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Germany

Two families and the house in Schönwalde

When Germany was reunified, many West Germans reclaimed properties they had lost under the GDR, meaning many East Germans lost their homes. Today, only a few cases remain: Vanessa Johnston tells us how one was solved.

The Hartmann family in front of the house in Schönwalde, an Eastern suburb of Berlin (Photo: Vanessa Stella Johnston)

Erhard Hartmann and Silke Sonntag resolved their property dispute harmoniously.

In 2006, my mother, Silke Sonntag, received a mysterious call from the German Embassy in Washington. There was a plot of land just east of Berlin, and it might belong to her.

"I thought there must have been some mistake," she later told me. My mother had only ever been in West Germany, where she emigrated from 23 years ago. In fact, East Germany had been like a foreign world that she knew existed, but barely thought about.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government had been struggling to find the owner of this verdant lot purchased by my great-great-grandparents in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Finally, in 2006, they traced my mother all the way to a small Wisconsin town in the United States.

She wept with joy at the news. This was the only remnant from her beloved father that she had ever received - he died when she was just 10 years old.

There was only one problem. An East German family had built a house on her land. Since the demise of the German Democratic Republic in 1990, the Hartmann family had sought to protect what had been the family's sanctuary for more than 30 years.

Painful unity

The reunification of Germany was sudden and unexpected. Not long after, the newly formed German government received 2.3 million applications from West Germans for the restitution of real estate that they had lost during Germany's division.

Today, the vast majority of these cases have been resolved. For the remaining few, potential heirs have one more year - until September 17, 2014 - to file a claim. After that date, the government will have the right to sell the properties.

Watch video 03:21

Tracking down remnants of the Berlin Wall

It will bring closure to one of the greatest challenges of German unification. In 1990, the German government decided that returning private properties to their original owners was the only way to correct past wrongs and move forward.

However, for many East Germans, this felt extremely unfair. There was a feeling of helplessness, even anger.

The greatest act of protest came in 1992, when the eastern German politician Detlef Dalk killed himself. In an open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he had begged the government to reconsider its policy on housing claims. His "public" death, he wrote, was the only way to highlight this perceived injustice.

For example, in his hometown of Zepernick, over half of the houses were claimed by West Germans, many of whom were eager to capitalize on their increased values.

But the "dispute" between our families ended differently.

Emotional meeting

We went to meet the Hartmanns on a bright summer day in the Berlin suburb of Schönwalde, and as we pulled in, three generations of their family were waiting anxiously for us at the gate.

We were anxious too.

Under the new government, the Hartmanns had no legal right to keep their cherished home in Schönwalde.

Erhard's eyes welled up with tears as he spoke of his decades-long obsession with finding the owner of this property. It was the only way to try to buy the land and ensure its security within the family. And then the government notified him that an owner had been found at last - to his astonishment - in America.

As the conversation meandered from our family histories to our impressions of Berlin, Edith, Erhard's wife, put any idle chitchat to a close. "Let's talk about why you're here," she said sternly.

The table went silent.

My mother knew she couldn't have made a decision without meeting the family first. Was it fair to take away their vacation home, she wondered, which held so many beautiful memories, and that had stood strong for them through communism and unification? But then again, my mother asked herself, wouldn't her father want her to have the land?

"I will sell it to you," my mom said firmly.

The land belonged to the Hartmanns. Edith, a frail, 80-year-old woman, affectionately took my mother's hand in hers.

Of course, we had yet to reach agreement on a price. But we agreed on one thing: When the sale was final, we would throw a big party in Schönwalde with our new friends.

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