East Germany may have vanished, but its distinctive aroma lingers on

March 19, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Driving through Berlin one foggy night in search of a gallery in the western part of the city, Gerd Waskoviak began to get uneasy. The signs were unreadable and the buildings only shadows, but there was no mistaking where he was. A quick sniff and he knew he had strayed into the east.

"I don't know what it is, but it stinks -- still. Even reunification hasn't changed it," said Mr. Waskoviak, 42, an art gallery owner.

There is no denying that former East Germany still has a certain aromatic je ne sais quoi, an ambience of burned brown coal and oily exhaust fumes, an odor of industrial-grade disinfectant and sausage that greets every visitor.

Theoretically, the smell should be dispersed with the air currents, making one side of the vanished Berlin Wall just as fragrant as the other. But the smell stays in the east, just as it did when the wall was up, a reminder that while much has changed in the past year and a half, many fundamentals have not.

Searching for the smell seems at first blush to be easy. Despite the proliferation of environmentally friendlier Western autos, many eastern Germans still drive the Trabant with its oil-burning two-stroke engines. The cars cough out great wads of smoke and oil when accelerating and make pedestrians long for a surgical-style cloth face mask.

But with the wall down, the Trabi now is found all over former West Berlin. The easterners drive to major shopping districts daily to shop, and many have even moved to the west with their belching autos, yet the smell in the west is negligible.

The low-grade brown coal which is still used to heat many homes in the east is another possibility.

But brown coal is also used in poorer western districts without the same effect. These areas also have a lot of Trabis, so one can experience the double treat of Trabi and brown coal. But the result is predictable: No East German smell.

But just pop into a subway on the west side of the old border, take the train a station to the east, or go up the stairs, and there it is.

"It welcomes me home. I know I'm back here in the east when I smell it," said Norbert Suhr, 37, an electrician who now works in the western part of Berlin.

He may laugh about the smell, but he also takes it seriously.

"I think of my children. Improving the environment was one reason we wanted unification, but like everything else it is happening very slowly," Mr. Suhr said.

Happily, the East German smell may not be a sign of bad air quality. Down the road from Mr. Suhr's house is the large Friedrichstrasse train and subway station and former border crossing. It was always a center of the smell.

The station smells better nowadays, but there is still a whiff of something in the air. A nearby cleaning woman had the answer.

"That would be this," she said, holding up a bottle of Wofasep Quality Disinfection Material. "Most people have stopped using it, but we have to be economical here at the station. It's from here," she said, meaning that it was produced in former East Germany. And where?

The label revealed what should have been obvious by now. Wofasept was made in Bitterfeld, known as the dirtiest city in Europe, by the largest chemical factory in the former East Germany, the massive VEB Chemiekobinat, which once employed 40,000 men and women.

"Everybody used to use it, but now they buy Western products. But it still cleans," she said.

The question now is how much longer there will be Wofasept. The Chemiekobinat has laid off half its work force. and a call to its head offices confirmed that another chapter in German industrial history may be closing.

"A complete evaluation of our product line is under way, but I can tell you that Wofasept almost certainly will be cut because it cannot compete with Western products," spokesman Volker Heckelmann said.

So the smell is to fade out slowly. The Trabis soon will be replaced by Volkswagens, the brown coal heating by central heating and the Wofasept by lemon-fresh whatever.

But reassuringly, it seems that East Germany is to be preserved. The Maerkisches Museum in (former) East Berlin has been collecting items for an exhibition on East Germany. Among the items will be a bottle of Wofasept.

When asked if the museum will be cleaned with Wofasept before the exhibition opens later this year, curator Dieter Wulkow made a face and shook his head.

"Our goal is to attract people, not repel them," he said.

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