A life behind the Iron Curtain
JULIANNE MATTERA WASHTENAW VOICE
Elisabeth Thoburn saw the Berlin Wall for the first time with her father while on summer vacation. An 11-year-old growing up in East Germany, the Wall that had separated her family from freedom had been a reality for her entire life.
“We of course knew without the physical wall that we lived in a very bizarre country because my family was split in half in 1961 when the Wall was built. My father’s relatives were all in the East . . . and my mother’s relatives were all in the West,” said Thoburn, a humanities instructor at Washtenaw Community College. “I just knew they were out there in the big free world, and we were not.”
On Nov. 9th, Thoburn will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a lecture entitled, “Reconstruction and Reconciliation: the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” that discusses the history of East Germany from World War II to present day, focusing on a famous church in her home town of Dresden. Called Frauenkirche, the church became a symbol for people in the 1980’s who were fighting for freedom.
The church was in ruins until an international fund-raising campaign helped rebuild the church several years ago.
“That’s pretty much the story I will tell—how that church went through the different phases and became a symbol of WWII being bombed, completely bombed; a symbol for the peace movement as it became a center for vigils and prayers; and now after the Wall was down, how it became a symbol for the entire world to pull together,” she said.
She will also weave in bits and pieces of her own life and experiences in communist East Germany throughout the talk.
“Her presentations are organized, exciting and just make you want to experience more of what’s going on,” said Joan Messer, a student at WCC. “And I think she’s a wonderful lecturer anyway and has such vast information to give that her experience of being an East German would just make it absolutely fabulous.”
The church was a heap of rubble when Thoburn was growing up. While she left the country in 1985 after marrying Steve Thoburn, her ex-husband who lived in Plymouth, Thoburn’s family stayed behind. Soon after, more and more civilians began protesting the country’s politics.
“Starting in ’85, people had, through the churches, put together groups—people who were interested in peace, people who were interested in gay and lesbians, the environment, reading books that were banned and all of that,” Thoburn said.
MARTIN THOBURN COURTESY IMAGE
“So people more and more became politically conscious and also said, ‘We’re no longer doing this. We’re no longer going where this government wants us to go. We need alternatives.’”
Growing up in a family of political dissenters, Thoburn and her brothers made sacrifices to stand up against the government and stay true to what they believed in. And she stood out like a sore thumb at an early age.
“My father would always wave the constitution and say, ‘There are still rights in here,’” Thoburn said.
After returning to school the summer that she saw the Berlin Wall, Thoburn wrote about her trip for a class assignment.
“I was just shocked to see that we were walled in and locked up,” she said. “And so I was promptly dismissed from school because I wrote that essay and used all the wrong vocabulary. . . . The communist called this wall not the Wall that we were locked up in but an anti-fascist protection device.”
The government controlled what books people could read and what they could say out loud. And even though she received top marks in her classes, the government prohibited her and her brothers from enrolling in higher education.
But she says it wasn’t all bad. Crime, homelessness and unemployment were basically non-existent, she said. And people still went about their lives regularly from day to day.
Just as Thoburn grew up with the Wall as a reality, she realizes that many younger students at WCC view the Berlin Wall and the Cold War as a thing of the past. And she hopes her lecture will impart a bit of historical perspective.
“I want people to ask, ‘Well, what’s the world I live in? What’s the conflict of this world? What do I have to watch out for, and what could my contribution be,’” she said. “I think that it’s important to know that you cannot change the world as an individual but you can make a contribution to the world you live in.”