Dr. Erzgräber, you were working here on campus in the fall of 1989. Where were you on November 9th?
I went to sleep on November 9th at a normal time. I think it was a Thursday. I didn’t see the TV broadcast with Schabowski, so I couldn’t draw any conclusions from it. The next morning I came here to the institute and thought: “Something is going on.” A lot of people were scurrying about. Groups were standing around talking. I didn’t really find out what had happened the previous night until I arrived at work.
What was the first thing you thought?
My first thoughts were very ambivalent and rather serious – I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of joy. What will happen here now? What will happen to us – and to our institute? What kind of developments will take place over the next few months? When I walked down Ku’damm the next evening, like so many thousands of others, and noticed how emotional, joyful, and excited the mood was, I actually became even more skeptical. I thought, this exhilaration about quick change, about bananas and beer cans and everything happening on Ku’damm, it’s all superficial. From that day on, thoughts about how things would develop in the GDR were always on my mind.
What did you hope for?
Many, including myself, hoped that something new would develop out of the GDR. But these hopes were dashed over the course of the following months.
I was very surprised that a majority decided in favor of the CDU and thus for the GDR’s annexation by the Federal Republic of Germany at the first free elections to the People’s Chamber in March. Talking to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in my own circle, I never would have foreseen this. I thought that some things from the GDR could be retained. But that never materialized.
What, for example?
Things like good daycare, which was later reintroduced. I was a single mother myself and was always employed. I had a lot of support from kindergartens and daycare centers, and later schools. All that completely changed with a single blow. Parts of the healthcare system also disappeared – facilities that were similar to today’s community health centers, our outpatient clinics. Perhaps also centrally regulated schools instead of the autonomous educational systems of the federal states up to high school. These are the things I think of first.
What happened next for you on the Buch campus?
Work has almost always been the main focus of my life. But all the new developments at work in 1990 weren’t necessarily pleasant. We, that is, the old directors of the institute, were asked quite a few questions and to provide detailed information about many things. Weeks and months followed in which we had to deal with a lot of things that caused a good deal of work.
Were you afraid of what would happen with you professionally?
Naturally, I was afraid I wouldn’t find another job at my age. I had turned 50 in May 1989, an age at which it is difficult to gain a foothold again. In the absence of viable alternatives, it was clear to me that I wanted and had to find work here on campus again, if anything at all. In addition to my position as head of the scientific secretariat of the director of the Central Institute for Molecular Biology (ZIM), I was also working as a scientist in the Department of Radiation Biology at the Central Institute for Cancer Research. In this department, we had made an effort to establish partnerships with West German colleagues.
So I submitted project proposals to the Hahn Meitner Institute in West Berlin and to the GSI Darmstadt, which was then called the Centre for Heavy Ion Research. I wound up working experimentally in West Berlin and Darmstadt. But it wasn’t possible to turn this into a full-time occupation. That was hard. Especially since my work was financed, to a large extent, by third-party funding in radiation research, which no longer received large subsidies in West Germany, as it was in the process of being dismantled. It was hard for us East German colleagues to get a foot in the door. At the MDC – which was then still the Central Institute for Molecular Biology – it was clear from the outset that this would not be possible at all. So I had great doubts as to whether I would be able to work again. It was hard for all of us. And not all of us made it. Many made it, which is nice, but some didn’t.
You experienced the campus both before and after the reunification. Did collaboration there change?
That’s hard for me to answer. We were teams, or as we used to say, “collectives.” We were familiar with one another and also spent time outside of work together on account of children, child care, social activities, and celebrations. I think this has changed, especially because there are no longer stable teams. Instead, the team composition often changes. Back then, we were an outdated institute. There were very few posts for young recruits. This was always resolved biologically. That sounds a bit macabre now, but that’s really how it was! Most of the staff members had permanent contracts; this was very common. So the teams became established over time, which is completely different than it is today.
How was the start of the MDC for you, with new and old colleagues?
Well… Sometimes it was alarming how former colleagues behaved towards one another after reunification. You didn’t always notice things before; this was quite understandable. When I was working in an executive position at the ZIM, such behavior never really came to the surface among colleagues, as they were dependent on the institute management. The change in some people was quite surprising.
Were people openly hostile?
Yes. I don’t want to mention any names, but once a car drove across the campus with a big sign in the back: “Stasi Erzgräber”. I was badmouthed after 1992 when I became head of location management, overseeing the security firm, garden maintenance, and a range of other management issues. Some people were frustrated that I had found a job here again. Other colleagues were hostile to me during the transition period, but became very friendly a few years later when I became managing director here. Upheavals bring a lot of things to light that you hadn’t noticed before. You gain a lot of life experience in the process.
Professor Ganten, who was not at all impressed by denunciations, supported my cause and backed me. Of course, he once asked me: “Tell me honestly, are you or are you not working for the Stasi?” That was before his inaugural speech. I answered: “Honestly, no, I’m not.” I was a career changer with a science background; nobody had ever asked me. That clarified things for him and he said: “Come to me any time. I’ll stand behind you.” And that’s what he did.
The MDC emerged from the institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. Some staff members were taken on, while others weren’t. What went well in this process, and what didn’t go so well?
That’s more of a question for Professor Ganten – we had an agreement at the time that I would keep out of all personnel issues and take care of the campus and the biotech park. That’s what I did. I worked together with Ms. Bimmler, who was the first staff council representative here, and we obtained substantial development funds for the campus, including project funding from the European Social Fund. We weren’t really on the best of terms with each other before, which was certainly due to a lot of false stereotypes. The aim of the project funding was to familiarize unemployed scientists from the East with new working methods and technologies used at the MDC. We wanted to make them fit again for the open job market. In many cases, we were very successful in this.
We were able to hire many unemployed scientists and a number of technical staff members at BBB [Management GmbH Campus Berlin-Buch], supported by several million euros from the European Social Fund over the span of many years. I think we can be very proud of this project. We had about an 85 percent placement rate on the open job market. This was a showcase project in East Germany, and several other institutes applied for it afterwards. I think that it earned us a great deal of recognition. Many employees came to us afterwards and thanked us.
How do you look back on this time today?
It was a very exciting time. In retrospect, I see it as an extraordinary stroke of luck for me, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had this career jump and a new professional challenge in this form. It shows that you can start over at 52 or 53. So in this respect, at least for me personally, all the developments since reunification have had a positive effect on my life – 100 percent!
Christina Anders conducted the interview.