From lab assistant to chemical technician

Ramona Zummach, Technical Assistant in the group "Genetics, Nephrology, Hypertension, and Vascular Injury"

We never thought it would be possible for us to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin in the West.
But it smelled different somehow, and I was very struck by the fruit and vegetables on offer – there were fruits that I had never even seen before!
Ramona Zummach
Ramona Zummach Ramona Zummach, Technical Assistant in the group "Genetics, Nephrology, Hypertension, and Vascular Injury"

I was 19 years old and in the last six months of my training as a chemical laboratory assistant on the Berlin-Buch campus. At that time, Buch was the site of the Central Institute for Molecular Biology (ZIM) of the GDR Academy of Sciences. I wanted to go on to study biochemistry, and the ZIM had promised to support me in this endeavor. But for this I needed my school-leaving certificate (Abitur). So, on September 1, 1989, I began Abitur evening classes at the Volkshochschule (VHS) in Pankow. This consisted of a four-day basic course from 5 to 9 p.m., plus four extra lessons on Fridays – English for the first year and biology for the second year. It was a rigorous program! But I was still living with my parents and I wanted it badly.

My November 9th

On the evening of November 9, I had finished my classes at the VHS and was rushing, as usual, to the train station to get the earliest possible train home towards Bernau. When I arrived at the station, I was shocked at how busy it was. All the crowds appeared to be heading downtown; my train out of the city was almost empty. I was very pleased! Still, as I sat on the train I wondered if there was a special event going on that I’d forgotten about (smartphones didn’t exist back then).

When I arrived home completely exhausted an hour later, my parents greeted me with the question: “What are you doing here?” A little confused by this “stupid” question, I answered: “I’m here to eat and sleep! Why are you asking?” “They’ve opened the border!” my dad replied. “Everyone’s going into West Berlin. We didn’t think you’d be coming home!” I probably looked a bit dumb, but I said that I didn’t believe it. I thought for a moment about going back out again, but the thought of bed was far more appealing and, at that time of night, public transport was practically nonexistent anyway. I followed the news while shoveling some food into my mouth and went to bed certain that they would have changed their minds the next day.

But, as it turned out, I was wrong. That weekend, I crossed the border at Bernauer Strasse to see the West. The streets were gray and dirty. But it smelled different somehow, and I was very struck by the fruit and vegetables on offer – there were fruits that I had never even seen before!

“I don’t think it makes any difference where you come from”

The author's parents owned a Wartburg in the 80s.

The following weekend we drove to Frankfurt to visit relatives. I got home from my evening classes on the Friday and just had time to take a shower before we all climbed into our Wartburg, loaded with comfy cushions and blankets. My dad drove through the night and we reached our destination at 6 a.m. My aunt, who hadn’t expected us to get there so quickly, opened the front door still in her nightgown and full of joy and excitement.

This piece from a "terribly expensive boutique" still exists in the author's wardrobe. 

This was actually the most moving moment for me during the fall of the Wall! We never thought it would be possible for us to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin in the West. We were welcomed very warmly by all of our family’s neighbors and acquaintances. I don’t remember any negative reactions. At some point, we also collected our 100 DM welcome money. In a terribly expensive boutique, GDR citizens were allowed to choose one item of clothing for free. I still have that piece today, though it doesn’t fit me anymore. It has probably shrunk over time. 😊

We are still very close with our family from the West. Even if we do not always agree, we respect each other. The East-West prejudices never reached my children – which I am very happy about! Sadly, it remains in the heads of older generations even after 30 years. I don’t think it makes any difference where you come from. It is a person’s actions that determine their worth, as far as I’m concerned! My father, who worked for many years on the Buch campus as a gas fitter and plumber, often said: “Give a man a little power, and you’ll see his true colors.” He was right!

Life in unified Germany

I finished my Abitur, but did not start my studies. We were all dismissed with effect from December 31, 1991, and had to reapply. I was hired. Everything was changing back then, and in September 1991 I started further training as a chemical technician with a focus on environmental analysis at the Engineering School for Chemistry in Naglerstrasse – today the State Technical School of Berlin. Because of the unclear situation, we were exempted from duties until the end of the year. From January 1, 1992, with the special permission of my boss and the personnel department, I returned to work at the institute from 1:30 to 10 p.m., attending classes in the morning until 12:45 p.m. Whenever we had internships, I took vacation leave. I thoroughly enjoyed this further training. It even included courses in biochemistry and microbiology, which were new fields for me at the time. I also learned and got to perform HPLC and GC analyses – skills that benefit me greatly in my current job. It was certainly quite exhausting at times, but I don’t remember it negatively. Even though things were much quieter in the lab by 9 or 10 p.m., you were never alone. Our doctoral students often stayed late, and I spent many evenings with Uli Scheller – eating our evening snacks together and fighting over the photometer. 😊

I was and still am lucky to work for such an incredibly competent and empathic scientist, and still enjoy working at the MDC today!