‘Ottawa’ Capital Voices: ‘You’d Never know When you Crossed the line’
In anticipation of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations, the Citizen’s Bruce Deachman has been out in search of Ottawans — 150 of them — to learn their stories of life and death, hope and love, obsession and fear. From Feb. 2 until Canada Day, we’ll share one person’s story every day.
“I was 10 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. We were living 30 minutes outside Berlin, in a small village, Goemnigk. Typical East German village: 750 years old, 300 people. I remember my mom got a phone call from her dad in the middle of the night. She was a countryside doctor. I was already half awake, and then she woke us up and said, ‘The wall came down, the wall came down.’
“I went back to sleep. I was 10 years old and it wasn’t a big deal, but my mom I know was up all night. My dad was on a business trip and came back the next morning and said, ‘OK, we will go over to the west side.’ For me that was a big moment, because growing up in East Germany you did not have access to anything in the west.
“We went over, the day after the wall fell, to have a look. And every East German who went over for the first time got 100 West German marks; it was called welcoming money. So there were lineups everywhere at banks. It was insane. And people had this perception that we were poor and starving in East Germany, which was not true. So, like, an old lady came up to me and said, ‘Have a banana, you poor thing,’ and there were lorries where they were throwing food at us — West German chocolates and other stuff we normally wouldn’t get.
“Because we lived close to Berlin, we had access to TV from the west, which was a bit of a detriment to us in school and daycare, because of how the (Ministry of State Security) Stasi works. It was a huge organization with 80,000 people employed, but then they had their secret IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or informers). I think in 1989 they had 180,000 of them. They were everywhere. They were your neighbours, your colleagues, your daycare. I was in daycare then and they would ask us, ‘So when you watch TV, when you watch the news with your parents, what shape is the clock before the news starts?’ The West German one was square and the East German one was round. And as a kid you didn’t know better. ‘Oh, it was square,’ and the next day my parents were “invited” to the school and got the talk: ‘Your kid said the clock was square. Are you watching any TV from the capitalist side?’
“So my parents were like, ‘We were not officially watching, but when we flipped channels maybe something slipped in.’ You always had to defend yourself. If there was anything suspicious, your parents would be invited to have a talk to confirm, ‘Are you still in line with our government?’
“We were the communists, the socialists. They’re the capitalists. They’re our enemies. We were taught from a young age that our only friends were the Russians or Cuba or any communist country. Otherwise, the rest were our enemies. And when the wall came down, suddenly all the history they were teaching you, that America — and Canada — were bad, and Russia was good, was eradicated. I was pretty young, so it was confusing. The week after the wall came down, my history teacher seemed almost schizophrenic, switching everything around. And I’m like, ‘What’s happening?’
“The wall fell in ’89, and in ’92 they started allowing people to request their (Stasi) files. They blacked out anything that could identify people, like names and vocations, but if you read your file through, you could very easily figure out who was spying on you.
“Most people didn’t have phones. My mom did because she was the doctor. But it was a party line, and was hooked up with the gardener’s, who worked for the Stasi. She also drove to work with a woman who was a nurse, who was also spying on her.
“For the IMs it was very lucrative, because they got paid for each report they wrote. By comparison, my mom was an anesthesiologist at the hospital and made between 800 and 1,500 East German marks per month over her career. My dad, an engineer, started at 1,000 marks and moved up to 1,300. But IMs’ reports started at 100 marks each, and went up if the subject under investigation was of high importance.
“It really was a learning curve for me, going to a university in Canada and learning about freedom of speech. What I found, even with my kids growing up, is this notion that you can present openly, you can say whatever you want. There’s no suppression. Whereas I was always so cautious about what I could and couldn’t say. I was taught by my parents what I could and couldn’t say, and I had to be careful. My mother was very open about what would get me in trouble, but it really closed me up at times as a kid because I’d be worried about saying something wrong. You’d never know when you crossed the line.”
— Katrin Spencer. The Central Experimental Farm, Feb. 3, 2017.