was going to be expensive. But it turns out there is the equivalent of international junk mail which allows one to pay by the pound, not the individual letter. There is a permit required. It turns out there was one permit holder in Grand Rapids, the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (now the Reformed Ecumenical Council). They had understandable sympathy for a professor at Calvin College and agreed to allow me to use their permit.

Im May 1989 I sent mail sack with the first 1800 responses by air to East Berlin.

Now, I expected that one of two things would happen. Either all of them would be destroyed, or the Stasi officials who read foreign mail would read a few, decide they were relatively innocuous, and let them through. It turned out to be more interesting than that.

The letters went from East Berlin to the ten regional GDR post offices. About half of those post offices thew them all away (those areas including Leipzig, Halle, Dresden, and Karl-Marx-Stadt). The other regional post offices let them through.

I realized this quickly. I began getting letters from those who understood my problem, but implored me to find another American for them to write to. All of those letters came from certain postal districts, none from the others.

In July 1989 I was enrolled in a second Hochschulferienkurs, this time in Halle (where no letters had been delivered). I took along some addresses of people who had written me and knocked on some doors. People were surprised to see me.

I told one woman who I was, that she had written to me months back, and here I was. She, like the others, was dumbfounded. We talked for a bit, then made arrangements to meet the next week at a nearby restaurant. When we met then she began by saying: “Randy, when you left last week I was afraid you were with the Stasi.” After I stopped laughing, I asked why she would think such a thing.

Well, she had had a relationship with an Austrian businessman who was often in Halle. One day she stepped out of her apartment to go to work and two gentlemen asked her to come along with them. They were obviously Stasi, and one didn’t say no. As she was in the waiting room with others, they discussed why they were there. It turned out that all had some sort of relationship with a Westerner. That was not illegal, but neither was it desired. The Stasi agents explained to her that it might be better not to continue such contacts. Given that experience, it was plausible that I could be a Stasi operative, checking up on her.

Then came fall 1989 and the rotten GDR structure collapsed with astonishingly little violence. I had friends in Leipzig who marched in the demos, fully conscious of the presence of armed state forces that might open fire. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t and once the GDR’s citizens realized that the state was no longer willing to use violence, the system collapsed.

One of the consequences of the end of the GDR was Der Bundesbeauftrage für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (the Gauck Commission), which allowed people see edited copies of their Stasi file. I applied to see mine, confident that there had to be a file on me.

To my disappointment, there wasn’t. I was told that some documents were not yet available and that I could ask again after two years, but I never got around to it.

The only trace of me in the Stasi’s files turned out to be a letter one of my correspondent’s father’s file.

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