Caught by the River


Paul Scraton | 27th June 2017

A second extract from Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast by Paul Scraton, which is our Book of the Month for June.

In search of childhood – Stralsund

We had come to Stralsund in search of childhood. We walked the narrow streets of the Altstadt – the old centre of the city – almost completely surrounded by water, like its Hanseatic big brother Lübeck. There were some stories here – a theatre, a bakery, a museum – but this was not the Stralsund that Katrin grew up in through the 1980s. Not entirely. Parts of her Stralsund were here, among the red- brick buildings with their crow-stepped gables, but the rest of her city was elsewhere, out on the edge, where the streets meet the fields, where the concrete meets the soil.

We drove out and away, the old city skyline retreating through the back window of the car. The dual carriageway wound its way through an edgeland zone of open spaces around car showrooms, petrol stations and lock-up garages. The western edge of Stralsund is reminiscent of the suburbs of so many towns and cities in the former German Democratic Republic, a place of wide streets and neatly planted trees equidistant from the neat rows of street lamps. And rising above it all, looking in one direction to the city and in the other to the surrounding countryside, a collection of the boxy, concrete-slab housing blocks of the old East.

From the dual carriageway we turned off into a new town streetscape of roundabouts, windswept shopping plazas and neatly mown grass verges. The streets were laid out in a grid, each junction a crossroads. Paved pedestrian walkways linked the residential blocks with the schools and shopping halls built to make the estate self-contained and self-containing. But despite the planning, people always find a way of personalising even the most impersonal of spaces, and desire paths offered shortcuts as they criss-crossed the grasslands. We will not be told which way we should walk.

The car crawled along the street until we reached the edge of the estate at the edge of the city. A street named Sonnenhof. Yet another block, standing back from the pavement.

That’s the one.

We got out of the car and stood looking up at the apartment block. It was indistinguishable from the thousands I had seen in the east of Berlin, in Leipzig or in Dresden. But Katrin pointed up to a row of windows and one apartment in particular. That’s the one. That was their apartment.

We walked up to the front door and looked for any surnames, all those years after the family had moved to Berlin, that Katrin recognised. There were a couple, a few people who had lived through the changes of 1989-90 when the estate, the city and the country changed beyond recognition with reunification and all that it meant.

We were the first people to move in after they built the estate.

The shipyard in Stralsund, currently employing some 4,000 workers on the banks of the Strelasund – the straits between the mainland and the island of Rügen – employed at its GDR peak closer to 52,000 people. At the same time, the East German Navy had a major base in the city. With two thirds of Stralsund’s housing stock destroyed in one single American air raid on 6 October 1944, which also claimed some 800 lives, one of the major challenges for the local authorities in the decades that followed was building apartments for people to live in. Altogether, between 1950 and 1987, around 17,000 new apartments were built in the city in new, planned estates on the western edge. One of the last developments was Grünhufe, on the Rostock road. The first buildings were erected in 1980 and over the following seven years it would become a district of some 2,300 dwellings. Katrin and her family moved to Sonnenhof as soon as the building was ready to be lived in. Family photographs depict a walk through an estate of brand-new buildings, wide-open spaces, and not much else.

We left the car and began to wander around Grünhufe. Some things, such as the shopping centre, were clearly products of the arrival of post-reunification capitalism to this corner of the city. But aside from the odd new building and the growth of the trees, there did not seem to be all that much difference from the photographs. Certainly the wind was continuing to blow, unimpeded, across the surrounding flatlands and fields and down the streets.

It was a walk through the small details of family memory. The washing lines that stood in full view of hundreds of living room windows, beneath which two sisters played. The slope that became a toboggan run during a snowy winter. The place where a brother broke his arm. The walk to school. The bus stop for the city. When I talk to Katrin about her childhood in Stralsund, about this estate and life in the GDR in general, she is rarely anything but positive.

I had the best of it. Primary school, the young pioneers. Summer camps and the youth newspaper. By the time I started to get old enough to understand the full situation, to understand the limitations of life in East Germany, well we were already in Berlin. The wall was down. But I was happy here … it was a good childhood. No one can tell me otherwise.

A few years after that first visit we returned to Grünhufe, to show my parents where Katrin had grown up. It was another sunny day. The wind was once more blowing in along the grid of concrete slab streets. Sonnenhof was still there. The apartment building was still there. At least a couple of the names on the doorbells were still there. But something was different.

It was the run-up to a Federal election. Across Germany every lamppost had been commandeered by one political party or another. An alphabet soup of acronyms. SPD. CDU. FDP. MLPD. In Grünhufe three letters dominated: NPD. Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. The democracy in the party’s name as much of a misnomer as the socialist in Nationalsozialistiche. In many parts of the country the right- wing NPD, who have been described as a neo-Nazi political party, find their posters defaced or removed almost as soon as they can hang them. In Grünhufe, it seemed, they were at the very least tolerated.

It is amazing what a few posters can do, what three letters can suggest about a place and the people that live there. It does not matter that Grünhufe would eventually vote overwhelmingly for parties other than the Nationalists. It was the confidence of the campaign on the estate, at a time when you could walk the entire city centre of Stralsund and not see another of their posters, that shaped our impression of the neighbourhood. Katrin was subdued. It was a violation of her old neighbourhood. Of her memories. Of her childhood. As we drove away, back to the dual carriageway and the road along which she once took the bus to the city centre, we talked about the posters, about what they said about the place she once called home.

It makes me sad, she said, as Grünhufe retreated through the back windscreen of the car.


Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is published by Influx Press.
You can buy a copy here, from the Caught by the River shop.

Read the previous extract from the book here.

Paul Scraton on Caught by the River / on Twitter