Saturday, July 7, 2012

Revolutionary teenager

During a visit to University of Tubingen, I met a young neurologist who is the lead postdoc in the lab.  I see him talking to the students each day and helping them with their recordings and data analysis.  His is originally from East Germany, town of Leipzig.  In 1989, he was 14, living with his little brother, his dad (an engineer), and mom (a physician).  His parents had wanted to leave the country, and had finally gotten the courage to put in the paper work to get an exit visa. This was a brave thing, because in earlier years people who put in an application were usually arrested.  But there was a feeling that things might become easier, and there might be a window of opportunity now.  A family friend was so desperate that they bought a plane ticket to Cuba, and chose a flight that had a layover in Canada. Once there, they escaped from the transit area and asked for asylum.   He explains that his dad felt that his father had once had a chance to leave for the West, but had hesitated, and ended up living his life under communism.  Not wanting to make the same mistake, they put in for an exit visa and sold their house.

People who were in a similar situation met on Monday evenings in a Lutheran church in Leipzig named Nikolaikirche.  In summer of 1989, they would just meet in the evening and say a few prayers and then go home.  But in September of that year, a few people stayed after the meeting and went to the front of the church and just stood there for a while before going home.  This gathering at the church attracted other people who were dissatisfied with the East German regime, resulting in weekly “prayer for peace” meetings, held first at the courtyard of the church and soon in the streets surrounding it, with the meetings always culminating in standing outside.  He was there among them as the weekly meetings became larger, growing rapidly and within weeks including 70000 people (out of a city population of 500000).  The most famous chant became “We are the people”, referring to the government who used a similar phrase to describe itself.

The East German police showed restraint, and by October of 1989, the weekly meeting had more than 300000 people.  The news spread, as did the demonstrations in other cities, and the chant began to change from "We are the people" to "We are one people".  By November the Berlin wall was brought down.

He describes driving over to the west and being greeted by West Germans.  They had organized hotels for the immigrants, free of charge.  Within a few months they had a place of their own.  Within a year the two countries were united.

They settled in a small village outside of Stuttgart.  As he tells it, his life in the West turned out to be less than he had hoped for (at least at the beginning).  It was hard to be a participant in a revolution that toppled a regime and brought unification to two countries, and now just being an ordinary high school student.  He thinks he might have had the peak of his career at 14.  Half jokingly, we talked about how his experience might help people in other places who are striving for freedom.  He had thought of going to Syria to see if he could help organize demonstrations.  For now, he is a neurologist who sees patients one day a week and spends the rest of his time searching for mirror neurons in the premotor cortex.

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