Written by Bethan Keirl
In early April 1975 a bunch of ten intrepid students of German at Manchester University set off, somewhat nervously, for Leipzig, then in the German Democratic Republic. They were to spend nearly three months as students of the Karl Marx University. (In those days it was a requirement for students of German at Manchester to spend a semester at a German-speaking university. West Germany, Austria and Switzerland were extremely expensive, and Manchester’s recent partnership with Leipzig offered them a cheaper, if somewhat different opportunity.)
From the moment their train reached the GDR border, when guards seized all western newspapers and magazines, and even an Edna O’Brien paperback as it featured a semi-naked woman on its cover, the group knew that they were in for an extraordinary experience. Most of the group shared a bedroom in halls with three East German students, which was challenging but good for improving their spoken German, and lectures started at 7.30 am and included Saturday mornings. However, the basics, including beer and tram and train travel, were cheap. With their student grants – converted by the University, of course, into ‘soft’ East Marks – supplemented by money earned from translating work at Intertext, the state translation agency – the students were regularly able to enjoy the delights of local restaurants rather than the university refectory, and to travel extensively around the country, albeit always behind the Iron Curtain.
No one had heard of the Internet or mobile phones in those days and communication with home was nearly all done by letter, with the occasional pre-booked long distance phone call from some government office. The only British newspaper available was the Morning Star, not the most gripping of reads, even when it was available to buy, which was seldom
For me it was a life changing experience and the hours and hours spent in heated political debate with an East German friend over the meaning of ‘Freiheit’ delivered a great improvement in my spoken German.
On returning home, some of the students went straight into their final year, while most of us elected to take a year out which was usually spent in a West German school, helping its students improve their spoken English. Even those who spent their final year together soon started to lose touch, apart from the occasional Christmas card. From time to time over the intervening years I had half heartedly tried – and always failed miserably – to organise a reunion, but late in 2014, with the fortieth anniversary approaching, I determined to try to track down the other nine and suggest that we might try to get together, ideally in Leipzig itself.
Tracking down the first six proved reasonably easy, especially for those with unusual names, thanks to LinkedIn and Google, but three remained stubbornly incognito. It was especially tricky with the females as many had changed their names following marriage. Manchester University Alumni office traced one former student for me thanks to his having used the university library on a one-off but fairly recent occasion, for which he had been required to submit his address. Google identified someone who could possibly have been an ex-husband and had a website. My “are you by any chance the…” email was rewarded as thankfully he was still in touch with his ex-wife. Our number swelled to nine. Eventually a last ditch Google search “Miss F + German” yielded an article from the Plymouth Herald about a staff and pupils reunion at a school at which Miss F had taught some thirty years previously and before she had married and changed her name. Finally we were all in touch.
Back in 1975 Professor Keller of the German Department at Manchester had asked a young member of his academic team to pop out to Leipzig to check how the students were getting on. (We were only the second tranche of Manchester students to venture to Leipzig.) He arrived just in time to join us at my 20th birthday celebrations. Although now retired, Martin Durrell has maintained his links with Manchester and is now Emeritus Professor of German. He remembered his 1975 trip very well and put me in touch with a good friend of his, Professor Dr Christian Fandrych, who heads up the Herder Institut, the (now renamed) University of Leipzig’s department for German as a foreign language. Sadly – although possibly luckily as our initial enthusiasm for 7.30am lectures had soon waned – the University no longer had any records of our stay and studies, but were keen to welcome us back.
And so, in October 2015, nine of the ten Manchester alumni returned to Leipzig for a weekend reunion. There we were joined by Professor Durrell and, were welcomed by the Herder Institut and met up with three former East German students who remembered us after all this time. It was an extraordinary weekend. Leipzig has changed almost beyond recognition, but our halls of residence are still there, as are our favourite restaurants from back in 1975. We have all changed too, of course, with greying hair and wrinkles replacing the radiance of youth, but in terms of personality and humour, we remain true to our 20 year old selves.