Ossi, Ossi, Ossi! Oi, Oi, Oi!

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Astrid S. Tiefholz

Reflections on the Berlin Wall

It’s been more than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The changes across Europe and the world at large since have been remarkable. I was a schoolkid in Tasmania when the Wall came a-tumbling down. People love to note where they were when historic events take place. I was in bed asleep, as people in Australia tend to be when things of dramatic import occur during the daytime in other parts of the world. But I remember the consequences in household the next morning, as my parents listened wide-eyed to Radio National.

My father, Horst, was born in Staßfurt, Sachsen-Anhalt. Back then, it was still Germany, undivided. Dad was the fourth of six children in an ein-Pferd town where the principle industry was saltmining. By the end of the Second World War, his eldest brother had frozen to death on the Russian front, his father had been taken from the family home late one night and executed in the Communist reprisals, and his mother was left with five kids in the newly formed Deutschen Demokratischen Republik. Like most countries with the word “democratic” in their official titles, East Germany was a totalitarian state.

Horst grew up in impoverished circumstances under this new world order. He and his brother would venture out under the cover of darkness, dig up potatoes in farmers’ fields and replace the leafy tops in the soil, smuggling their cargo back home to Oma. She pretended not to know the source of the stolen food, but when a farmer came round to inform her of her sons’ misdeeds, she gave them both the strap for stealing and lying. Because we might be poor, but we have morals, verdammt.

Horst went on to study architecture in Magdeburg, but was only too aware of the limited options available to him in East Germany. He left illegally, via Hungary, and made his way across the globe to settle in Australia. One of his sisters followed suit a few years later, another sister went to America, the eldest went to Berlin and married a Communist party official, and his brother, Achim, stayed in Staßfurt for the rest of his life.

Dad arrived in Australia and spent three weeks in Bonegilla, a tin shed migrant camp with dirt floors in Nowheresville, Victoria. It’s sort of funny to think that in those days, when the Cold War was in full swing, it took less than a month for him to be processed and granted leave to remain in Australia. This despite my father being a national of a Communist state, and there being no information superhighway to connect the world and check official papers and biometric data. He wanted to live in a small city, one where you could make a decent life for yourself and not be swept up in the rat race of the metropolis. It had to be somewhere that the climate was congenial to his German constitution. So off he went to Hobart, where he met my mother, married her, and my sister and brother arrived in rapid succession. I turned up years later.

Meanwhile, after his departure from East Germany, the Wall had sprung up in Berlin. Oma had left for Würzburg, in the West. Germany was very palpably divided, the symbol of the concrete belt in Berlin weighing heavily on the national psyche, even more so than the initial political divides instigated in the aftermath of the War.

As a kid, I had very little understanding of that. Why would I? My early childhood in Tasmania was quite unremarkable. I knew Dad was German, that people commented on his accent, but it was just the way he spoke. He almost invariably spoke English at home, slipping into German when down at the German Australian Club in Glenorchy, sinking beers and eating Wurst with other expats. My mother wanted the kids to grow up bilingual. She was the one who would talk to us in her ungrammatical, Australian-accented German, and cajole Dad to speak auf deutsch. I can understand Dad’s reticence. He had left behind an oppressive regime, one he regarded as being a travesty of democracy, and was more than happy to be as proud a Tasmanian as you could possibly imagine. World War II was not so very far back in history. Plenty of local people had fought for King and Country in the War, and anti-German sentiment was, if not a flashpoint of controversy, then at least as detrimental to job prospects as being black or Catholic. So Horst became naturalised as an Australian citizen, but steadfastly refused to anglicise his name or change the spelling to make it more user-friendly to the Australian ear. As a very small child, I could spell my surname before I had even learned the alphabet, because it was a daily occurrence to hear my mother on the phone: “T for Tom, i, e, f for Fred, h, o, l, z.” You had to pause before the zed, because it’s a letter that confuses Anglophones. Especially when it comes after an el.

The preservation of German culture among migrants to Australia in that period was quite different from that of the Greeks and Italians. For one thing, the Mediterranean migrants set up vast communities in Melbourne and Sydney, where the diaspora was so large that it is not uncommon even today to meet elderly Greek women who have been here nearly half a century and still speak very little English. For the Germans, however, assimilation was everything. You had to prove you meant to be Australian, dammit. For my father, that meant going to nightschool to re-do architecture, and working as a brickie by day. His English was rudimentary when he arrived, but he soon learned construction site lingo, which was a curse-laden dialect of colourful idiom. It must have been quite confronting for my mother’s conservative Tasmanian parents to suddenly have two of their daughters marry German migrants, when Granddad had been in the War. Still, my grandfather was a pragmatic man, a builder himself, and if Horst and Emil were prepared to lay bricks, work in the family empire and assure him that the kids would be raised Catholic, he was prepared to let patriotic bygones be bygones.

My father settled into life in Tasmania in the way common to industrious migrants. He is of the opinion that you know you’re fluent in a second language when you can complete a crossword in it. He considers it a source of honour to do the puzzle in the back of the paper every day, while complaining vociferously about the news standards of The Hobart Mercury. I grew up speaking a peculiar brand of pidgin German at home. It was basically English, with German words thrown in for good measure. It caused me some confusion as a kid, as some words sounded similar in both languages, but had completely different meanings. Thanks to Dad’s road rage, I could swear in German before I could in English. It’s a handy skill, but I have never considered myself even remotely fluent in German. I used to speak it reasonably well, but that was due far more to having studied it in school than have spoken it at home. At seventeen, I would have claimed an equal proficiency in French and German, but this was the result of my being a girly swot, and not the least because any advantage of heritage. I suspect the examiners had unjustifiably high expectations of me when they read my German-as-Sauerkraut name on the list. These days, my German lurks rustily in the back of my brain, coming out blinkingly in the daylight when I hear German conversations of tourists going on around me, or when having breakfast in Hobart with my Dad and watching the German news on SBS.

I made my first trip to Germany, West and East, when I was five years old. Dad stayed in Hobart because of work, and my sister and brother were in the throes of university and HSC. Mum and I went to visit Oma in Würzburg. Oma was an austere woman in her eighties, with a Prussian jaw and a brittle smile that was taken out of mothballs only when obliged for the purpose of a photo. And even then, she looked desperately uncomfortable with the concept of mirth. She had a small, fussy apartment, with velveteen wallpaper peeping through the gaps between a vast number of commemorative china plates. I would sit at the table, seen and not heard, being forcefed dumplings and cabbage til I thought I would burst, counting those plates. In German, in my head. I thought it was good practice, and would impress Oma if she called upon me to give my opinion on the perils of catching the train to the East, which is where my mother and I were bound to visit Onkel Achim’s family. I understood enough of the conversation to know that Oma had once sent over a package of chocolate and washing powder, both of which were in short supply in the East, and the officials in the postal service had torn open the parcel, looking for West German currency being smuggled over the border. They didn’t find any, but the chocolate was covered in soap when it arrived at Achim’s house. Every parcel making its way from West to East was sure to be inspected. Everyone was being watched to make sure they didn’t breach the borders. Families had private codes that they used in letters, because privacy was something that happened in a different era, different place. Not that we actually have any privacy in the here and now, in our superficially libertarian lives in Australia. Between the internet, store loyalty cards, mobile phone trackers and whatnot, we are probably under more surveillance now than East Germans were in the Eighties. We just don’t have the physical evidence of soap powder in our chocolate.

When we arrived in Staßfurt, my Tante Inge met us at the train station in the family Trabant, which Onkel Achim had been waitlisted six years to acquire. She took us directly to the police station, where my mother had to declare our presence, how long we would be staying in town, where we would be staying and why. We would also be obliged to check out with the police upon departure.

We spent Easter in the DDR, where chocolate eggs did not exist. Oma had sent some Easter bunnies with us from the West to give to the family, but it was the East German tradition that made it the most joyous holiday I ever had. Tante Inge made hardboiled eggs that we dyed together, then decorated with decals of bunnies and chickens and polished up with bacon grease. I swear to this day that they were the best eggs I’ve tasted. For years afterwards, Tante Inge would post Soviet-endorsed dyes and decals to me, concerned that I’d be missing out on all the fun in my comfortable Western existence. Underwear was expensive and hard to come by in the East, so it was traditional to give smalls at Easter and Christmas, and that would be your lot for the year. The Easter knickers were packed into cardboard egg-shaped boxes, covered in decoupage. The undies were scratchy and the coarse elastic bit into your legs. Much later, when I was old enough to understand how much sacrifice had been made to give me such an expensive present, I felt awfully guilty to be living in such privileged circumstances in Australia. Mum gave Inge and Achim quite a bit of cash, in Deutschmarks, that Dad had sent with her. It was illegal, of course. The exchange rate between Ostmarks and Westmarks was appalling, so naturally there was a thriving black market, and Westmarks were most welcome. It seems there was a black market in a lot of things, but people stopped talking about these things whenever I entered the room. They could have just spoken in complex German, and I would have been none the wiser. But neighbours had connections with the Stasi, and it wouldn’t do for the Australian niece to blurt out such things indiscreetly when playing with the other children in the park across the street.

The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were peculiar concepts to me as a kid. To my five-year-old mind, walls were something for peeping over out of idle curiosity, for scaling to retrieve basketballs when they strayed into the neighbours’ yard. Sure, there were a couple of old convict sandstone walls around Hobart that had broken glass latterly cemented into the tops to prevent undesirable elements getting into car yards, but no-one was patrolling the place with guns. With the unswerving logic of a bright child, it astounded me that someone might shoot you just for climbing a wall, and I asked my mother repeatedly to clarify the matter, as I was sure it couldn’t possibly be true. As a somewhat more worldly grownup(ish) person now, it still astounds me.

As our train approached the border on the return journey from East to West, my mother whispered promises of bribes to me.

“When the guards come through, be a good girl and keep quiet. I don’t want you to say anything at all when they ask about our passports, is that clear? If you behave, I’ll give you some chocolate when we get through the checkpoint.”

I desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but I took my mother’s words seriously. The young guards, decked out in military fatigues, came through the train carrying guns that were bigger than me. Their boots were heavy and laced to the knee. They smoked as checked our papers. One of the guards looked under the bench seats and in the luggage racks for hidden stowaways. I stared at him, goggle-eyed, wondering how anyone could possibly hide in such a small place, and if they were going to shoot anyone on the train. The other guard appeared bored, clearly waiting for his shift to be over.

“Nice hairclip, kid” he said to me, smiling at me like a little sister.

Mindful of my mother’s warning to say nothing, I just nodded, hoping I wouldn’t wet myself before the inspection finished and the guards moved on.

I visited Berlin in 1987, when the Wall was still standing and showing no signs of being felled any time soon. It was simply the way things were. Crossing the border from one side of town to the other was fraught, and we were interrogated about our intentions, our local connections, why my Australian mother was travelling with me and not my East German father, our intentions and so on. West Berlin was an island of über-Kapitalismus surrounded by a sea of Communism. Where grocery stores in the East were grimy, grim and grey, the Western ones a few streets away were shiny and colourful. My mother took me to a McDonald’s in West Berlin – a novelty in and of itself, because Macca’s did not open its first outlet in Tasmania until late in 1989. In fact, that auspicious event in Tasmanian history coincided almost exactly with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I’m fairly certain there was no connection whatsoever between the two. Ronald McDonald has rarely had any difficulties in crossing borders, even into the most hardline states, but he took his time swimming across Bass Strait. Doesn’t change the fact that the food is crap the world over. But what I really remember clearly about that McDonald’s in West Berlin was the Crayola-endorsed furniture. The tables and chairs were fashioned after supersized crayons, and the effect of all that colour contrasted hypnotically with the sepia tones of the city over the wall. East Germany was a grey place, where the beauty of springtime flowers was a welcome relief against the concrete backdrop of Communist-sponsored apartment buildings. It was as if colourful clothes or paint or art or chocolate would incite revolution. Maybe it did. It was a startling image, though, like travelling with Dorothy from black and white Kansas to the Technicolor of the Emerald City.

I next visited Berlin in 1994, five years after the fall of the Wall. The cityscape was thrivingly integrated, and ubiquitous market stalls sold endless chunks of graffiti-sprayed concrete, all purporting to be pieces of the Wall. Wiedervereinigung (Reunification) was in full bureaucratic swing. Office blocks built during Communism were being pulled down. Except for the ones that were so riddled with asbestos that it was unsafe to touch them. The just stood fallow, an ugly reminder of what was being swept away. Some of the historic buildings that had been waiting for reconstruction as part of the New Germany did not have enough funding to go ahead. Instead, scaffolding was erected around them, with prints on the fabric of what the building would look like when it was finished. The Wall was gone, its roots still shadowy on the ground, dandelions growing out of the cracks were it had been demolished. I happened to be in Berlin the day that Prince Charles was withdrawing the last of the British troops from the city. I was flabbergasted that Britain still had soldiers stationed there, nearly fifty years since the end of the War, and five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even the Russians had pulled out sooner than that.

I do not consider myself to be German. But names and cultural prejudice work in mysterious ways. When I was six and hanging out at a swimming pool in Hobart, I was blamed by a kid of Polish extraction for the Second World War. I acknowledge my German background as part of my heritage, but I would feel fraudulent in claiming to be German, particularly when my command of the language is so eroded. In some ways, the world is becoming more unified in economics and accessibility of information. Borders are ever more fluid. In other respects, in this post-September 11 era, we are increasingly conscious of boundaries and building Walls to keep out people and ideals that we are trained to fear or loathe. The changes in Europe in the last 20 years have shown how swiftly regimes can fall, and how ideas constructed by humans that were once seen as self-evident and immutable can crumble in a short time. That is not to say that Germany today does not still have a great deal of economic and social challenge resulting from the fall of the Wall, but that extraordinary era shows how readily societies can change when people have the will to see them changed.


Ossi (n): Colloquial diminutive of Ostdeutsch. A citizen of East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic, aka DDR.

Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi, oi, oi! A chant in support of Australian representatives, typically at sporting events, but also heard to emphasise the request for encores by Australian bands playing in Glasgow to a lot of expatriate Australians.