In the shadow
Foto: Mila Teshaieva
How are families living in the abandoned industrial districts of Halle, Bitterfeld and Wolfen in eastern Germany?
How did their life change after the fall of the wall?
Halle, Delitzsch, Wolfen, Eisleben and other places in Sachsen-Anhalt
People in Saxony Anhalt call German unification “Die Wende” – literally meaning “the turn” or “the turnaround”– and though a commonly used word in everyday language, it actually describes exactly what happened to these people after the fall of the Wall.
My research brought me to various places in the region: Halle, Delitzsch, Wolfen, Eisleben, etc. These places have undergone a dramatic transformation in the last 30 years. Once a center of industrial pride during the socialist period, this region has declined into ruins since unification.
Given the chance to explore family life in this former East German state, I decided to take up the topic which for many years has been at the center of my work: Memory. I wanted to look into the private memories of those who lived and built their lives in the time of the GDR, who went through the painful process of unification and now live in a united Germany. I decided to focus on ordinary women from small towns in Saxony Anhalt. They are neither victims nor perpetrators, and their lifelines and life struggles have been literally invisible for the last 30 years. How do they remember themselves and their lives during the GDR? And what are their life surroundings and conditions today?
During talks with my protagonists I perceived how intensely the past is still present. Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Wall, there is still a kind of collective trauma that has its origins in the experiences after reunification and in the sense of devaluation of one's past. This brief exploration could be a start for a larger project to run over many years. And I hope at least to prompt a fresh view of the people in Saxony Anhalt and give a voice to those who feel forgotten but still retain dignity and strength.
Gertrud Merkel has lived her whole life in Delitzsch, a small town near Wolfen-Bitterfeld, which at the time of the GDR was an important transportation hub for industry. She was 18 when she saw an ad saying “Come to work for German Rail” and that was how she chose her occupation for life. It was there she founded with other colleagues the “Fishermen’s Club”, which still exists today.
“For us life was interesting and full during the GDR and I personally enjoyed dedicating my life to community work. No-one felt alone in those times; we worked together and had fun together. The system of mutual support in the GDR was really strong and people were always helping each other, knowing that some day they would need help as well.”
Things changed after unification. Industry closed down, so transportation was not required. Gertrud lost her job – it was simply eliminated – and for the next 10 years she survived by doing any job. “Leute mit Wende haben sich auch gewendet” (People of the turn have also turned themselves) she says. The old solidarity was lost, no mutual support was needed and people faced the harsh reality of capitalism. Gertrud still sometimes goes to the nearby lakes to fish, but in recent years it has become more difficult. Her husband is now an invalid and she has to take care of him. We went together with her to the places where she used to work and spend her free time.
Karin and Josef Rössler have spent their whole life together and are still in love with each other. Josef’s family is originally from West Germany and he freely chose to come to the East because he wanted to be a seaman. He worked his whole life on cruise ships, travelling all around the world. From his voyages he brought back good coffee and cocoa, so that their family was considered to live a life of luxury during the GDR. Karen was a sportswoman and activist and has remained very active and involved in community life until today. The place where they first met each other still belongs to them, a small garden house near the river in Halle. We went there with them and they recalled the time they first met.
The region around Eisleben is all about two main things: copper mining and the Reformation. Here, in a small village called Osterhausen I met Silvia, who worked as a pioneer leader for 12 years, right up until the change of system. She had always dreamed of working with children and since she could not get a position as a teacher, she chose to fulfil her passion through the pioneer organization. She said: “Recently I was invited on TV to talk about my work with the pioneers.” The interview was never broadcast, probably because I had nothing bad to say about that time. I have to honestly say that I am still proud of my work. We did a lot of great things with children and taught them to be honest and kind people.” For many years a daily newspaper has been delivered to her home and she cuts out and archives any mention of her former place of work and her old colleagues.
The mountains of old industrial waste are right behind Grit Bär’s house in Hergisdorf. This is a place where she would go for a walk when she needed to be by herself and alone with her thoughts. “You come out of the house, walk down a village road and suddenly you are in a totally unreal, surrealistic space.” Grit still remembers from her childhood when huge lorries used to bring the burning liquids and the sky was bright with the fire. She says that the waste is not toxic anymore and the numerous plants growing on these black hills support her idea. Grit is very special person, growing up in a family of women: her mother, aunt and sister. She says she has always felt free in her life, whether in the GDR or in united Germany. “I realize that I live inside the system and there are rules, but my freedom is given to me and no-one can take it away. When Die Wende happened, people were hoping to keep the best ideas of the old system and enrich them with new things from the West. That was such a big illusion.”
Coffee and cakes at Christine’s and other stories from Central Germany
Sandy, the women’s representative in Bitterfeld Wolfen, was very kind and took me to the town’s ‘Tuesday’ women painters. They were meeting in a garden colony to talk about new subjects. When I got there, I was warmly welcomed and given loads of coffee and cakes. Everyone was willing to pose in front of the camera in Christine’s bower.
Not only did they look splendid, also their stories were captivating. Thekla, who had never liked Wolfen but nevertheless stayed on, was an educator before and after the turnaround and she was strict in her supervision of them.
Birgit, the good-natured one, told me she was a policewoman with everything that involves. She never wanted to get married but had two kids.
Romy, the young assistant to Sandy, accompanied me to the flat slab buildings, which were still inhabited but were soon going to be pulled down. The people in them are quite despairing since they don’t know exactly when they have to leave and where they’re going to live.
There are a lot of young people like Romy there and the SPD leader told me that friends of his age (36) who had tried out Berlin and other major cities were slowly coming back to North Wolfen.
Daniel Trettner, the trainer at FC Bitterfeld Wolfen, proudly told me that he had been born there and saw his future as lying also in that place.
My trips to Bitterfeld Wolfen are not over yet. I want to come back and photograph still more people and write down their stories because I believe they’re not being heard.
March 2018, Bitterfeld Wolfen
After my first trip with the Journalist Andreas Montag and Mila Teshaieva I was highly keyed up to get going quickly on our project in Bitterfeld Wolfen.
Very soon something wonderful happened. It was Women’s Day, which in the East is still celebrated as it was during the GDR when it wasn’t in the West. On 8 March, a karaoke night was put on in Wolfen’s cultural centre. I absolutely had to go. It wasn’t easy to get in touch with someone. Like all the other guests, I was very nicely welcomed with a glass of the famous “Little Red Riding Hood” sparkling wine. What I saw were women who were greatly intent on having themselves a good evening out. The tables filled up quickly, the DJs, who as long as we were waiting for the rush played the Stones and the Doors, switched to Helene Fischer and other hits I’d never heard before in my life. The women danced with each other and, yes, even the 20- to 30-year-olds livened up at this music. Hit songs. My God, I thought, I’m in the wrong film, felt a bit inhibited. And took some photos while the ladies danced. When they saw my camera they asked me if I might take a picture of them in a group. I was glad they suggested it, though I thought, yeah but group pictures!
When, however, I told them they should do more than just stand there, something really surprising happened. What they had to show me as they came out of their shells, was the exceptional energy emanating from them. At that point emerged a force, warmth, openness which had me totally enthusiastic.
I wanted more of it. I’m going to also look for and photograph these women’s mothers and grandmothers.
Women who were living there before the Wall was built, women who were born on the inside of the Wall and those who only got to know this city after the ‘turnaround’. What are, were their dreams; how do they see the future? I’m very curious to hear their stories, which are completely unfamiliar to me as a West German, but yet should be a part of me.
In March 2018 Mila Teshaieva and Jutta Benzenberg were together on a first trip in Bitterfeld Wolfen.
"Our trip together to Wolfen was aimed at getting some ideas about the place and meeting people who live there. When we arrived, the former industrial town was covered in snow, making the landscape perfectly clean.
Walking around the streets, we noticed the inhabitants were particularly curious about us; it seemed everyone immediately recognized us as ‘outsiders’. In a town as small as Wolfen, the appearance of two photographers is definitely a special occurrence. However, it’s not an easy place to do street photography as people are very annoyed with the media. There’s rarely any positive news about the town and this doesn’t encourage a feeling of trust.
We discussed the prospects of the town with the curator of the Industry and Film Museum, Uwe Holz: "You have to understand that German re[P1] unification had a different impact on people in the west and in the east. At first, that was the great event of the country finally getting together. For people in the east, especially in Wolfen, reunification meant the total collapse of their way of life, and for many of them the turnaround was not so positive." But I find the past and present of the town definitely very interesting for research and am looking forward to finding out more about its inhabitants and their current lives".
"Until now I only knew the Bitterfeld Wolfen region from going through it in a train…the fastest train there is.
Just through and on to Berlin.
But when I wanted to express exactly that with my camera, I became very curious about Bitterfeld Wolfen.
I saw something in the passing-through pictures that urged me to stop off and have a closer look".