INTERVIEW WITH MARGIT HOSSEINI
(A bit of preliminary talk)
INTERVIEWER: Margit, can we first of all start talking about the late 1950 and your visits to East Berlin to see your family. Can you describe your impressions of life in East Berlin, particularly the life of your family, by contrast with the life in West Berlin?
MARGIT HOSSEINI: We grew up in a suburb in West Berlin, so the difference of life of my cousin in East Berlin was also the difference living in the center of the town and the suburb. But when we crossed - the only way my family crossed was by S-Bahn - the crossing it was a different atmosphere; it looked optically quite different. And even as a child I noticed that when you came across Friedrichstrasse, there were big kind of posters advertising socialism and the greatness of it. As you entered more into East Berlin, away from the center... my cousin lived in Lichtenberg... it got duller; there were less colorful posters and more gray, a more subdued kind of picture. I think in general, I remember... and I think I'm not the only one ... we all remembered the different smell: it smelt different coming from West Berlin, entering East Berlin. And for many years I was thinking why there is a different smell; and it came of course from the coal: they burnt different coals. It was a sort of... well, we called it "the eastern smell". The sort of grayishness was not just optical, in a sense the view of the town: it was also the people. In some ways I always felt as a little girl they were much more subdued. I don't know whether that was... because of the kind of propaganda we had in the West, of course, as well, or whether it was a real fact. I do remember the endless gray shuffling of people along the street, not talking a lot to each other. You know, it wasn't... when you saw a group of people in the West, they were talking and laughing or making gestures, and I remember that wasn't like that. Of course, with children it was different; you know, when we played, we played like all children everywhere. I think life, even in those days, or perhaps even more so, was more within the family home.
INT: Can you describe your life in your aunt's house - what did you notice about the difference there, in terms of the sort of conditions, in terms of the atmosphere, in terms of the...?
MH: Well, that would concern rather more my family. We always met in... I called her my aunt, but she actually was the sister of my grandmother, and she lived with another lady friend, which the family whispered around - that was a bit sort of odd. They were two sweet old ladies, and they lived in a typical, large two-room... very large rooms... working class flat in Lichtenberg. And everybody, the rest of the family, always came to them. The kitchen was always the center of life, and in every self-respected sort of working-class family, the kitchen had a lovely 'plush sofa', a sort of comfortable sofa where, you know, if you were the honored guest, you were allowed to sit there, and life circled around this sofa and a big tile... a kind of oven, tiled. The lady friend of my aunt, of the sister of my grandmother, came from an old socialist family, and they had been fighting with Bismarck already. So there was a political atmosphere always in the family; and my mother's own family, they were socialists. I remember listening to the adults talking, and they... sometimes it got quite heated; it was the fight between communism, socialism, what is what, and what is happening in East Germany, where does it drift to? And as years went on and I grew sort of more into adolescence, I understood more what the actual discussion was, that the political influence which definitely always has been in my family, was seen... it split more and more, that the West stayed to socialism, and the pure family, my family started rejecting even socialism, because they started identifying it with communism. And we had very often... even later, when I was in my teens, with my cousin ... the old lady with whom my aunt stayed was the sister of her grandmother, so Siegard and I, we were always considering ourselves as cousins... and that was expressed, that suddenly socialism was something negative; and for me it wasn't.
INT: Can I just interrupt. I wonder if you could, in sort of about two sentences, just summarize what was the difference between East and West Berlin, as you perceived it, in economic terms, in terms of lifestyle, and how this showed?
MH: I think basically it showed in clothes. You know, when we went across, we always had bags, we always... like every family from the West, took lots of things: you took fresh fruit - oranges were unobtainable in East Berlin - clothes, nicer clothes,, sort of soap and things, so you were always loaded when you went across. And in those days, you have to remember there was no Wall, so you didn't have your bags checked. I mean, sometimes, when... You could cross anywhere where the street went across the border; sometimes you were stopped and checked. In the S-Bahn they quite often did sort of random checks. And I remember once, my cousin actually came with her mother to stay with us the weekend, and when they arrived both of them were in tears because they'd got from someone, from some relation, oranges, and they actually brought the oranges to us as a gift, which was a very precious gift for them, and they had run into a random check and the oranges were taken away from them, because that was a sort of western influence which the authorities in the East didn't want. And it seemed to me so utterly absurd to make a political issue out of oranges - and I can't have been more than 11 at the time - I just thought, "This is totally ridiculous."
INT: OK, now can I take you on to July and August 1961, that period just before the Wall went up, when the atmosphere was becoming much more tense in Berlin. Now can you describe that atmosphere of tension immediately before July, before the Wall went up? Did you feel, for instance, to include in your answer, the sense that something was going to have to happen? Could you just describe that tension?
MH: Yeah. I think everybody knew that something is going to happen - not necessarily only from the atmosphere, but for weeks, thousands and thousands of people have come across, and everybody realized that in some way or another East Germany will have to react, because half of the labor force, young people, well-trained people - not the old ones - left the country, and it got tenser and tenser as more people came across, and as more one realized that in some ways there has to come a reaction. And we didn't know what reaction, but that there will be a reaction was quite clear.
INT: What was your particular experience of refugees? Because you lived near the (unclear). How did you particularly experience the refugees?
MH: Well, there was... the biggest refugee camp was near where we lived, and... there was like everywhere in the world, if you suddenly have an influx of outsiders coming, the one... the ones who live there, first they are sort of receiving them with open arms, but after a while this wears a bit thin. And there was friction in the shops, because these people came and they got a certain amount of money to spend, and you have to remember that ... I mean, Germany wasn't West Germany, and West Berlin wasn't as it is now or was in the Seventies or Eighties. You know, in the beginning of the Sixties, people still were pretty hard-up, so there was a lot of jealousy as well, you know, that these people came and the State found them flats - not necessarily in West Berlin: very often they were flown over to West Germany - they got a job and they got money. So there was a kind of friction. I think we, as children, we just acted out what the adults felt; you know, you were also very reserved with these people. And I remember also that for a time - and that must have been probably just sort of 1960 or... not, it must have been a little earlier, in the end of the Fifties, where we had shift schools. Normally in G, the schools are in the morning, and [at] lunchtime they finish. Because there were so many people cacross, they suddenly... the schools were overcrowded, so we had two shifts. The people who lived there had the morning shift, and the pupils who had come across had the afternoon shift. And we met on the way home and we had fights, and I feel really ashamed now, to fight with someone... You know, we had sort of really... sort of proper little fights, just because they were outsiders. But thinking about it, we must have reflected what the adults talked, lived and... sort of showed us.
INT: So part of the tension really was that the government, the West German or West Berlin government, was actually assisting refugees who came over, to the disadvantage of the population living in West Berlin. Is that...?
MH: Well, in a way it wasn't disadvantage. It was just the inflexibility of people. You know, if you are faced with a new situation... a lot of people first say, "Pt, don't like it, don't want it." And I think at the time it was dealt with and coped with very well, with these many, many people coming. And they did not stay very long in these camps, just a few weeks, until some flats and work was found for them. And I would say about 95% went across to West Germany, or 90% - a large number went across. They were flown over to Hanover and then found places to live. So I think it was quite efficiently done. It wasn't chaos, definitely not.