Bucket List

The term “bucket list” and the notion of creating a list of things you want to do before you die or “kick the bucket” were made popular by a 2007 comedy-drama film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. In The Bucket List two terminally ill men break out of a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with an itinerary that includes skydiving, racing cars, flying over the North Pole, visiting Mt. Everest in Nepal, attending a lion safari in Tanzania, slinging poker chips in Monte Carlo, riding motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, visiting the Taj Mahal, and dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. In the process the two men—a billionaire health care magnate and a mechanic—become unlikely friends and ultimately find joy in life, despite their illnesses.

Many American retirees, knowing they will have plenty of time to do whatever they want and can afford, are inclined to create bucket lists. More often than not, travel is at the top of the list and is rarely the first item to be crossed off. Why travel? Travel exposes you to new cultures, broadens your mind, takes you out of your comfort zone, enables you to meet new people and experience the wonders of the world. Some other common bucket list items are: Learn a new language, try a profession in a different field, run a marathon, learn to ski or scuba dive, go horseback riding, try an extreme sport, learn a strategy game, perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return, take adult education classes, be a mentor to someone, and the list goes on and on. If you have good health and adequate financial resources, the possibilities are virtually unlimited.

In the GDR, just the opposite was true. The possibilities were very limited, and everyone knew by early adulthood what was possible and also what was not possible. Young adults had their aspirations, of course, but by American standards these were modest and practical in nature. It was not always possible for bright young East Germans to attend the college preparatory high school (Erweiterte Oberschule), which started with 9th grade and finished with 12th grade, at which point students would have to pass the college entrance exam (Abitur) in order to be eligible to study at a university. In its constitution the GDR defined itself as “a socialist state of farmers and workers,” so the previously exploited working classes were encouraged to ascend within GDR society and improve their lives via the socialist system. In the higher education admission process, preference was given to the children of working class families and members of the new privileged class—SED Party loyalists and functionaries. Young persons who were completing high school or vocational school were not always able to choose their preferred career path, nor could they decide not to work. A highly developed vocational training and guidance system helped them to find “the right job” and to negotiate the difficult transition from school to work. In East Germany’s state-controlled and centrally planned economy, each person was assigned a job and not allowed to abandon that job without permission from the central planners. If someone did not have a job, that person could be declared “asocial;” asociality was a criminal offense in the GDR that could lead to imprisonment. Also, most GDR employees could not look forward to promotions and salary raises or other forms of career advancement, as we typically do in the US. They basically just marched in place.

East Germans, like West Germans and the rest of us, were eager to travel and see the world, but here too they had limited options and were subjected to many restrictions. The most fortunate GDR citizens would be able to take a group bus trip to the Soviet Union or to one of the communist countries in the Eastern Bloc—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. Like the GDR, these Central and Eastern European countries were satellite-states of the USSR from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet communist system in the early 1990s. The East German mark was not a convertible currency in Western countries, so from a financial viewpoint the East Germans were limited to traveling in Eastern Bloc countries that were under Soviet domination. The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, would further restrict their ability to travel freely for almost three decades.

Young adults in the GDR did not have bucket lists, of course, but they did aspire to lead a good life and hoped to achieve certain things. Beyond traveling to foreign countries, here are some examples of items that in all likelihood would have appeared on most young GDR citizens’ wish lists: obtaining a license to drive a car, purchasing an automobile, acquiring a comfortable apartment either for single occupancy or for a couple, landing an interesting and rewarding job, and in most cases starting a family. East Germany always had a negative birth rate, so the government encouraged GDR citizens to have children by offering various types of incentives, such as nicer living quarters.

At age eighteen East Germans could apply for a license to drive a car. As soon as they turned eighteen, most persons put their name on the waiting list, even if they had no intention of obtaining the driver’s license. They did this because an application for a driver’s license—just like an application to purchase a car—could be transferred to another person. After waiting for a period of four to six weeks, one could take the theoretical test and then begin practical driver training on a driving simulator. After successful completion of these two steps in driving school, as well as an eye exam and a first-aid course, students would be permitted to drive on the roads with a trainer. The cost of driving school was about 200 marks, which was not expensive, and it took about three months to complete. Upon successful completion of a road test, the student driver would receive a driver’s license. But once someone had obtained a license, what was that person going to drive? That brings us to a related, much trickier issue—the purchase of an automobile.

In the period after WW II, two types of automobiles were manufactured and available for purchase in the GDR: the Trabant and the Wartburg. The Trabant was East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle—an affordable “no frills” car with room for four passengers and luggage despite its small size. It was made of Duroplast, a composite material similar to plastic, and had a noisy two-stroke engine that generated lots of black smoke and pollution. The first Trabant, a P 50, was produced in 1957; the production line closed in 1991, one year after the reunification of Germany.

Most East Germans first submitted an application to buy a car and then applied for a driver’s license. Timing was a major issue, if the applicant wanted to receive the automobile and the license more or less at the same time. This is because one typically had to wait ten years or more from the time the car was ordered until the vehicle was ready to be picked up. And when the applicant received a letter indicating that the car was ready, s/he had to pick it up in person and pay for it with cash: the price was approximately 7,000 marks for a Trabant and 16,000 marks for a Wartburg. When submitting an application, one could choose between those two models. The long wait made it difficult to acquire a car, so it is easy to understand why the acquisition of an automobile was at or near the top of everyone’s wish list.

Also high on the wish list of most young adults was obtaining a decent apartment in a good location, not an easy task. Housing was a huge problem in the GDR, one that went unresolved until the period following German reunification in the 1990s. There was an acute housing shortage throughout East Germany, especially in cities like Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden which had suffered much destruction from bombing during WW II. The apartments that were available in damaged pre-WW II apartment buildings were for many reasons undesirable: These buildings did not have elevators, the plumbing and electricity were in bad shape, and the heating systems were problematic. Also, the toilet facilities were often located outside the apartment with access from the stairway landing between floors, so they could be shared by tenants on the floor above and the one below. In the assignment of living space, the post-WW II privileged class—SED Party loyalists and functionaries—would usually receive preferential treatment. Married couples with children came next, then single individuals who were in the workforce, and last of all retirees. Because of the housing shortage, married couples who shared an apartment often had to remain in that living space if they decided to separate or had gotten divorced. That could lead to a very awkward situation when one of the “separated” partners had a new lover and brought that person home. If both partners had new lovers, they would work out special arrangements for visitations that ensured privacy.

My East German friend Ida, who would occasionally assist me with various aspects of my book project on GDR literature, gave me much of the information provided above during our casual conversations. She was about thirty years old when we met by chance in a Berlin café in the fall of 1975. Ida was single and did not want to get married, because—as she asserted firmly—that would just make life even more complicated. She worked in a Lutheran Church library, a boring job that nevertheless provided sufficient income to sustain her while enabling her to keep a very low profile, something she wanted. She lived in a tastefully decorated two-room apartment (plus kitchen and bathroom) in a plain but fairly modern building situated near the center of Berlin and close to a city railway station. She said on several occasions how fortunate she was to occupy this lodging and this amount of space by herself. As we got to know each other better over time, she told me a secret; she informed me that she had submitted an application for a permanent exit visa (Ausreiseantrag) which would enable her to leave the GDR forever and move to West Berlin, as her older sister had done some years earlier. This “hostile-negative” action had made her officially a persona non grata in the GDR and potentially put her at risk for harassment by government authorities.

For women especially, life in East Germany was very difficult. For women with children and a spouse or partner, it could be extremely demanding and tiring. Every able-bodied man and woman was needed in the labor force and therefore expected to work at an assigned job. Persons who refused to work or dropped out of the workforce could be declared “asocial” by the authorities and possibly imprisoned. The typical daily routine for a woman with one young child might look something like this: arise at 4:30-5:00 a.m.; get child and herself ready for the day ahead; prepare and have breakfast; using public transportation take child to the pre-school nursery (Kinderkrippe); go to work from there, again using public transportation; work at assigned job all morning; if necessary, do some grocery shopping during lunch hour; pick up child in the late afternoon and go home; prepare and eat dinner; get child bathed and off to bed; go to bed at 9:00-9:30 p.m. Start all over again on the next weekday. Weekend activities would include doing laundry, cleaning house, shopping for groceries, etc., spending time with child, and more. Having a husband, as Ida told me, would just make life even more complicated. As I reflect on this while writing I am reminded of the saying, “a woman’s work is never done.” This certainly was true in the GDR!

One day, as Ida and I were discussing her plan to relocate to West Berlin, I asked her to tell me what had motivated her to apply for a permanent exit visa. Without hesitation and with considerable emotion, she said: “I’m in my early thirties and have done everything one can possibly do here in the GDR. I’ve taken trips to all the countries we are permitted to visit, including the Soviet Union, which I’ve visited twice; I’ve got my driver’s license; I’ve also applied to purchase an automobile and have been waiting for years for my turn to do that; I’ve got as nice an apartment and as much living space as a single person could possibly hope for in East Berlin; I’ve got a job I don’t like and can’t look forward to finding a better one; and, I don’t want to get married or have children. So, there’s nothing left for me to do or accomplish here, I’ve done it all!”

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