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Returning to the East

Phil Coomes | 10:10 UK time, Monday, 23 November 2009

Dresden, 2009. Photo by Andy Biggs

It's fascinating to see how time changes the way we view pictures. Photographs taken on a trip or holiday can be re-visited and seen in a new light. This is especially true if those pictures relate to a major news event.

In early 1989 Andy Biggs wrote to the East German embassy to seek permission to cycle through their country. He remembers "that the reply was polite but this would not be allowed."

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year he again sought permission in 1990 and was again refused. However, as the news reports indicated the border was open and as he had already obtained a visa for Poland and the then Czechoslovakia he set off.

German border, 1990. Photo by Andy BiggsHis luck held and the border post to East Germany was empty so he managed to follow his planned route and spent four weeks cycling across the country, then into Czechoslovakia and up to the Baltic Coast.

Now, nearly 20 years later he retuned to the area to see how the lives of those he met had changed.

Andy explains:

"As I approached the border in 1990 the line of Trabants grew. Those heading towards me were empty, while those that passed were loaded with western goods, boots bursting with boxes and roof racks laden with washing machines.
 
Trabant, 1990"Returning nearly 20 years later I was not certain what to expect but I managed to retrace some of my steps. The campsites were still there. They now had hot showers and seemed a little more cared for. The Czech border was now less defined, once a high fence, now it was no more than a stream and a series of stone markers. However the roads were much busier, the old East Germany was a much quieter and more pleasant place to cycle 20 years ago, even if many of the roads were cobbled.
 
"One of the motives behind my original visit was to see Dresden, a city which holds such an emotive history. As the wall came down, much of its tragic past was still there to be seen, I met five other foreign tourists on my first trip. But now the city has been restored to its grand past and the tourists bustled around, taking photographs, buying souvenirs and drinking coffee (see top photo). Here were the symbols of the new capitalism.
 
"As well as exploring the old places, I managed to meet up with a few of those I had met back in 1990.
 
"One of those people was Katrin who worked in a textiles factory, she is now 45-years-old. She had been educated in the old East German system, worked through the collapse of communism and was now a mother in a capitalist society. When I had met her in 1990 her English was unusually good, learnt mainly from her grandfather who had come to Britain. Russian was the main foreign language taught under the old GDR system.
 
Katrin"Over the next few days we caught up on nearly 20 years of life and she shared her memories of life under Communism.
 
"Katrin remembered that: 'All our education had a political message in it. One homework was to fill a page in your exercise book of newspaper articles that showed negative stories about the West, for each filled page you would get a merit. I actually did quite well.'
 
"'In 1988 my photograph was used at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The intention was meant to show how the textiles company I worked for used the latest computer technology. Although the computer was made in the GDR by Robotron, I had to hold the disc upside down so the BASF logo could not be seen, as this was a Western company. The printer was actually made by Epson but had a Robotron badge on it. However it didn't work because we couldn't afford a cable to link it to the computer. This type of thing was normal in the old GDR.'
 
Bernd in 2009"Another person I caught up with was Bernd who is now 70-years-old and has lived in the village of Neiderfrohna all his life. Born at the start of World War II his whole life was shaped by communism.
 
"It wasn't until 1993 that the village had a telephone. Back in 1982 a state-run store opened but it closed in 1990 and was never to open again. If there is one symbol of life in the GDR it is that of the Trabant car, affectionately know as the "Trabi". Made from a plastic that cannot be recycled and powered by a 600cc two stroke engine, it was basically an enclosed motorcycle with four wheels.
 
Bernd with a picture of his first car"Bernd said: 'I got my first Trabi in 1957 and although I do have a Mercedes it lives in the garage and I use my current Trabi for the daily errands. There isn't much room and you have to leave space in the boot for a tool kit, which needs to be kept close to hand! It reminds me of my youth and the life we used to have. As for the Mercedes that's fine for holidays.'
 
"While I was there Katrin's mother had her 70th birthday. All the village came, partied the whole day and on into the evening. The sense of happiness, family and community were as strong as ever. Hopefully in another 20 years time, these are the attributes that will not have changed."

Katrin's mother's birthday party

You can see more pictures from Andy's trip on his website.

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