Germany a generation later
Marshall woman recalls life in divided homeland
Gerlinde Doom knew the Cold War better than almost anyone, having grown up only a few miles from the East and West German dividing line.
In 2020 she looks back on the vast differences between the Cold War era and the Germany that has been united for 30 years. She’s witnessed the gradual transformation through 10 different trips home to visit relatives and friends.
She’s originally from the town of Selb, located near both the East German and Czechoslovakian borders. She heard almost nothing about activities in the two Warsaw Pact countries while growing up, but gained a firsthand perspective as a teenager when her youth group took a bus trip into Berlin.
As Germany’s capital, Berlin was divided into four occupation zones after World War II. The three zones run by Western allies later formed the free city of West Berlin, divided by the Berlin Wall from the zone occupied by the Soviet Union.
To get to Berlin, the group had to travel through East German communities. In those locations and in East Berlin, they noticed a stark difference from towns on the western side.
“It was eye opening,” Gerlinde said. “They were so far behind us. There was still rubble from the war on many side streets.”
She especially remembers the bus inspection by soldiers prior to the departure to travel back home. Everyone had to get off the bus to allow the soldiers to verify that no unauthorized people were trying to flee.
“They (the soldiers) had guns,” she said. “It was scary. We wondered what would happen if they decided to keep us, if we wouldn’t be allowed to go home.”
Gerlinde later came to the United States in 1970 at the age of 22. She lived in Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Watertown, South Dakota before meeting her husband, Tony Doom, and settling in Marshall.
They’ve made 10 trips to Germany during their 35-year marriage. The first was a honeymoon trip in 1986, while the most recent trip took place in 2017.
Their trip in 1990 coincided with the German reunification. During their stay, they visited the town of Modlareuth, which is nicknamed Little Berlin because of how a concrete wall ran down the middle of it.
They brought home several pieces of the Modlareuth wall. Tony also broke off pieces of an iron railing in the countryside outside the town, which inspired the historic phrase “Iron Curtain.”
The trip also afforded an opportunity to view the former East Germany by train as they journeyed to Berlin. The train proved to have more sightseeing opportunities than the German autobahn system.
“We were advised to take the train,” Tony said. “It was great. We saw a lot of towns with outdated infrastructure. It was almost spooky to see the difference between West and East.”
Another highlight of their travels occurred in 1994. They attended a square dance in Plauen, Germany, at a former Russian military mess hall. Plauen was a manufacturing center for World War II German tanks, and sustained extensive damage in 1945 Allied bombing raids.
The 2017 visit included a combination of Germany and Belgium. Tony’s father was born in Belgium while his mother was born in Ghent, Minnesota.
With each trip, they’ve see the gradual transformation of the German economy. Extensive efforts have been made to bring eastern provinces up to modern standards. It’s included the encouragement of investment from West Germany and foreign countries.
“Schwan’s had a pizza plant in the former East Germany,” Tony said. “We tasted Freschetta pizza on one of our trips. The box said Marshall.”
They also witnessed some downsides to the economic changes. One in particular involved the demise of the Rosenthal china factory in Selb. Gerlinde’s mother used to work at the factory.
Rosenthal was a top of the line German china brand, a delicate style of china that was sold worldwide in department stores. Production ended after East German and Czech china entered the Western marketplace at lower prices.
“The economic changes weren’t always positive,” Gerlinde said. “It was a bigger adjustment in the East than the West. There were people who didn’t benefit.”
After 30 years of a reunified Germany, she said it will still take time for the country to completely seem like one nation. Older residents still remember life as it was in the midst of the Cold War. She added that it’s gotten to the point where outwardly there’s little if any difference in architecture or the economy.
Gerlinde and Tony are enjoying the opportunity to see German festivities designed to commemorate the historic reunification process.
The 2020 schedule has been more subdued than 2019, partly because of pandemic conditions. Another reason is that the tearing down of the Berlin Wall offered a powerful symbol of freedom.
“The reunification completed the process,” Gerlinde said. “The Wall is the event that stands out in the minds of most citizens. It was the emotional part.”