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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
Concrete Details - Your Guide's Tour of Erfurt, Germany
by Sanford Tweedie
Come with me. I want to show you some things. It's a short tour. We won't be gone long.
     It starts here outside the Plattenbau I'm living in. Notice the concrete. It's all concrete: walls, floors, ceilings. Russian-designed, socialist-style, preformed apartments stacked one on top of another twenty-some years ago during "former times," as people here call the German Democratic Republic era of East Germany.
     Look around. This once was farm fields on the edge of town. Now Plattenbaus everywhere. Some are seventeen stories high. Three hundred altogether in Erfurt--enough housing for over half of the town's 235,000 inhabitants when the Wall came down. They were built so that everyone had a place to live out the busy but uneventful lives the government had planned for them. When constructed during the 70's, these were the place to live: central heat and a bathroom in each apartment rather than coal brought up from the basement and a shared toilet down the hall, as was the norm prior to this.
     Following the collapse of the Wall and an initial influx of West Germans--brought in to run businesses, teach at the university and administrate everything else--housing in Erfurt was so tight that costs were the third highest in Germany, trailing only Munich and Hamburg. Since then, almost 40,000 people have left, gone West across the former border in search of jobs and new lives. By 2020, another 30,000 are expected to leave. The population then will be 168,000. New construction and the renovation of old-city apartments now make Plattenbaus the least desirable housing. With no people to fill them, some forty-eight of the Plattenbaus in Erfurt are slated for demolition over the next few years. Half a century after World War II, the destruction of buildings begins anew.
     Look there and there. And there. No drapes. So many empty apartments. Mostly it is the young who move, leaving the older generation behind. And alone. Nearly forty percent of the housing in Erfurt contains only one person. Of those who remain, many spend their time looking out the windows. See that man up there with the gray hair, elbows on the sill. Since the windows are hinged like doors and there are no screens, he can just lean out. Even in winter, he has the window open. I see him every day--watching, pondering, trying to make sense from up high. Do you think he ever gets the urge to jump? Others have.
     We're standing on the corner of Moskauer Straße and Sofioter Straße. All the streets in this area are named for capitals of once-communist or Soviet-leaning countries. In addition to Moscow and Sofia, streets are named after Havana and Hanoi; Bucharest and Budapest; Prague, Warsaw, and Helsinki; even Vilnius and Ulan Bator, the capitals of Lithuania and Mongolia; and, of course, Berlin. This refers to what we know as East Berlin, but the GDR never called it by that name, as if to do so would delegitimate the country. The Straße der Nationen, which runs through the midst of these streets, further signifies the eminence the GDR gave these countries.
     Here comes the Strassenbahn. Quick. Make a run for it. That bell means the doors are going to close. Emphatic, aren't they? Notice how the Germans trust one another. No one to take your money. It is expected that you will buy a ticket. There are occasional spot checks. I have only been asked once in my time here. I don't know anyone who didn't have the required ticket when it was requested.
     This is our stop. Universität. Come, I want to show you where I spend my days.
     Through these gates. Odd that the university is fenced in, isn't it? This was all erected when the college's only mission was to train teachers, who would in turn train young people to become good GDR citizens. Wave to the security guard in the booth when he looks up from the surveillance camera. It's his job to know everyone.
     Here's my building. More concrete. Let's take the stairs. I always take the stairs. It's on the sixth floor. Since the first floor is not numbered here in Germany, that would be the seventh in the U.S. We Germans and Americans regard our stories differently.
     Go ahead; catch your breath. My office is down the hall, last door on the left. Come inside. Quite a view out the window, no? I want you to see something. Out there. On the hill, where it begins to slope downward. Use these binoculars. Can you see it better now?
     That's the Buchenwald Memorial. 165 feet of concrete. About seventeen stories high. On clear days, it's visible from everywhere in the surrounding area. Here, we're about ten miles away. The monument stands a short distance from the entrance to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, which is hidden by the trees. The monument was begun in 1954 to commemorate the anti-fascist (and largely communist) resistance fighters who died inside the camp. As if these deaths deserved more recognition than those of the others who perished within. Below the base of the monument, there are eighteen smaller stone pillars, each representing the nations from which camp prisoners came. The walk in front of the pillars is also called Straße der Nationen. It traverses depressions in the ground theat were once filled with the cremated remains of prisoners.
     Some 238,000 people passed through the gates of Buchenwald--as prisoners. Equivalent to Erfurt's population at its height. A fifth did not come out alive. Official camp estimates place the total death toll at 65,000--approximately the number of people who will have vacated Erfurt by 2020. Some coincidences are disconcerting.
     You can see stone and concrete at Buchenwald, too. The main access into the camp is called the Road of Blood to commemorate the many prisoners, mostly Jews, who died while being forced, during its construction, to transport stones from a nearby quarry. Those who the SS judged too small were immediately killed. Within the camp, rows of concrete foundations where wooden barracks once stood are now filled with rocks taken from the quarry. Also, a wide strip of stones bordering the fence delimits the "neutral zone," an area where prisoners were not allowed to tread. Those who did were shot.
     My friend Andreas--he's German--wanted to visit Buchenwald Camp and the memorial last fall shortly after he moved to town. He's one of the few coming into Erfurt rather than leaving. Being unfamiliar with the area, he stopped at a village in the valley below the monument and asked several people for directions. Not one could tell him what route to take to reach the monument. Perhaps this corroborates Austrian writer Robert Musil's claim that "there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument."
     We should be going. If we hurry, we can catch the 3:15 Strassenbahn into town. Along the way, we'll pass the local Stasi headquarters, a dark red brick building looming behind a fifteen-foot stone wall. It now serves as a jail. After the Wall came down, it was the first Stasi office to be stormed in an attempt to keep incriminating files from being destroyed. We can also walk to the J.A. Topf and Sons factory, where they made the crematoria used in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It remained in business, under various guises, until 1994. Now it is no more than an empty compound of brick and concrete structures standing in a neighborhood of nice apartments. Neither of these sites can be found on tourist maps.
     Just out this door, down the stairs, then back out through the gates. Wave to the guard again. He's doing his job.
     Follow me.

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