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In another time, not so long ago, a statement like that could land a person in jail or worse. While it's impossible to speak with people who experienced the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, visitors can hear first-hand about more recent history and life under Communist rule. A young woman in Schwerin, for example, recalled her 10-year-old classmate, who asked his teacher why everything west of East Germany was grayed out in the geography books. "Because there's nothing there," the teacher replied. "But my father showed me all the countries on a map at home," the pupil countered. The father was jailed the next day.

Conversations also often lead to the ambivalence felt by many former East Germans or "Ossies." Despite the political freedom and economic opportunity that came with reunification, many Ossies resent the "Wessies" as carpetbaggers. With the privatization that started in 1990, the German government sold off more than 14,000 state-owned companies, often for token amounts. With western capitalism came western efficiency. Plants closed. Jobs became redundant. Today, unemployment in the East is double that in the West, in some cases as high as 30 percent.

And, while most former East Germans supported reunification, many also say they were happier under the communist regime, with its guaranteed lifetime employment, low-cost housing and social welfare systems. Despite residents lingering concerns and attitudes, however, tourists are warmly welcomed.

Much of the former East Germany offers fundamental differences to the former West Germany. In smaller towns, few people speak English. After all, East German schools taught Russian rather than English (although no one seems to remember or want to remember a word of Russian). Travelers will also find that, in general, prices are far lower in the East, especially for lodging.

Times are changing quickly, however. Tourism in some areas is increasing at an annual rate of 25 percent. And memories are dulling: Many visitors to the Schwerin tourist office, just a dozen miles from the former border, ask whether the city was part of East Germany or West Germany. Maybe, after another generation or two, the residents will forget, too.


(November 2001)