Emigrating from the GDR

Jana Schlinsog was 15 years old when she emigrated from the GDR in 1989, together with her parents and her younger brother. Their emigration came after a two-year waiting period during which the family never knew whom it could trust, how intensely the Stasi was scrutinizing their lives, and whether their emigration request would be approved. If it had been rejected, the family would have had to cope with a wide range of disadvantages for many years.

Roughly two years before departure, Jana Schlinsog in the winter of 1987.

Jana Schlinsog’s parents were not supporters of the GDR’s political system. “They wanted to have a different future for their children,” she says. When she was 12 years old, her father submitted an emigration request for the entire family. That was a risk. Back then, the applicants could never anticipate how the Stasi would react. They were in danger of being spied on or harassed in the workplace. Their children might be penalized by being excluded from the apprenticeships they wanted or forbidden to study at a university. But Jana Schlinsog’s father never considered fleeing. He didn’t want to put his family in danger. “My father always made sure that we wouldn’t be harmed,” she says with emphasis.

The Stasi was everywhere

Her parents initially didn’t tell her what they were planning. There would have been too great a risk of her revealing the plans by accident. Nonetheless, she did suspect something. Her father had sold the family’s weekend house in the country before submitting the emigration request. She was twelve at the time, and that was the first hint that something was about to happen. The GDR government generally confiscated the property of all emigration applicants, and her father wanted to avoid that. By selling the weekend house, he at least received the proceeds — money the family would need for their hoped-for move to West Germany.

Jana Schlinsog’s parents revealed their plan to her soon after that, because, she explains, it was impossible to know how the Stasi would react. As soon as the emigration request had been handed in, the family was stigmatized. “You were an enemy of the system. And the Stasi was everywhere. You had to realize that.” Her parents had to inform their children’s teachers about the emigration request. “We didn’t know what would happen at school — what disadvantages we children might have to endure. I was lucky, because my teachers’ treatment of me continued to be neutral. That was not something you could take for granted.”

Jana Schlinsog with her neighbours’ cat in 1987.

Emigration

In 1989, after waiting for just over two years, Jana Schlinsog’s parents received an emigration permit for the whole family. “That was a dramatic moment,” she recalls. At that point she was 15 years old, and she experienced a torrent of contrasting feelings. She felt boundless joy and a desire for adventure and freedom, but at the same time she realized she would lose her circle of friends as well as her first boyfriend. She would also have to leave behind her beloved grandmother, with whom she had a very close relationship. “All at once, I realized that I would never see any of them again. That was terrible.”

During the final weeks before the emigration, she tried to spend time very mindfully with her boyfriend, her closest friends, and her grandmother. She wanted to gather as many experiences and memories as possible, because she knew these would be the only things that remained. The farewells were painful. After the last embrace, they would never see each other again.

The West

The family’s first stop in West Germany was the reception center in the town of Giessen in the state of Hesse. There they completed all the necessary formalities for starting their new life. A few days later, the family traveled on to the city of Ludwigshafen. Some relatives of Jana Schlinsog’s mother lived there and had previously found an apartment for the family, who could now move into it.

“The early period was difficult,” Jana Schlinsog recalls. “New surroundings, a new school — everything was new and different. But it was a good thing that I had to go to school right away. There I was together with other people my own age.” Her new schoolmates readily integrated her into their class. She made friends with a girl who had emigrated from East Berlin and was also a newcomer in the class. “That was a good moment. We got along very well, and I realized there was someone else who had experienced the same things I had — who understood what emigration means at the emotional level as well.” She had no problems keeping up with the class work. “The GDR system was very high-quality in that regard. I was well prepared in the science subjects, but I had to work hard to catch up in English,” she says. In the GDR, she had learned English for only one hour per week. There, Russian was the first foreign language taught at school.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

In September 1989, not long after the family had arrived in Ludwigshafen, the “Monday demonstrations” began in East Germany. The family breathlessly watched the events on television. More and more people gathered every Monday for peaceful demonstrations to demand a united Germany. No one anticipated that in November the Wall would come down. Like so many others, Jana Schlinsog found out about it by watching television. “That turned everything upside down. I’ll never forget it. I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says. And on that evening she gradually realized that the border was really open, and that she would be able to see her grandmother and her friends again.

After stops in Ludwigshafen and Hanover, Jana Schlinsog has now been at home in Stuttgart for 20 years.

The reunion

During the next summer vacation, she traveled back to her previous home. “My reunion with my grandmother and my friends was very emotional. After all, we had parted in the belief that we would never see one another again. And suddenly we were once again standing face to face,” she says. She spent her vacation camping with her friends, and during the following vacations they took turns visiting one another.

The right decision

Even though many things were difficult for her as a 15-year-old — leaving behind her beloved grandmother, her first boyfriend, her circle of friends, and an environment she knew well — she never questioned the rightness of the move to West Germany, says Jana Schlinsog. She always believed that it was “absolutely right” for her family to take this step together and emigrate. “I’m endlessly grateful to my parents for choosing this path, even though it wasn’t easy. Here I had a future that I would never have had in the East.”

After living in Ludwigshafen and Hanover, Jana Schlinsog has made Stuttgart her home for the past 20 years. She is married and has two daughters. And as a trained economist, she is responsible for Leadership Development at the Daimler Corporate Academy.

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