Global Politics

Life Behind the Iron Curtain

The Geo Quiz heads for Germany this time. The former East German city we're looking for is located right where two German rivers, the Elbe and the Mulde, come together. Allied air raids during World War II more or less flattened the city.

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In 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, the city was cut off from the west. Today, it's known for its rebuilt bridges, parks and palaces. And its got some striking examples of Bauhaus architecture. The art and design movement flourished here in the 1920s.

And if you're a fan of music from that era, this city in Saxony-Anhalt is the place to be when it hosts its annual Kurt Weill music festival.

The answer is Dessau. Up until the building of the Berlin Wall 50 years ago, residents of this east German town were able to move relatively freely between the East and the West. Reporter Miriam Widman profiles Dessau resident Ingeborg Stolloch:

Ingeborg Stolloch was a young widow in the early 1960"²s. She lived in the East German city of Dessau with her young daughter. The rest of her family lived in West Germany. And as she tells it, her mother was constantly pleading with her to move there.

"Mom always said, you're all alone with the child. And the relatives were all in the west. But at the time it was relatively easy to get to West Berlin. I said, Naa. I can visit whenever I want. But I always toyed around with the idea."

Stolloch was toying around with the idea again when she visited her parents and sister in July of 1961 — just two weeks before the Berlin Wall went up. But she just couldn't move. She'd finally finished furnishing her apartment in East Germany. And that was no small thing.

"I didn't trust myself. Honestly. Because we had to deal with so much deprivation and until we had an apartment once again and with all that entails….a kitchen, the pots and pans and everything else that goes with that. We'd jus gotten it all new. And so I kept hesitating."

But it wasn't only the furniture. Stolloch had a sense of security in Dessau — something she hadn't known in a long time. She was born in 1930 near what was then the German city of Breslau. In the bitterly cold winter of 1945, the Nazis kicked the family out of their house as the Russians were fighting their way toward Berlin. Stolloch's mother thought they would be back soon… So they gathered some personal belongings, but left their furniture behind.

"She cleaned up the kitchen and packed up everything. Aaah. I even think she got coal out of storage so we could heat the house when we came back. She always thought we would return home. That's what they told us. We never went back to the house."

Stolloch's family lost all their furniture and most of their possessions.

"We had nothing. After two days we lost all our luggage. No blankets. Nothing to wear. And all that by ice cold. It was dreadful."

Today, Stolloch's apartment is in a housing complex once part of the non-descript, Soviet-style apartment blocks built in East Germany. She enjoys making coffee and cake for visitors to her small, but well kept one bedroom apartment.

But her memory of World War II is very clear. Maybe, if she hadn't already had the experience of losing everything and having to start over again, she would have stayed in the West during that visit in July of 1961.

"Yes, I was back home for 14 days. That was the end of July 61 and then August 13 they built the wall. And then it was over. You couldn't go again. I was toying with the idea. What should you do here all alone? I don't know. Maybe it should have happened that way."

Stolloch sifts through a stack of official papers looking for a letter. In the late 1960"²s her mother got sick, and she eventually died in 1968. Stolloch applied for permission to go to the funeral. But the East German authorities rejected it. The last time Stolloch saw her mother was on that fateful visit in July 50 years ago. She often thinks of what might have been had she moved to the west. But she did love that furniture — and the feeling of stability it gave her. And she still has the wardrobe.