German Expert Bernd Spott reflects on his journey from Germany to the United States

My name is Bernd Spott and when I arrived into this world in Halle/Saale, a city about an hour from Berlin in what was then the German Demographic Republic (or East Germany to the Amis), little did I know that 5+ decades later I’d be a “German expert” to Theatre Horizon for the production of I Am My Own Wife, but then considering that German is my native language and I grew up in post-war East Germany, I guess I do have a somewhat unique perspective.

My life journey began in Halle/Saale. Post-war East Germany in the 1950’s was not a pleasant place to be but I really didn’t know any better. Food was scarce. We felt lucky if we had meat one time during the week. Otherwise, lots of beans and potatoes. We played in the streets and would often watch the Russian panzers rumble through our town, leaving broken cobblestone in their wake and giving us something to do for the next several hours, namely putting the cobblestone back into place.

My father wasn’t around much. He made a practice of sneaking across the border and for months at a time working in West Germany, but as children we didn’t really know that. He was just off working somewhere. Then one day when I was about 7 years old, my mother announced that we – my 2 brothers, my infant sister, and my mother – were going to a family wedding in West Berlin and would be staying overnight in the big city. I didn’t even know we had family in West Berlin, but in any event, I was looking forward to my first train trip. In the morning, we each had a small overnight bag to carry and off we went, unbeknownst to me that I would not return again for almost 32 years.

The train pulled into East Berlin and with my mother carrying my infant sister, we walked into a designated checkpoint to make the crossing into West Berlin. Lots of new things to see but also lots of policemen watching us, starring at us, and making us scared. I really don’t know what happened next but moments after our mother had been given the OK to proceed and we were moving through an underpass that led to West Berlin, the police sounded a siren, whistles began blowing and suddenly my mother grabbed my older brother and I by the hand and began running toward the West Berlin side. A stranger grabbed my younger brother and ran alongside us, and as a group we sprinted across into West Berlin and my mother immediately started asking where the West Germany embassy was. Wait! What was going on? I thought we were going to a wedding. Only later did I learn that there was no family wedding. Instead, my mother was following a plan devised in secret by my father for us to escape from East Germany. We were now refugees seeking asylum and shortly thereafter we were on a plane from West Berlin to West Germany.

My life took a fateful turn that day. We left behind aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends who continued to live in East Germany. Over the years and after a somewhat rough start as a refugee among my own people, I learned a trade, went on to earn an architecture degree and met a beautiful, young American tourist, who would eventually become my wife and help me write the next chapter of my life in America.

In 1989, I watched as the Berlin Wall fell and in 1991, with my American wife and two year old, I returned to Halle/Saale. My aunts and uncles had aged, living in East Bloc high rises built so shabbily that they cautioned us not to step out onto the balcony for fear it would collapse. One of my cousins was serving time in prison for “speaking his mind”, and although the Communist regime had collapsed, he head not yet been released. They told of decades of Stasi surveillance and not being able to freely speak with neighbors because every building and neighborhood had undercover Stasi agents that were your friends and even family. One had to live by the motto “Feind hoert mit”, meaning the “enemy is listening”. So as I read the script of I Am My Own Wife to help refine “Charlotte’s” German pronunciation, I could not help but be taken back to my own life experience, and in particular, that of my family left behind in East Germany. Dangerous, frightening and uncertain times – never being able to be your true self.

I’d like to thank Erin Reilly and the entire gang at Theatre Horizon for the opportunity to be part of this fine production.

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2 thoughts on “German Expert Bernd Spott reflects on his journey from Germany to the United States

  1. Thank you so much, Bernd, for sharing with us what must be emotional and obviously still fresh memories of your younger years in East Berlin and your escape from that repressive city. Your history is a strong bridge to “I Am My Own Wife” which brought someone else’s difficult history of that city and those times to dramatic life and between the two of you, I have a lot to think about. I hope everyone will take the opportunity to experience Charlotte’s story and to have a greater understanding of what some citizens of Germany experienced throughout those years.

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