Author on Assignment: Traveling Back in Time to the GDR

Joyce Moyer Hostetter, friend and fellow children’s author, is currently writing a novel taking place in communist-era East Germany. She recently spent time researching on location. I asked her to share with us a little about her process and about how her research shaped her trip.

Thank you, Emily, for inviting me to chat about how research affected my visit to Germany. My goal was to learn as much as I could about the history of the Berlin Wall and about life in eastern Germany during the communist era. As you can imagine, this narrowed my options a bit. I love visiting castles, cathedrals, and museums but, if they weren’t directly related to my work-in-progress, I pretty much ignored those things in favor of museums and historical landmarks that were important to my character.

There is the Brandenburg Door, of course! It definitely figures into my story!

And also the remnants of Anhalter Station which I didn’t even know existed until we passed it on the way to our hotel.  I knew immedediately that this place would have significance for my character.  I can’t wait to find out how it plays into the story.

At museums that tied into my story, I had to keep my focus. I couldn’t soak up every little thing – just those items that related to my subject. Time was of the essence so my camera became my note taker. I snapped pictures of everything! Information signs, artifacts, and primary documents.

I visited specific spots where my characters spent time.

Of course the landscape has changed tremendously in the decades since my story takes place but still it was important to me to walk the cobblestone streets, see certain landscapes at sunset or midday,

 and take in the details of buildings, and the environment in general.

Knowing which trees are native to my setting and seeing them in bloom is important to me. I’m fairly certain my character would take note of such things.

So maybe you, or one of your readers, can tell me what this tree is.

 And is it the same as this one with white blossoms?

I chose not to go to some places (big heartbreak). I wanted to visit the oldest carousel in the world near Frankfurt am Main since it is (or could be) connected to my story. But since I wasn’t sure about that, and it would have cut into our time and our money, I reluctantly let it go.

We spent less than a week in Berlin and several weeks in Halle.  I’d expected my character to live in Leipzig and did some important research there as well.  But after only a few days in Halle I realized how perfect it was as a setting for my story. For one thing it’s where we’d made plans to live for the bulk of our trip (in connection with my husband’s sabbatical).

We walked along the River Saale. We explored the various sections of the town.  I discovered where my character would live and visited historic sites nearby.

Of course Halle looked different during the communist era. This city, rich with history and culture, lost much of its beauty during those years. 

But Halle’s beauty is back!

One of my big goals for the trip was to meet people who lived through communism and who remembered Halle during the GDR days. One woman, Diana, met me in a café, armed with memorabilia.

These are Diana’s merit badges from her days as a Young Pioneer, an organization designed to prepare kids for Socialist Party loyalty.

This and other classbooks from Diana’s school showed daily and yearly schedules, grades, class sizes, and also subjects studied.  Woo hoo!  I am going to need this info so I took pics of various pages.

Diana, who teaches English, also connected me with students in an English conversational group. I was a bit startled at first to realize these folks were at my disposal, so to speak – ready to answer any questions I threw at them. They gave me insights and details I would never have imagined otherwise – experiences and emotions I can give to my character and also information about street names that have changed, how the town looked back in the day, etc.

I asked about this flame I’d seen on a walk about town.  They seemed confused at first until someone realized I was referring to the flag!  Yes, that flag, the red flag of communism.  Just one example of how my character and I could see the same place with a totally different look!

I met other people who gladly shared their experiences with me. I feel that I made friends in Germany who I can call on again – to answer questions about their personal experiences, help with research, answer language questions, and maybe even authenticate my manuscript someday.

On our last day in Halle some of our new friends took us to the Halloren Shokoladen Fabrik, Germany’s oldest chocolate factory.  It was the sweetest possible way to end our time there – with a few good friends and bags of German chocolate to go.

Their exhibits included so much more than chocolate. These mannequins dressed as Young Pioneers were one of several communist era displays.  And the following is a glimpse into part of the WWII era on exhibit there.

During the Nazi era, factory changed its name from David to Mignon so it would not sound Jewish.

I don’t know for sure how this information fits into my story but it just might! After all, the history of the chocolate factory or any other part of Halle is in some small way, my character’s history too. I tried to soak up as much as I could of the place, the people, and their backstory in hopes that the essentials ooze their way into my writing.

I learned a lot while I was in Germany. But I wasn’t even back on American soil when I realized I’d missed some spots altogether. I’m pretty sure this means I have to to go back!  Maybe I will even get to see the oldest carousel in the world.

Thanks so much for sharing, Joyce!  And I do hope someone can identify that tree, because we have them here in Hannover, and I’ve been trying to identify them for a long time now.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter is the author of Blue, Comfort, Healing Water, and Best Friends Forever. Find out more about her at www.joycemoyerhostetter.com and www.joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com.

That Berlin Buzz

What a hip, creative vibe Berlin has. Like a really smooth espresso—cranks you up but doesn’t make you jumpy.

I was there in July and wished I could bottle the buzz and take it with me. It made me want to write, paint, photograph, disco!

Twenty years after the reunion of East and West Germany, Berlin is still re-inventing itself. It’s bustling with construction: here’s a photo taken from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), with a view of all the cranes going outside it:

One of my favorite spots this visit was the dome of the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament (the first shot above is looking up through the open dome).

The original dome, which was destroyed during World War II, was also glass and steel (see below), but the current one (below the original) looks like something from The Phantom Menace.

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Look inside the dome in the next photo. It’s actually open to the elements, so snow and rain enter the center column (the part that looks like a mirrored tornado) and get recycled.

The glass dome is meant to be symbolic of transparency in the present-day German government. But it also struck me as such a symbol of the city and of modern Germany itself. The über-eco space-age cupola joined with the damaged historic building feels like what Berlin is all about.

The New York Times had a debate recently about where young Hemingway would go to live in 2011. Paris again? London? Two debaters (of five or so) voted for Berlin, and I’d cast my vote for Berlin, too. It’s a magnet for creatives these days in part because it’s much more affordable than other big cities.

Holly Becker of decor8 recently wrote a post about creatives living in Berlin. She highlights a German website, Freunde von Freunden that gives sneak peeks into artists’ homes.

For some fascinating photography of historic Berlin (and other European) sites, check out this post by annekata post here. She highlights the work of two photographers who specialize in merging war-time and modern photographs. The effect is mind-blowing.

(Sadly, annekata is no longer blogging, but she’s left up her posts, which are chock-full of inspiration).

Below is a shot from an East Berlin neighborhood where we visited an old family friend. The whole place was hopping with energy and a sense of humor.

For everyone who’s been wondering where I’ve been, I’m back. We’ve done lots of traveling this summer, and I hope to share some more about that soon. The kids are both back in school as of today.

If you enjoyed this post and want to read more about my travels within Germany, check out these posts:

Chillin’ at the North Sea

Castle Storming in the Mosel Valley

Christmas Magic at Bueckeburg Castle

Day Trip from Hannover: Celle

For other travels in Europe, click on the “Travel” category.

*The two photos of the exterior of the Reichstag are from wikipedia.