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Changing Lifestyles : Working in the West Leaves Germans Gasping, Grasping : Making the transition from a moribund economy to the land of plenty has been a difficult experience for many East Germans. Some find it too difficult.

August 07, 1990|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MUNICH, West Germany — Siegmar Klebenow came face to face with capitalism for the first time at a Bavarian butcher shop. He nearly fainted.

"I just stared at all the meats," the 26-year-old East German emigrant recalled. "There were so many of them! I looked so hard, I couldn't see anymore. It made me dizzy.

"I had to run outside for air."

Eight months after he crossed the border with a caravan of friends, Klebenow considers himself well-adapted, "a genuine West German."

But the transition from a plodding, socialist society to a bustling capitalist one has not always been easy, and now the demands as well as the choices occasionally leave Klebenow gasping.

"It's completely different," he says. "I'm perfectly happy, and I would never go back, even after reunification, but life is totally different here."

More than half a million East German refugees have streamed across the West German border in the last year, looking for better jobs, better pay, a better life. Klebenow, who found work at a Lowenbrau brewery here, is one of the lucky ones.

Of 192,152 East Germans who emigrated in the first six months of this year alone, an estimated 90,400 remain unemployed, according to Bonn government statistics.

Some who do find jobs soon quit, or are fired, because they cannot adapt to the faster pace and higher demands of Western production. Others move on when they cannot find affordable housing, which Lowenbrau said was the case with three other East Germans it hired.

The East German government estimates that 150,000 workers are now commuting to jobs in West Berlin, while an unknown number shuttle between jobs in West Germany and homes in the East.

Back in Pritzwalk, a village of 360 near Potsdam, Klebenow worked on a collective dairy farm as a shift supervisor. His nine-person unit managed 600 cows.

"We had to keep track of what each cow was fed, what shots they had, how much milk they produced," he said.

"Unfortunately, not many people wanted to go into this field of work, and we were short-handed all the time," he said. "We had to work 220 to 250 hours a month. Eight-hour days, but we had to work 11 days in a row, then two days off, then switch to the night shift for another 11 days on, two days off, and so on."

He earned 800 marks (about $500) a month, plus a free hot lunch each day.

"Now I earn four times that," he said with a broad grin, "and the work isn't as hard."

At first, Klebenow found his Western job filling beer bottles "too boring. I was used to more physical labor, and more responsibility."

But he soon became fascinated by the technology and now hopes to learn more about the computers that guide beer bottles through the assembly line.

Klebenow has already earned a promotion to bottle inspector and monitors three different machines from a computer screen that tells him what is happening to any given bottle during the filling process--the brewery's equivalent of an air traffic controller.

"Most of the East Germans who come over and don't make it are overwhelmed by the technology," Klebenow said. "There are hardly any computers over there at all, but over here, school kids have them.

"That worries me some. The education differences, I mean. Because our education systems are so different, it would be hard for me to go back to school here."

Klebenow has no great ambitions at Lowenbrau. He spends 80 marks a month--about $50--for a factory dorm room across the street from the brewery. He shares a room, a bath and a small kitchen with three other men.

"I'm saving my money to buy some property," he said. "I miss open land. The toughest part has been coming to a big, anonymous city from a small village where everybody knows everybody, and someone in the next village always knows someone you know, and so on.

"Back there, I could get on a motorbike and be right there in a place where I could just ride through fields all afternoon."

Now, he owns a 10-year-old car. "I never dreamed two years ago that I would ever own a Volkswagen!" he said. "I'm so proud of it! "

He returns to East Germany often to visit his ailing mother and the 5-year-old son who lives with his ex-wife.

"I went by the dairy once, and they were still waiting for the new automatic milking machines they had been promised ages ago.

"The ones they have now are 11 years old. The dairy will probably go under before the new ones ever arrive. It's not efficient. Under central planning, we had to overproduce milk to meet goals. Thousands of liters would go bad and be used to feed pigs."

Klebenow got his brewery job through an amazing stroke of luck on his very first day in West Germany.

The four-car caravan of 14 villagers from Pritzwalk left Nov. 9 for the Czech border, where the East Germans had heard they could cross freely into West Germany. They were well on their way when they heard that the Berlin Wall had opened.

By the time they reached the border, traffic was backed up for 30 miles. It took them 21 hours to inch their way to freedom.

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