Monday, January 3, 2011

Die Da!

The title is in German and simply means “Those there”; it’s pronounced “deed ahh.” We’ll get there. Long ago now we made a visit to the German Democratic Republic, communist East Germany. We had family there. Tensions had eased enough to make the trip without concern. We went as a family, driving a little Opel we’d rented in the West, first to West then to East Berlin; we crossed at the famous Checkpoint Charlie and, once over there, navigated the horrendous bureaucratic wall (much worse than The Wall) to get permission to travel further inland. Finally we had the go ahead and zoomed off on a virtually empty autobahn into the East. It was the closest thing to time travel I’d ever engaged in: From booming West Germany in the 1970s we were suddenly transported to the 1940s. Time had literally frozen.

Some time after reunion with the family, late one morning on a weekend, Jonas, my brother-in-law (by profession he was a psychiatrist) headed out to buy the paper. Eager to see the papers myself I tagged along. We stopped at what looked like a tiny but well-stocked kiosk. I asked Jonas to point out the best paper to buy. He already had one in his hand. “Don’t bother,” he said. “There’s nothing in the papers.” Then, catching my pointed look at the paper he held, he laughed, dryly, and said: “It’s a sports paper.” His hand swept over a large display. “All of these are. Sports papers. That’s what we read here.” Intent on penetrating communism, I bought three of the ordinary papers for myself and later discovered the strangely fictional world projected by the authorities of the Deutsche Demokratische Repulik—unbelievably heroic figures of men and women who, in transports of joyous labor, climbed the steepest quota mountains and outperformed their eagerly following comrades in the production of plywood, steel, and even in milking cows.

Jonas took me on a walk and commented wryly on the strange realities on display everywhere in this frozen time. One of our stops was beside a damaged little car, a Trabant, the VW of the East. He showed me—and made me touch the surface of—its ripped fender so that I could experience a car the body of which was made of cardboard. We wandered long enough so that it was time for lunch, and on an impulse Jonas took me to a restaurant. It overflowed with masses of people, every table in crowded use. Some eight or nine people, two or three families, waited for a table. It looked like it was going to be a long wait. We were looking at each other, kind of questioning this decision, when three short, energetic, well-dressed men in suits entered the restaurant. Their leader immediately engaged the maitre’d in conversation. A fair amount of hand-waving went on; the leader spoke in a kind of stilted too-formal German. The maitre’d looked in deep pain; he seemed determined to prevail but, quite rapidly, folded. After a tiny shrug, he nodded and led the men inside to seat them somewhere—where it was impossible to see.

Jonas now looked at me. “Die da!” he said. Then he turned, and out of the restaurant we went. Communist party members in the DDR invariably wore a tiny round emblem on their lapels, the regime’s coat of arms. To indicate the identity of these worthies, East Germans had a habit of pointing a finger at the left-hand lapel and to say, Die da, the eternal them.

This memory suddenly surfaced the other day when I was reading a story about Iraq’s painfully forming democratic government. The DDR lasted from 1949 to 1990. How long would glorious new democracy reign in Iraq? And it struck me as odd that in that realm we were and are…Die da!

No comments:

Post a Comment