Photos taken by Janina in an alley in Eisenbahnstraße. The graffiti in the left snapshot says ‘Nobody has the right to obey.’

A Tale of Two Countries: Part II

The perceived differences between East and West Germany are not merely rooted in the separation after World War II, but also in the events that followed the Unification. Though unity is an admirable goal, accepting differences may eventually lead to a greater appreciation.

Story by Janina Cymborski. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Germany, Western Europe
Published on December 19, 2020

Reading time: 3 minutes

This story is also available in br de kr ru tr



October 3rd is Germany’s National Day, the date of Re-Unification in 1990. But, many East Germans instead commemorate the events of autumn 1989. In Leipzig, we celebrate the 9th October, 1989, when 70,000 people demonstrated peacefully for a free country fearing that they would face the same fate as their comrades in on Tiananmen Square in China, Snipers were all over the rooftops, watching, waiting to get the order to shoot. But that order never came. The worries that my family and others had watching those demonstrations were real.

Born in Leipzig and living there again, I take part in the October 9th celebrations, walking round the city centre with thousands of others, holding candles, listening through speakers to the chants of the people from 1989. With tears in my eyes, I watch the footage of the opening of the borders in Berlin on November 9th, 1989 — one month after the demonstrations in Leipzig. I wonder at the expressions on the faces of people who are free. How would it feel to have been confined for a whole life and finally be free? I think about my family and the life they had to live, the life I was destined to live if not been for the bravery of these people. After 1989, my family and I could leave the country and be part of a free new world with new knowledge and opinions.

But that does not mean that I must automatically comply with just another social order. The importance of questioning the existing order is the most important lesson I learned from the 1989 revolution. It is exactly because I was not born in a free country that freedom to me is the opposite of compliance. Freedom is to find my own answers to the most fundamental questions: who am I, who do I want to be and what kind of life do I want to live? What separates Ossis from Wessis is the insight that no social order is set in stone and therefore can be changed (as my birth certificate, issued by a country that does not exist anymore, shows).

Today unemployment is still in my family and money is still an issue. The GDR is still part of our lives, not just in our memories. Having lived in two systems my parents learned the hard way. Their good will has been exploited many times. We had to start from zero in a world in decay. I see that my parents mourn the sense of belonging that they lost and that I never had. In East Germany, they belonged to a community, to people who sat in their same boat. To be fair, community in the GDR often was coercive, characterized by a mutual dependence: ”I work in administration, if I help you get an apartment, can you get me a bike for my kid?” Community was necessary for surviving, providing for a family, and managing the ever-present shortage. It was for getting along, not for getting ahead. But by needing and cooperating with others, you were always with others. In 1990, we lost help and cooperation, in favour of wealth and profit at the expense of others. Unification was a blessing and a curse. Much was won, maybe more than I can ever grasp. But I believe a certain humanity was lost – one that may only be possible in extreme circumstances.

Read Part I of Janina's story here.


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Janina Cymborski

Janina Cymborski

Born in East Germany, I still live here, enjoying the freedom of an unconventional life I did not really plan on having. After college, I worked in the travel industry in various positions in sales and at one point I decided that it was not enough. I quit and went back to university. I will be doing my master’s degree in political science hopefully next year and apart from that engage in various activities. I learn Arabic and vice versa support others learning German. I volunteer for different projects, both here in Leipzig and Europe-wide. I lack money, sometimes employment, and certainly I could have chosen an easier path. But so be it. I obviously took the road less travelled  and I hope it will one day make all the difference. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.

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Or read it in br de kr ru tr

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