How a Fulbright Influenced My Family: A Historic Year in West Germany – Joseph C. Makarewicz – Germany 1989

With two young daughters in their formative years and my wife, I left in September 1989 to Plőn, a small village located in the lakes district of northern West Germany. We did not know what to expect. Who knew 1989/90 would be a historic year in the then, divided Germany. As a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Max Plank Institute for Limnology, I published manuscripts, gave seminars, and met with visiting limnologists from Germany, Japan, and Russia. I became a better limnologist and scientist but the story does not end there. It starts.

Our English only-speaking children were enrolled in the Gymnasium –the local German speaking school. The teachers worked with them and it turned out to be a great learning experience for our 9 and 12 year old. Within a few days, there were German-speaking kids at our door. Somehow, they communicated with each other through game playing, birthday parties, and play dates. By the end of our stay, our younger daughter was speaking German.

My older daughter was against going to Germany saying: “I will miss my friends. Why do I need to learn anything but English?” She now speaks several languages and became an internationalist with a Ph.D. in Archaeology and has archaeological sites in Jordan, Russia, and Mongolia. She is currently Frau Professor of Archaeology at Kiel University in Kiel, Germany only 40 miles from our Fulbright home in Plőn. Who would have guessed that outcome?

When East Germans were allowed to leave East Germany, they crossed the border by the thousands to towns, such as Lubeck 20 miles from Plőn. It was an amazing experience for us. They were looking for their families and for freedom in West Germany. In the subsequent months, my wife, a language teacher, taught an East German youngster English and led a group of five women in weekly sherry-augmented discussions about clothes and toys for their American grandchildren, while improving their English.

We were being integrated into the community. We were invited to homes to celebrate holidays and local events. One such invitation involved the young girl we hired to help our children with German. Her physician father proposed a toast thanking my family for the aid from the Marshall Plan. He was a youngster at the end of WW II and without the aid, he and his mother would not have survived. I have conveyed his story and gratitude many times to Americans.

We traveled to Bremen, Kiel, Lübeck, Hanover, and Hamburg. In November just after the border was opened to East Germans, we traveled to Berlin. No one knew how the Soviets would respond and we were cautioned by the American Embassy to travel by bus or train. Crossing the border into East Germany was reminiscent of a WW II movie with passport checks made by guards carrying submachine guns with dogs and guard towers. It scared us all. In Berlin, we walked on a very cold day to Checkpoint Charlie, where American and Soviet tanks once faced each other. The bullet-scarred Reichstag and the Berlin Wall were nearby. Hundreds of West Berliners were hammering on the wall. With a borrowed hammer, I too began hammering on the wall until a West German policeman asked the people to stop. They did not. I brought a piece of the wall home and gave a piece to the Max Planck Institute. At the annual Institute Christmas dinner, the Director proudly displayed that piece of the wall and its relevance to their future.

I came back a better scientist with a firmer grasp of my field. Now many years later, I realize the largest impact was on my family. They became internationalists. The Fulbright broadened their understanding and perspective of a complicated world influencing college and career choices. We will forever have fond memories of our time in Plőn, West Germany.

Lastly, we are indebted to Professor Winfried Lampert, Director of the Institute, and his wife, Renate, for their gracious hospitality.

Joseph C. Makarewicz – Fulbright to Germany 1989 (Joseph C. Makarewicz is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus State University of New York at Brockport)

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