This article by Ted J. Simon, Travel Editor for the A-J, first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Saturday, June 11, 1983.
(Editor's Note: Robert Robinson-Zwahr of Lubbock is a descendant of three pioneer German-Texan families - the Bremers, Seilers, and Kreitzes. The Lubbock man has specialized in historical research pertaining to the Wendish-Geman elements in Texas and has authored a two-volume (1,650 pages) history titled "The Bremers and Their Kin in Germany and Texas. Dr. Robert Elmer Ward-Layerle, founder of the Society of German American Studies, noted of the volumes - "One of the most extensive contributions to German-American family history, it is not only a first-class scholarly work, but one which is interesting and easy to read. The author has uniquely woven historical, sociological, and genealogical information into an excellent form."
One of the most interesting cultures in Europe is that of the Sorbs, a Slavonic-language-speaking people. Perhaps less than 200,000 in number, they live as a cultural group mostly in East Germany (German Democratic Republic) occupying roughly an area between Dresden in the west, the Polish frontier in the east, Czechoslovakia in the south and Lubben in the north. The Germans call the people Wenden or Sorben.
A life-long dream became reality when Robert Robinson-Zwahr, born in West Texas, escorted his mother, Elsie of Lubbock, and her cousin, Agnes Lehmann of New Braunfels, to Germany last autumn. It was a journey beyond the Berlin Wall to the Germany of Wendish heritage and an opportunity to meet relations known previously only through correspondence.
The author had studied in Berlin in 1962, was familiar with Checkpoint Charlie procedures, and was prepared to leave his passport number with the border guards on the west side of the border. But the Americans were waved through after being informed that the U. S. Embassy in East Germany could be contacted in case of any passport or related problems.
At the East Germany checkpoint, the trunk of our rental car was briefly inspected and we had to fill out a card declaring how much currency we were carrying into the country, but they didn't ask us to prove the amount of currency. Going through the checkpoint was that fast and that easy," Robinson-Zwahr said.
When the Americans were preparing to leave East Germany 19 days later, they went by the police station in the last town before reaching the East-West border to get their exit visas and turn in the updated currency card. (It is illegal to carry out East German marks.) "Again we opened up the car's trunk, they checked one of seven suitcases, inspected under the car with a mirror, and we were on our way," said the Lubbock man. ''It all took just a few minutes."
During the Americans' visit to East Germany, what they encountered may surprise persons who are not familiar with The German Democratic Republic of recent years. "You see very few propaganda signs now in East Berlin," the Lubbock man noted. "And there's been a lot of rebuilding renovation in East Germany. But on the whole most of the country appears to be about 20 years behind the western industrialized nations.
Most of the highways are modern, according to the Lubbockite, but unlike West Germany, there are speed limits on the autobahn. And the drinking while intoxicated laws are strictly enforced. If you're caught driving while under the influence, you go directly to jail; there's no appeal. "The East Germans are very strict when it comes to DWI and drug offenders,'' Robinson Zwahr noted, "It seemed to be a very puritanical society.''
Although driving a total of 1,156 miles in East Germany, the Americans saw only three Russian soldiers during their days beyond the capital city. It .was 1earned that the Russians discourage fraternization between their soldiers and the East Germans. Consequently, the Russian soldiers mostly stay at their bases and away from the cities as individuals.
Most of the Americans' time was spent in the area of Bautzen, a medieval city on the Spree River that is the cultural center for the Wendish people, visiting with relations.
"It is a bilingual area with town names printed in both Wendish and German spelling," the Lubbock author noted. The Sorbs were in the area long before the German people arrived. Although the Sorbs haven't been a nation for over a thousand years, they've held on to their language and customs. The Lubbockite added that Adolf Hitler included the Sorbs in his "final solution" plans. Although, considered to be German by most other nationalities, the ·
Sorbs suffered more from the Nazi SS than from the Russians during the final days of World War II.
The religion of 90 percent or the Sorbs is Lutheran and it was a memorable moment for Robinson-Zwahr to accompany his Wendish relations to the same church attended by his great grandfather. "The church was full, and we saw all ages of people there. And contrary to what you may hear, Bibles are available to all in East Germany. During our visit, Billy Graham was speaking at a nearby city and he made the comment that he wasn't told what he could or could not talk about. My mother's cousin went to hear him speak."
Being fluent in German, the Americans had no trouble talking with their Wendish-German relations. "Since 1881, the families in America and Germany have never been out of touch with each other. Since I was a youngster, I've been corresponding with several of the relatives. I'm certain that it is a very unusual situation for relatives to stay in contact over that number of years while being separated by such a distance."
According the Lubbock author it is very inexpensive to travel in East Germany, in part because of the strength of the U.S. dollar. A two-room suite at a five-star hotel (complete with color television, stereo, bathrobes, shaving lotion, shampoo, and breakfast in the room) was only $105 (U.S.) for the three. And while the restaurant food is limited in variety, it is plentiful, and may only cost 75 cents for a standard dinner.
"You do see lines of people in front of stores," Robinson-Zwahr noted, "but that is partly because most towns still have separate stores for meat, dairy, vegetable and bakery items. They don't have supermarkets for grocery shopping. However, West Germany does have supermarkets."
Because there are certain shortages, the Americans took some items to their East German relations as presents. The Lubbock man suggests others wanting to do the same during a trip to East Germany would be wise to wait until they arrived and ask about current shortages. He explained what may be in short supply at this time, may not be a month or two from now. In the larger towns there are Inter-Shops where merchandise is available to visitors in exchange for Western currency. Consequently, visitors can shop with residents to purchase what may be in short supply at stores available to residents with local currency.
The East Germans had gifts for their American relations also. And the Texans returned across the border with more luggage and duffle bags than they had when they entered.
Attempting to locate a relative after misplacing the East German address became easy when the Lubbock man visited a police station to explain the predicament. The policemen on duty cheerfully set about the task to locate the address and give directions.
Because German only is spoken in the smaller towns, the Lubbock man advises Americans who only speak English to stay in the larger towns or travel with an interpreter.
"We found people in East Germany to be friendly and helpful, including the travel, police and border officials. No one ever questioned us. We felt welcome wherever we went."
Perhaps the poem "Ode to Joy" by Friederich von Schiller in "Impressions - A Trip to the German Democratic Republic" by Julia Singer (Antheneum -1979) is a fitting ode to the Texas-East Germany odyssey:
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.
But it should be noted in closing that the joy of travel is a one-way street for most East German citizens. Generally, only those 65 years of age or older may travel to the west. The influence of the Berlin Wall continues to extend beyond that city.