October 3 is the German national holiday, the Day of German Unity. But unlike the Fourth of July in the United States, there are no parades and no traditions, culinary or other, because the holiday only goes back to 1990. It was introduced to mark German Reunification that year and replaced June 17, the holiday that commemorated the East German uprising of 1953.
Until the GDR began to visibly crumble in 1989, the fact that I was living in a divided country was totally abstract to me. We had no family in the East. Of course I read in the newspaper about successful or failed escape attempts of East Germans, high-profile dissidents like songwriter Wolf Biermann, and the mysterious East Berlin attorney Wolfgang Vogel, whose name always came up in connection with the exchanges of spies and political prisoners and who appeared to rather be a protagonist from a John le Carré novel than a real person.
My closest exposure to East Germany was through the textbook published in Leipzig that my professors at the University of Bonn used for Arabic language studies. Despite its clear Communist coloring, it was viewed as the best Arabic textbook at the time. We students made fun of the vocabulary full of references to the working masses, comrades, fight against imperialism, and sentences like “The delegation took a firm stand on the viewpoint of the GDR.” And we wondered how in the world those things would help us communicate in the Arab world.
In June 1989, I visited West Berlin for the first time as an adult. After seeing an exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, my friend and I sat down for dinner at a restaurant outdoors, with a view on the Wall and armed East German border guards in the watchtowers just a few hundred yards away. For my high-school friend who attended university in Berlin, this was normal but it made the pizza almost stick in my throat.
A few weeks later, East Germans started to seek refuge at the German embassy in Prague. Thousands escaped to the West what way. In early September the peaceful mass demonstrations every Monday began in Leipzig. That something was up was clear but it was all very far away for me, and I was too busy studying to really care.
On the evening of November 9, 1989, my mother called screaming, “Turn on the TV, they opened the border.” I closed my books and watched on my tiny black-and-white screen those incredible scenes of people streaming into East Berlin past the guards while tears were running down my cheeks. What until then had been an abstract notion of people being locked up in their own country, suddenly became highly loaded with emotions.
In 1991 and 1992, I spent a good amount of time in Berlin. It was then that I finally got a glimpse of the GDR. I ventured into East Berlin as much as I could, and each time it was like stepping into a black-and-white movie. I was shocked by the bullet holes from the Second World War not only in apartment buildings but even in the façade of the Berlin Dome. Everything was so run down.
When I visited Berlin again ten years later, it was totally different. The Potsdamer Platz, which I remembered as the eeriest no man’s land, had become an architectural showcase for corporate headquarters. The line between East and West was no longer recognizable. Similarly, at the wedding of my cousin with an East German, the only way you could distinguish the two families was by their different accents – just like in any other country in the world.
For many East Germans the collapse of the GDR was economically traumatic, and many still feel the repercussions today. They suddenly found themselves in a free market economy whose rules they did not know, and their entire value system was turned upside down. And, maybe worst of all, some people learned that those whom they loved and trusted the most, often their husband or wife, were actually spying on them as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
For someone like me, however, with no real direct exposure to East Germany, the GDR was a hideous yet mostly abstract concept. 22 years after German reunification, and from my trans-Atlantic perspective, it seems almost unreal to me that Germany had been a divided country for more than 40 years.
Leipziger Lerchen (Almond-Apricot Tartlets)
As I love all things marzipan, I found this specialty from Leipzig to be the perfect recipe for today.
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
¼ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
1¼ cups blanched almonds
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon brandy
3 eggs, separated
A few drops of almond extract
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1⁄2 cup apricot preserves
1. Put the flour in a bowl and cut the butter into it. Work the butter and the flour in the food processor or with a pastry blender until it becomes a coarse meal. You can also do this with your fingertips but it should be done very quickly, otherwise the butter will soften too much. Add the sugar, egg yolk, and salt and blend well. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. For the filling grind the almonds very finely in a food processor. Combine them with half of the confectioners’ sugar, the brandy, egg yolks, and almond extract. Mix the flour with the cornstarch. Sift it over the almond paste and combine well.
3. Beat the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks, gradually adding the remaining confectioners’ sugar.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan or line it with paper muffin cups.
5. Roll out the dough about ¼ inch thick on a floured work surface and cut out circles slightly larger than the individual muffin cups. Fit the dough into each cup. Set aside the leftover dough.
6. Warm the apricot preserves in the microwave or a small saucepan and strain them through a fine sieve. Spread an equal amount of apricot preserves on each tartlet.
7. Fold the egg whites into the filling and place an equal amount on each tartlet. Roll out the leftover dough and cut it into thin straps. Place them crosswise over the filling.
8. Bake the tartlets for 25 minutes, or until pale golden. They should be crisp on the outside but still soft on the inside. Unmold the tartlets at once and cool on a rack.
Makes 12 tartlets
© Spoonfuls of Germany, 2004