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Crossing the border, 1990

After the Berlin Wall fell, Michael Moran explored the strange new world on the border of East and West.

Further south and a few months later, I fell in with a group of students from the University of Weimar who seemed determined to prove no American could keep up with them when it came to beer intake. I’m not really sure what happened that evening, suggesting I may have let my nation down. Nonetheless, the next morning, I convinced two of them to come with me on a three-mile trip to the outskirts of town, to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Neither of my student hosts had ever visited the camp, which had been maintained as a museum by the East German Communist Party.

“We East Germans are communists, and so we were against the Nazis,” one of them said by way of explanation as we drove up the hill to the camp. Weimar’s citizens had been forced to climb the hill by the Allied troops who liberated the camp to ensure that none of them could ever deny the horrors within.

Even in the spring of 1990, Buchenwald featured little mention of Jews, instead emphasizing the various nations the camp’s 56,000 dead had been deported from — Belgium, Poland, Greece, Hungary, the Soviet Union, etc. The dominant theme was the suffering of German communists, and a memorial to Ernst Thaelmann, the last chairman of the Weimar Communist Party, had an honor guard.

But the thought police saved the best for last: A film showed for decades to schoolchildren who passed through the camp told of the rising of communist inmates that was carefully timed to coincide with the arrival of liberating Soviet troops. The problem, of course, is that Buchenwald was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third U.S. Army.

Further south still, on the East German-Czechoslovak border, the sudden dominance of “the market” created a very special kind of industry in the little Czech border town of Petrovice.

Here, lined up for 10 miles and more, trucks from Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and points east idled away the days it took to get through the border on the road toward Dresden and ultimately the rich cities of the European Community, as the EU was still known.

All along that river of stalled commerce, barely dressed young women plied their trade, offering their sex for a few Deutsche marks, the lucky ones spending the night in a trucker’s cozy heated cab rather than the rough-and-tumble brothels that seemed to appear overnight in the town center.

This was East Germany’s hospice stage, with the deliverance of reunification already certain, but the realities of dislocation and the failed decades of state socialism all too real. This parallel universe lasted between Nov. 9, 1989, and its reunification with the West exactly one year later.

But my favorite memory of that time occurred in Gubin, on the banks of the Oder, as Christian and I crouched in the weeds.