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Go West, Young Woman

Many are leaving east Germany for better job prospects. Ironically, they find, a communist upbringing makes them more self-reliant.

August 09, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

HAMBURG, Germany — They closed the cinema and then the disco. The tractors grew scarce and the men grew moody. Claudia Mantzsch's east German hometown seemed to shrink. She wanted to stay but was laid off two weeks after getting her first job. Her boss offered some advice: Flee this place, or become a nurse for the elderly.

She looked around Grimmen, a wrinkle in the fields about 175 miles north of Berlin. The only buzz came from the gas station lights down the street from the medieval town hall. She packed and headed west four years ago.

"I knew there wouldn't be any more jobs in the east," said Mantzsch, a 24-year-old office manager in Hamburg. "It's sad. When the Wall fell and communism ended, there were 17,000 people in my town. Ten thousand are left."

Facing life in a region with unemployment rates as high as 30%, east German women are starting anew in cities such as Cologne, Munich and Hamburg in the west. Some leave behind parents, others husbands. The women aren't always thrilled with cosmopolitan life, and they're occasionally stereotyped as communism's abandoned handmaidens. But they are not deterred, and, ironically, they say communism emancipated them for a future they never imagined.

"Women under socialism were raised to be independent," said Silke Schluessler, 34, who works in Hamburg and travels 125 miles on weekends to visit her husband on the eastern Baltic Sea. "You learned you had to earn your own money. You raised children and you had a job. Everybody worked. This wasn't so in the west. When we come here, we know we can handle it."

Dating, however, is an odd game of cultural permutations, some single women concede.

"Men from the east are tougher than men from the west," said Kristina Sass, a 26-year-old real estate manager who left the eastern hamlet of Greifswald. "I'm seeing a Hamburg man now. He likes my independence and how I quickly got my apartment and my car. It's a kind of cliche. Western men are softer. You never hear a loud word from them. Even the construction workers in the west don't whistle."

The migration of women is part of an unsettling demographic trend. For every 100 men in east Germany ages 18 to 29, there are 89 women. That ratio drops to 76 per 100 in one eastern enclave. Fewer women mean fewer children -- Germany already has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. The scenario is particularly troubling for the east, where villages are dying and, in 15 years, 36% of the population in some areas will be 60 and older.

"How can you boost the economy of the east when you have so many people over the age of 50?" asked Steffen Kroehnert, a researcher with the Berlin Institute, a foundation that studies global population trends. "No business will open a factory if there's no young people around. This is a big problem."

For thousands of women, the bigger problem by the late 1990s was staying in a region that offered little more than nostalgia. The scant work available went mostly to men. And many of the men couldn't adapt to the new era, even though the slogans of a socialist utopia and a workers' paradise dried up long ago. Young professional men did migrate, but hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers, unskilled and cradled for decades by obsolete communist companies, were reluctant to look west.

"East German women are more adaptable than their men. Men are more of the mentality that Klaus won't leave unless Olaf goes too," said Volker Jennerjahn, who runs a website that tries to persuade those who left the east to return. "Women know it doesn't make much sense to marry an east German, and in many east German towns a man has almost no statistical chance of finding a wife. The women are gone."

That fact echoes through Tilo Koch's life. "You can tell there's a women shortage when you go to parties," said the 37-year-old car dealer from the eastern town of Falkenberg. "Relationships are shaky because, with so few women, men are chatting up all the women they can get a hold of, including those already in relationships. Most young women left in the east are in need of money. It's hard to find someone."

When the Cold War ended, women such as Schluessler intended to stay in the east. She and her parents bought a farmhouse in the northern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and turned it into a carpentry shop.

"We went through awful, awful years," said Schluessler, who now works in an insurance office of a Hamburg-based supermarket chain. "We worked 12 hours a day and couldn't stop from going broke. Our customers couldn't pay."

With limited opportunities, the family scattered to find employment. Her husband headed north and took a computer job near the Baltic Sea. Her mother moved to Switzerland to work in the tourist industry. Her father headed northeast, to Rostock, and taught school. She and her sister drove west.

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