Growing up in East Germany during the cold war

Mia aged 6 at home. Her parents home schooled her for as long as possible

Mia aged 6 at home. Her parents home schooled her for as long as possible

By Barry McCaffrey

Mia Lerm Hayes is a professor of Art History at the University of Ulster. Her family moved from East to West Germany in 1975 and she has worked in Northern Ireland for ten years. She recalls what life was like growing up in East Germany during the Cold War.

Mia was born in the East German city of Jena in the late 1960s. Her parents had met around the time when the Berlin Wall was built between the two Germanys on June 15, 1961. An old map of London, bought from an antique bookshop, hung on a wall in the family’s living room as a daily reminder of the free world, which they knew they could never see.

Despite (or because of) the parents’ university education – in Theology, which did not conform with the regime – they knew that Mia and her younger sister would never be allowed the same opportunity. The communist leadership’s punishment against anyone who opposed its regime meant that the children of those interested in human rights in the Eastern bloc would have to pay a heavy price.

“My parents knew that their daughters would never be allowed to do ‘A’ Levels, study or have a proper job that would allow us to use our brains,” Mia now explains.

“Those regarded as oppositional or academic children, whose parents were not members of the communist party, were not allowed to study. It was the social engineering of the East German dictatorship. They wanted to ensure that children who were socialised at home to be independent thinkers and would not rise to any position.”

As the top student in her class, the seven year-old Mia had to bring her schoolmates to attention every morning and give a military salute to her teacher. Even then the schoolgirl was aware of the dreaded Stasi and the dangers they posed. We were aware of the fact that we really could not speak to anyone about certain things that were said at home.”

When a parcel containing chocolate arrived from the west one day Mia offered some to a friend.

“No, I don’t want anything from the class enemy,” the indoctrinated child replied.

Knowing that their daughters faced a life of discrimination in the GDR, the Lerms applied in 1973 for permission to leave the Eastern Bloc.

The fact that Mia’s mother had been injured in a car accident some years before meant that the Communist regime saw her as a financial liability and was happy for her to leave.

“My mother had a car accident in 1970, which meant that she was left a ‘pensioner’ at the age of 28. She could travel to the West, because the GDR government let anyone who was on a pension go to the West and receive their pension there."

This may have been a longer-term separation, but those in the West who agreed to help the family convinced her that she could return and enough money would be made available to pay for their release from the East. Even if permitted by the East German regime to escape to the West, each person had to pay a ‘ransom’ to leave the GDR.

“It was 1975 and was in the middle of the Cold War and very early on in terms of expatriations,” Mia now recalls.

“For someone who was educated and highly skilled it would have been a lot more, but for a little girl like me I think I was worth only a couple of thousand West Mark to them. They needed the hard currency to buy more and better surveillance equipment, thus making our friends’ lives more difficult by leaving.”

It would take a full two years before the Communist regime would finally allow the family to leave. In that period moving boxes were constantly packed, ready to leave their east German lives behind within the required 24 hours.

“I remember the day in 1975 when we moved very well, because it was so strange. Everybody came and helped with the moving. We were so lucky that we didn’t have to escape on an air balloon or dig a tunnel or swim across a river like other people had to do.”

The fear that the Stasi was watching to see who helped the Lerms meant that only a family of close friends, who were already known to be active in the opposition, felt brave enough to wave goodbye to them at the train station. It would be another 32 years before Mia would see them again.

The final remaining obstacle between the family’s freedom was the infamous Friedrichstrase train station, known to Berliners as the ‘Palace of the Tears’, as it was the final place where loved ones could embrace as a handful escaped while others were forced to stay behind the wall.

Despite making it to the West, it was difficult to have left family and friends behind.

“We knew that we would not necessarily be allowed to go back. In the first year we didn’t have the money to go back a lot. After that we weren’t allowed to visit our friends or family for another seven years as the East Germans wouldn’t let us in. Once we drove from Northern Germany to Bavaria, just to pass Jena (their former hometown) on the transit motorway. We weren’t allowed to stop – it was heart-breaking.”

Mia's mother has never requested her Stasi file

Mia's mother has never requested her Stasi file

Despite huge problems the family made every effort not to lose contact with their loved ones in the East.

“Even then I knew that all the letters being sent back and forth were read and all the parcels were opened. Every telephone conversation was monitored. You could hear the click on the line. Just because we were now in the West, didn’t mean that the spying had stopped. You grew up with that sort of knowledge, that they always listened in.”

In 1989 both the Berlin Wall and then the GDR finally collapsed after tens of thousands of East Germany citizens took to the streets in what became known as the Peaceful Revolution.

Later, thousands of former GDR citizens sought to discover whether or not they had been spied on by the Stasi, but Mia’s mother has chosen not to.

“Mother never requested her Stasi file,” explained Mia.

“I went to the Stasi Archive and wondered whether I could have a look at my family’s file, but I got a letter back to say that there were no files on children.

“I don’t know about my father, because my parents separated, but my mother, probably because of her culture of forgiveness, decided not to ask if the Stasi had spied on her and who might have informed them.”

Mia’s mother’s unbreakable determination that her daughters had access to a good and democratic education was a direct factor in her decision to move to Northern Ireland in the 2000s.

“The link between my history and being here in Northern Ireland is very straight forward for me.

“Economic prosperity wasn’t part of the motivation for my mother at all. It was her daughters’ education that drove her. From my schooling I learned to think critically. I feel I have an obligation to use the education that I received under such difficult circumstances for the democratisation of a society that needs it. That’s why I chose to come to Northern Ireland.”

While the University of Ulster art history professor believes there are lessons that her adopted home Northern Ireland can learn from her place of birth, she warns that it would be a mistake to try to impose a “one-size fits all” approach to truth recovery for victims.

“I do think there are parallels, but not the kind of parallels you might find in the technicalities of simply saying ‘let’s use what happened to the Stasi files in Northern Ireland’.

“If you say: ‘we’ll look at the Stasi archive and see what we might learn from that for Northern Ireland’ you’re making a lot of assumptions. You’re assuming that there are archives in Northern Ireland, and did the paramilitaries on both sides have archives?

“What you are actually talking about are the crimes committed through collusion. You are talking about state violence. You’re assuming almost that it was a dictatorship here, which, in a systematic way, gathered information on those who were not supporting it, and you’re assuming that the state has not carried on doing the same.

“One is encouraged of course by what happened eventually in the case of Bloody Sunday and David Cameron’s apology.”

However, Mia believes that the intransigent approaches adopted by all sides in Northern Ireland remains a stumbling block to progress.

“What we could learn is that there are more than just two sides.

“What you see in a film like ‘Good Vibrations’ is that there was also a music community here, which didn’t care if you were from one side of the fence or the other; similarly with visual artists.

“There was also the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s and the tragedy of Northern Ireland is that the moral high ground that it had was not sustained as a model. Obviously it was considered by the government of the day to be dangerous; otherwise Blood Sunday wouldn’t have happened.

“The sad thing is that the Civil Rights movement is not universally acknowledged as having been a cross-community movement. People like John Hume aren’t enough considered to be the heroes of Northern Ireland. If this was the model, the thinking might be quite different. We might actually consider having someone like Heaney as a president, like Vaclav Havel was in Czechoslovakia. It is as if Northern Ireland is still stuck before 1968 or 1989, desperately trying to hang on to hierarchies, to authoritarian thinking.”

RETURN to the first part of this series: Secrets in the files