Dresden, Germany, October 3rd, 2010

4 10 2010

We walk along the north shore of the Elbe River in the afternoon. It is overcast, the leaves are starting to turn and the cold wind signals autumn has arrived. A recent flood has left debris on the shoreline and the sounds of a street festival echo in the distance. We look south, beyond the swift but receding current, at the restored old sandstone city. Transformed from a scarred and neglected victim of war just a generation ago, it now glows in a brilliant new light, fresh colors and newborn hope.

21 years ago, my friend and her city tasted freedom for the first time. A cold war kid born on east side of the Iron Curtain, she and her family fought the totalitarian system as best they could for the place they were in. As practicing Christians and conscientious objectors, their feelings  toward the state alternated between ambivalence and downright antagonism, which caused moments of anguish and years of struggle. But as she says today, it was the only right thing to do. And so they did it.

The secret police apparatus that had permeated every corner of East German society dictated the course of their lives. Her father was recruited but refused to serve. Her mother’s letters to relatives in the West were intercepted. For political reasons, she and her sister were denied educations and careers they had dreamed of. They lived with a feeble hope that better days might come but also with a constant fear that their actions or their words or their neighbors would secretly betray them. She credits her family with giving her the backbone to stand up to injustice and her faith has made her an open, forgiving human being, without bitterness.

The whimpering demise of the regime in the autumn of 1989 and the birth of a united Germany eleven months later signaled to her that her opportunity had come, and that she was morally bound to seize it. After unification, she returned to her interrupted education, finished the qualification that would allow her to study, and went to university. For the very first time in her life, at 20, she could choose her own path and determine her own future. In this fresh new world, no party official had the power to tell her she was not allowed to.

Our friendship formed during that exhilarating, reckless time of fundamental change in East and West, and has lasted across the oceans and canyons of time.

In the almost seventeen years I have been coming here to visit her, buildings have been repaired, windows replaced, roofs newly shingled. Along the train tracks, pastel-colored villages now stand where that ubiquitous dismal brown-grey color of decay, so prevalent across the eastern Europe of our childhoods, used to be. The penetrating, acrid smell of burning lignite has disappeared.  Belching brick chimneys have made way for wind farms – their huge, slender blades now cut through the clean air in perfect synchrony.

For the most part, the wounds inflicted before and after the Berlin Wall fell have healed. But resentment and envy sometimes still cast dark shadows on the modern era.

Without slipping into trivial nostalgia, we agree as we walk along the river this chilly October afternoon that what happened twenty years ago is a miracle beyond words. We quietly celebrate that miracle today, together, on the twentieth anniversary of unification.

The local weekend newspaper’s front-page headline declares simply, “Congratulations Germany”.

Indeed.

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