During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.
The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”
About fifteen years ago or so, I was back in Winnipeg visiting family during the summer. One afternoon I was driving around with my aunt when we passed a car lot on a service road in the city’s north end. As we zipped by, I caught a glimpse of a vehicle in a shade of baby blue which I’d only ever seen used to paint the East German Trabant. I called out for my aunt to stop and we turned around so that I could make some inquiries. First, I made my way over to the car and confirmed that it was indeed a Trabi with its GDR license plate still attached. I went into the office and the young woman there informed me that the car belonged to the lot’s owner who was originally from Germany and who’d had it shipped over after a visit home in the summer of 1990. She told me that the car was not for sale (a man can dream, can’t he?) and after chatting with her for a bit, I left things there. Until I started this blog , , ,
The Trabant of my dreams! (photo: author)
A Trabant P601, the most popular model of the vehicle (photo: D. Currie).
One of the icons of the GDR is undoubtedly the Trabant, a four-seat car with a two-stroke engine that was the country’s own “Volkswagen” and with which East Germans had a strange love/hate relationship. Over 3.7 million of these vehicles were produced in the Saxon city of Zwickau between the mid-1950s and 1991 and most of these found a home with a GDR family. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, images of long lines of Trabis waiting at border crossings helped make this strange looking automobile famous the world over.