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When Will I Be Free from History? Dresden, Saxony, East Germany, October 2, 2020

I awoke in my hotel room and it took a minute for me to get my bearings straight. I was in East Germany, the former DDR. This weekend all of Germany would be celebrating 30 years of reunification. Almost all the TV and Radio programs were playing human interest stories about the embrace of a divided Germany after decades of division. Most of the reportage stated that even thirty years later, and despite all the economic and social programs, East Germany was still struggling economically when compared with the West. How quickly we forget the cold sterile environment of this former totalitarian regime. These days, at least on the exterior, one can hardly distinguish where the demarcation line once was between East and West.

I first traveled across the Berlin Wall to East Berlin in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, with a group of high school students from the Lithuanian Gymnasium. We needed to connect with a train that would bring us through Poland to Lithuania. I kept a journal, and I can still remember a few scenes and perceptions that shocked me then. I wrote that East Germany felt as though all the color were sucked out of it. The lack of colorful advertising made the bombed-out buildings, at the time many still not renovated since the War, appear all the more ominous, their dull gray facades looming over the streets. I felt intimidated by the armed soldiers who patrolled on platforms above the station, guns cocked and ready to shoot down any who attempted to flee their native land.

In those days there were Lithuanian dissidents in Germany who kept close ties with the underground in Lithuania. They mostly resided in Munich and worked with Radio Free Europe. They would seek out Gymnasium students, whom they felt they could trust, and would give us packages of medicine, bibles, political books, letters to pass on to the underground in Lithuania during these “return to the homeland” trips sponsored by the Soviet Lithuanian government. We would travel, our suitcases bursting with gifts for relatives living in a deficit economy, and also with all the secret items we were instructed to pass on once we reached Lithuania.

Our biggest problem was passing through the inspection that took place on the border between Poland and the Soviet Union. The size of the train rails differed inside the Soviet Union, so the undercarriage of the train would need to be replaced, as passengers patiently waited. During that time, the inspections took place. I was warned by Ponytė, who had ties with the Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania, to hide the letters, bibles, books, and medicine she entrusted me with so thoroughly that they would not be confiscated at the border.

I don’t know how I came up with this idea, but I formed what I thought was an ingenious plan to distract the border guards. Knowing that pornography is banned in the USSR, and knowing the border guards would be young men, I brought a few light porn magazines. I placed my contraband items in the lower level of my suitcase and scattered the magazines on top. That year, my plan worked. The young border control guards spent their allotted fifteen minutes perusing my magazines rather than digging any deeper. Then, once time was up, with a flourish of mock indignation, they announced that I was a bad person for having such magazines and they would need to confiscate them. “Pornography is banned in the Soviet Union,” one of them said with pride while clutching the magazine possessively.

I had written in my journal about how in East Berlin when we loaded up a tram with our mountain of suitcases to cross the border zone and reach the train station we had carelessly blocked the door. We reached a stop and a man needed to exit the tram, but he couldn’t get out because our suitcases were blocking the entrance. Being good kids, we scrambled to pull the suitcases out of his way before the door slammed shut again. The man caught the eye of our black suit clad KGB handler, apologized profusely, and fearfully sat back down, missing his stop. As a teenager who was taught to respect and listen to adults, I remember that I was shocked that this man did not reprimand us for our carelessness. I also knew that in this system we who were obviously in the wrong in this situation by blocking the doors became untouchable because of our Western status, and because of the havoc our black suit clad handler could wreak on anyone who crossed him.

As I boarded the tram now into the Altstadt of Dresden I looked for signs of the old DDR. I could find none. Dresden had been bombed heavily during World War II and only a few sections of the historic city remained standing. Most of the city has been rebuilt. The tram rolled past Soviet-style block housing. The buildings were renovated nicely and painted in friendly shades of color. There was a cheerfulness about the city, murals painted on the sides of trams, tasteful cafes and restaurants dotted the streets.

Was there a heaviness in the air? Or did only I perceive it? Was it the heaviness of history perhaps? And was I perceiving it because the history of tearing down the Berlin Wall, uniting Germany, freeing the Baltic States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, from the shackles of the Soviet Union is a moment in history unique to my particular generation, who were young idealistic activists during that time?

I had little time to explore Dresden before I had to be back on the road heading west to Wiesbaden. Mostly I spent that time among the Greek gods and nymphs on the grounds of the luscious Der Zwinger.

I remembered the two young scientists from the DDR who had lived in my dorm when I was a student in Lithuania in 1988-1989. Stephan was a biologist and Kristel, who became my friend, was a mathematician. Both had a deep distrust of each other. Kristel enjoyed the freedoms of speech and expression that came to Lithuania before they came to the DDR. She would run around with me to protests, gleefully hang up posters for the Lithuanian independence movement (then called a reform movement), enjoying her new-found freedom, telling me about how oppressive the DDR was. Years later I randomly met Kristel in a park in Paris, married and with two children. But that is another story. I remember Kristel telling me she was continually surprised by how Lithuanians glorified poets and artists. “In Germany,” she said, “we respect scientists, the rational mind, and innovation.” Thinking of Kristel, at Der Zwinger I visited an exhibition of Renaissance era telescopes, measuring instruments, clocks, and my favorite—a complicated machine built to track planetary movement.

Will it always be like this? The past and present merging together in my mind as the past and the present superimpose onto each other? Or is it this way because the events of the late eighties and early nineties have left an indelible mark on me, one that I will continually revisit? When will I entangle myself from the ropes of history? When can a city be just a city?

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