By Daniel Bender
My first rather unconventional visit to the DDR (German Democratic Republic) was in 1981 with a German-American friend whose family we had helped to pick grapes on the edge of the Schwartzwald. Perhaps I was being too precocious as I drove from Munich north in a new white Opal Kadett following the signs to Berlin and never once consulting a map. Upon arrival, I parked the car not far from Alexanderplatz and walked down Under den Linden to see the Brandenburger Tor.
The streets were strangely empty for a capital city until I saw a few people at the barbed-wire barricade before the Gate. As we stood there I could overhear the people next to us telling their granddaughter that her parents were watching her from the other side and that as they held her up high she should wave and blow kisses, as they were sure to see here and feel the love of the kisses that she sent.
By the end of this, I was almost in tears.
As obvious as this may seem to all in the present, I still did not get it! I thought, why was the capital so deserted and everyone so sad? It was only after having lunch at the revolving restaurant in the TV-tower in Alexanderplatz and not being able to pay with West German Marks that I had my suspicions that something was wrong. We left the Marks on the table and ran to the elevator and down to the street to the car. Once in the car, I finally decided it was time to get out of Dodge – or in this case East Berlin. In my naïveté, I asked a kindly police officer for directions to the Autobahn. Perhaps a brand new West German car with Munich plates tipped him off, as he promptly sent me to the nearest police station.
By this time I was catching on, and instead, I followed the street signs to the biggest road I could find. Within a few minutes, I was in a police chase that would hold its own if compared to one in a James Bond movie. We hid out in barns, under railroad trestles, and went down one-way streets going in the opposite direction. Luckily the new Opel Kadett was faster than those old police Trabants … and the rest is thankfully history.
Today many in the old East Germany are going through a period of “Ostalgie” or nostalgia for the old DDR. Articles appear in magazines and newspapers with interviews of former government employees praising their past lives and the security of living in a “caretaker” state. The distance of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification has made the past seem much rosier, and that life much easier than it actually was. Nostalgic citizens or curious tourists can see two museums dedicated to the reality of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic. Exhibits range from the shortage of foods to the required school youth “pioneer” programs. The DDR Museum (Karl-Liebknecht Sta. 1, Berlin Mitte) is open 9 am – 9 pm every day of the year. It is close to Museum Insel and often overcrowded with tourists. It houses a sample luxury apartment from the 1970s to walk through and an old Trabant (The East German attempt at a reliable people’s car notorious for its poor performance and worse brakes) to sit in and digitally drive.
The other possibility, and a much more pleasant one, is the Museum in der Kulturbrauerei (Knaackstrasse 97, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin). It is free, never crowded and contains many similar exhibits of everyday life in East Germany (open 10 am -6 pm every day but Monday). There you get to study more about the indoctrination of the school programs as well as see the East German equivalent to the Volkswagen camper van: a Trabant with a plywood platform and tent screwed to its roof. The Kulturbrauerei is a worthwhile visit in and of itself sporting a wonderful casual restaurant and a fantastic outdoor food market with entertainment every Sunday afternoon.
It was great fun to run into some Chicago opera connections this time while in Berlin and talk over their international careers. Patrick Guetti, a former Ryan Opera Center superstar named a “standout whose sound was warm and rich” by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post, is now in Berlin as an ensemble member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He is bringing his wonderfully deep basso voice to the roles of Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and of Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte. If you followed his work at the Lyric you probably know how suited he is for both of these characters.
Ann Toomey, another Ryan Opera Star, was also able to join us for lunch. Ann performed last year as with the Lyric and received great acclaim for her role as Musetta in La Boheme. She has just finished performing to rave reviews as Sour Angelica in Sour Angelica with the Berlin Philharmoniker and lucky for us, she will be returning to the U.S. in April to perform as the soprano soloist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in Fresno with the Fresno Philharmonic and in June as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at the Wolf Trap Opera. We had a marvelous time talking about Chicago, this season at the Lyric and the rising stars at the Ryan Opera Center. Meeting up with these wonderful young stars is one of the great joys of travel!
If the museums are not enough nostalgia for the past communist regime for you, there is always the Speisegastätte PILA (Weinstrasse 11, Berlin) offering true East German cooking in a recreated setting of the Cold War Era. With dishes, flatware, decorations, and recipes from the East German times, it tries to give you a true experience of the past. Solyanka (Russian sour cream meat or fish soup), Ostdeutches Jägerschnitzel (East German breaded wurst/bologna) and Kesselgulasch (Hungarian pork and pepper stew) are featured prominently in their all-inclusive menus. Surrounded by flags and photos of the era, one could almost believe that you had gone back in time – except the quality of the food here is so much better today than in the past.
Unfortunately for us tourists, PILA has been “Recommended” by Restaurant Guru in 2019 and given a “Certificate of Excellence” by TripAdvisor in 2017, making getting reservations extremely difficult. The earliest friends planning a visit to Berlin were only able to land a lunch reservation on Saturday was in May, but do keep calling as there are cancellations at times. Or maybe it is just that the power is out and the phones have shut down again? Ah, the rose-colored past…!