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East German time capsule found

Abandoned apartment reveals what life was like behind the Iron Curtain two decades ago, before the Berlin Wall came down.

BERLIN // An architect has come across an abandoned apartment in eastern Germany that has not been entered since before the fall of the Berlin Wall in Nov 1989, and says it gives a much-needed reminder of the drabness of everyday life in communist times. Mark Aretz said in an interview with The National he felt as if he had stepped into a time machine when he unlocked the door to the apartment in the city of Leipzig. "As I walked through it I realised this was the German Democratic Republic frozen in time." A wall calendar in the kitchen showed Aug 1988 and celebrated the 10th anniversary of the first joint Soviet-East German space flight. The remains of breakfast stood on the kitchen table along with an empty bottle of vodka. The occupant had evidently left in a hurry at some point in early 1989 and had left behind important documents including his driving licence.

Shrivelled bread rolls two decades old hung out of a plastic net shopping bag in the bread bin, and a pot with food remains stood on the gas hob. There was cheap aluminium cutlery in the 1950s kitchen cupboard, and the whole place was filled with East German brands of food, cigarettes and alcohol that are now sold in the many nostalgia shops that have sprouted since unification. "I felt that I was standing in front of some archaeological find and even though the objects were all cheap and humdrum, I was quite awestruck by it," said Mr Aretz, who grew up in western Germany. The apartment has no toilet - there is one on the landing outside - and a zinc bath stood upended in the bedroom next to the wardrobe. There was dirty washing in a 1960s washing machine. "The whole apartment was as miserable as the GDR was. I've refurbished more than 1,500 flats in this city and you can believe me that a hell of a lot of people lived just like this," Mr Aretz said. "It's reassuring how many light years we're removed from that way of life these days, and how much better things are now, even though we Germans always moan about everything." These days, the national euphoria that accompanied unification seems equally distant as Germany gears up to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year. A survey published this month showed that one in four eastern Germans believe they are worse off now than they were under communism, and that only 39 per cent think they benefited from unification. "The eastern Germans are convinced they were exploited and duped," said Manfred Güllner, director of the Forsa polling institute that conducted the survey. Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor, had famously promised them "blossoming landscapes" after unification, a pledge he was unable to keep as the region's formerly state-run economy rapidly collapsed.

Germany has pumped more than ?1.5 trillion (Dh7.22tn) in government subsidies and welfare benefits into the east since 1990 but unemployment remains twice as high as in the west, and there has been drastic depopulation, with one in 10 people moving away. Now the financial crisis is threatening the microchip and car industries that have grown in the region's few prosperous hubs around Dresden and Leipzig. "It angers me that in a city like Leipzig almost 30 per cent of people still vote communist," said Mr Aretz, referring to the Left Party, which has its roots in the Communist Party that ruled East Germany. "Even people on the lowest level of welfare benefits have a better standard of living these days than ordinary people did in communist times." The apartment is in an empty tenement block built around the turn of the 19th century that is now being upgraded. Mr Aretz said he had found documents in the flat showing that the occupant was a 24-year-old man who had been in trouble with the police. "It's unclear if his offences were political or if he was a petty criminal. He had spent two terms in jail and he was definitely someone who didn't fit in with the system. I've kept his documents. So far, he hasn't got in touch with me." Mr Aretz said he had kept the apartment in its pristine condition as long as possible but that renovation work had now begun, despite some calls for the apartment to be preserved in its original state. "The building's been sold, and I doubt if the new occupants could ever be persuaded to live like that," he said. dcrossland@thenational.ae

Updated: January 30, 2009 04:00 AM

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