University of Florida - Berlin 2008 Study-Abroad Photojournalism Program

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by Michelle Harris

Yvonne Schulz
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After the Fall, East Meets West

Ask Yvonne Schulz what her strongest memories of growing up in former East Berlin are, and she’ll tell you it was the day she brought a banana from her school lunch home to share with her brother. It was the only banana she or her family would see for the entire year. Such was the life of a child growing up in the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In November 1989 the former Soviet Union collapsed. And with it, an ideology, as well as a wall that separated two halves of a city, began to crumble. For many Germans this meant an end to a way of life they had known since birth. Yvonne was only 9 years old when Germany reunited. Her family, including two brothers and paternal grandparents, were living in the city of Magdenburg, about an hour’s drive outside of Berlin.

Schulz recalls life in the Soviet-controlled East – it was a disciplined and rigid system of allotment, allowance and surveillance. Where the distribution of a banana or pineapple was limited to one day a year and where no one was above suspicion.

“Two members of our family were watching my mom and dad. I think it was my father’s uncle – but he never told me,” Schulz said. “My father has read the file that the Stasi (secret police) kept on my family. Sometimes he is very sad to know who was watching them.”

Her mother, Gabe, was denied passage to visit her family in the West three times after her brother escaped East Germany. Finally she was allowed to attend her father’s 80th birthday party in the West, only to be held at the border for three hours, her bags thoroughly searched when she attempted to cross back. Her father, Achem, was kept under surveillance by the Stasi after declining to join their ranks.

“They made him an offer to be a member – then he would get, for instance, a holiday house, special holiday trips, telephone or a new car earlier than normal people – but he said no,” Schulz said.

But she also recalls the fun times she had playing dress-up with her class or summers spent at the state-sponsored summer camps. For her family, life was not all deprivation. Her father and grandfather had good jobs with the state-sponsored electric company and after eight years were able to acquire a new Trabant car.

“It was blue, bright blue, and my father was so proud,” Schulz said.

By 2001, Schulz had moved to Berlin. Since then, she has attained a business degree from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and today works as a purchasing agent for a multi-national company specializing in biomedical implants and prosthetics.

Though much of her extended family lived in the West during the communist years, her immediate family chose to stay in the East, even after the collapse of the Soviet government. Her mother, father and brothers Michael and Carlsen remain there still. When asked if she would ever return, she became thoughtful.

“I can’t image moving back to Magdenburg (but) I am alone here,” Schulz said. “The life there is cheaper – that is clear. But, I like life in Berlin.”