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What's the standard of living like in the former East Germany,
which was untouched by West Germany's postwar Wirtschaftswunder
(economic miracle) during 45 years of Communism? Ask waggish
Leonhard ''Hardy'' Hansen, 44, of Dessau in the former Soviet
satellite, and he tells this joke, popular during the Communist
regime: ''How much does it cost to call hell from the United States?
Fifteen hundred Deutsche marks ($870). How much does it cost to call
hell from East Germany? Twenty pfennig (12 cents). It's a local
If you can find a phone booth, that is. Hardy and his wife
Edeltraud, 42, must share a single phone booth with 200 neighbors.
That causes problems for Hardy, an electrician who started his own
business last year. Prospective customers must knock on his door or
send him a postcard. Unsurprisingly, business isn't booming: Hardy
grosses the D-mark equivalent of $870 to $1,160 a month. Edeltraud
toils 40 hours a week as a bookkeeper at a linoleum factory and earns
about $696 a month. The Hansens' annual income of about $22,272 is
roughly a third of what a couple with similar jobs would earn in the
former West Germany. The Hansens' youngest son Thomas, 21, who lives
at home, doesn't bring in any money. He attends a government-run,
tuition-free business school in nearby Koethen. His brother Andreas,
22, works as an auto mechanic and lives in Dessau with his wife and
three-year-old son. The Hansens are better off than most former East
Germans: 12.1% of the labor force there is unemployed, double the
rate in the western part of the country, and another 22.8% can find
only part-time work.
Indeed, the Hansens figure that they live more comfortably than
90% of their neighbors. Like only 28% of families in the former East
Germany, they own their home. It is a spacious, 2,153-square-foot
townhouse that they built with the help of friends from 1978 to 1981,
using mostly materials pilfered from government construction
projects. They leased their 8,611-square-foot lot (about a fifth of
an acre) from the government until they bought it in 1990, shortly
before the two Germanys started to use the same currency.
During the years that the Hansens lacked government permission to
build a house, they squeezed into a two-room apartment that shared an
outhouse with another family and was heated by a coal stove. Today,
nearly a third of all dwellings in eastern Germany still lack their
own toilets.
The Hansens were fortunate to own two Trabants, the Lilliputian
East German- made cars that run -- or more accurately, lurch along
like a golf cart bumping down a stairway -- on a mixture of oil and
gas. By contrast, only 48% of households in what was East Germany
own a car. Jokes Thomas: ''How do you double the value of a Trabant?
Fill up the tank.'' Hardy sold one of the cars last summer to buy a
Volkswagen van.
Two years ago, despite their two ''Trabies,'' the Hansens were so
starved for consumer goods that they drove six hours southwest to
Stuttgart immediately after the east-west borders opened in November
1989 to pick up a VCR from Edeltraud's brother. A month earlier,
Hardy and Edeltraud had unsuccessfully attempted to smuggle the $522
machine back to Dessau after visiting relatives in the west. ''There
were no parties in Dessau when the Berlin Wall fell,'' recalls
Edeltraud. ''Everyone was in the west, shopping.'' Now western
merchants are flocking to the east. Once-empty lots in Dessau, which
in parts looks as ravaged as it did after months of Allied bombing in
1945, are now filled with used Volkswagens, Audis and even Mercedes
for sale. So many videotape rental stores have opened that a
shake-out has begun.
At Dessau's new supermarket, the Hansens can buy bananas and
citrus fruits for the first time, albeit at West German prices. As a
result, they now spend 10% to 20% more of their income on food and
other necessities than they did under the Communists. ''Now that we
can buy everything,'' says Edeltraud with a shrug, ''we don't have
enough money.''
The Hansens aren't dreaming of get-rich-quick schemes and a
Mercedes in the garage, however. Edeltraud can think of only one
purchase she wants to make: a gas furnace to replace the coal-burning
model that contributes to the brown haze that hangs over eastern
Germany. As for Hardy, he is happy just to have the freedom to
prosper if he works hard. ''Even if I don't have the money to get
into the car and drive to Paris for a vacation,'' he muses, ''at
least I now know that I'm allowed to go.'' Adds Edeltraud: ''The only
thing we'll miss about our old life is the political jokes.'' --