Candlelight, Feminism and Remembrance: Festival of Lights

– By Richard Varr

Flickering candlelight faintly illuminates the faces of the thousands celebrating one of Leipzig’s most defining moments. Citizens cluster in and around central Augustusplatz as twilight fades into darkness for the annual Festival of Lights. Young and old clutch their candles – symbolic of when more than 70,000 thousands gathered in 1989 with candles in hand, clamoring for freedom and democracy.

On the 29th anniversary of Leipzig’s 9th of October Peaceful Revolution, the wind is gentle; the feeling, however, powerful and poignant. In my mind, it’s not so much a festival, but instead a remembrance of a bold and courageous stand for the basic freedoms we take for granted today. And It doesn’t take me long to realize the feeling on this night, that those old enough to have lived through East Germany’s stagnant Communist era vow to never forget what happened here. For those too young – some cradling their candles for the first time – the message instead is learn what happened here, and don’t forget.

Visitors lighting up candles © Richard Varr

This is my fourth visit to Leipzig, but my first time taking part in an anniversary of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution, when determined crowds crammed the streets to stand up to East Germany’s oppressive GDR government, the feared Stasi (Secret Police) and Communist rule. Despite threats of police gunfire to quash the rebellion, the sheer number of citizen protesters simply made it impossible to imprison thousands to stop this demonstration and the movement spreading throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

“Now and then, it is and has been about one vision – for an open country with free people,” asserts former civil rights activist Gesine Oltmanns at the start of this year’s festival. “The yearning to breathe the air of freedom – to live as free people in an open country,” she recalls from taking part in the 1989 rebellion. “Pass it on to those standing next to you, curious enough to listen. Tell them what made us strong, what made us drive and overthrow dictatorship.”

Back then, peaceful crowds repeatedly chanted, “We are the people” and “No violence” as they marched around Leipzig’s inner-city ring road. And the march remained peaceful because holding candles prevented protesters from throwing stones.

A strong female ensemble: The Free Orchestra Leipzig performs together with actresses on stage © Richard Varr

The chants on this night, however, come from five actresses on stage alongside an all-women orchestra led by Maestro Eva Meitner as this year’s anniversary honors women – their role in society and during the Peaceful Revolution. “Human rights, feminism, environment, justice. We are going to participate,” they shout as the music crescendos, looking out upon a twinkling candlelit panorama beneath illuminated City Tower windows synchronized to display “89.”

“Of course we were intimidated,” the actresses chant. “We knew of people suddenly disappearing, of children who had to be adopted because their parents were under arrest.”

The burning quest for freedom and democracy started in 1982 with Monday prayer meetings at the imposing Romanesque and Gothic St. Nicholas Church. With the continuing shipyard workers’ Solidarity movement in Poland, and following Hungary loosening its border restrictions and China’s Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, prayer meeting participation swelled that fall and culminated in the 9th of October revolt.

St. Nicholas column in front of St. Nicholas church © Richard Varr

“Today is a day of remembrance, with our thoughts looking forward. I am thankful to be a part of it,” says former Federal Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin, the first woman – in keeping with this anniversary’s tribute to women – to give the Speech on Democracy in a packed St. Nicholas Church. Her message ends with the hope that people would realize “rights and respect for all, that a respectful dialogue with dissidents is the elixir of life of democracy.”

In stark defiance of police threats to fire upon crowds, marchers in 1989 courageously paraded past the Stasi headquarters at the Round Corner where they laid down their candles on the building’s stone steps. “The situation was really dangerous because nobody knew what would happen,” says local historian and tour guide Theresa Hertrich. “Would the Stasi in the headquarters shoot the people as they walked by? So the people put candles on the stairs so they could show they were peaceful.” Photographs of the wax-slicked entrance with candles aglow can now be seen in the 1913 building which is now a museum.

Several thousand people attend the Leipzig Festival of Lights every year © Richard Varr

The museum opened in 1990, when citizens could finally learn more about 40 years of Stasi oppression. Exhibits include uniforms, bugging devices, a recreated detention cell and a steam-driven envelop opening machine, while also revealing there were about 2,400 Stasi employees and 10,000 “unofficial” employees who spied on fellow citizens. “Many worked every day in factories with colleagues and reported any anti-government talk. That’s how the Stasi collected information on citizens,” explains Hertrich. “People had to have two faces – a private face, and one official face if you talked to people you didn’t know. Because it was really dangerous to say out loud what you were thinking.”

Under the GDR, buildings decayed and the environment suffered. “We had so much air pollution, dying forests, and our own rivers were misused as sewage channels. So I thought I had to do something,” says Gisela Kallenbach, a former Leipzig City Council woman and former member of both the Saxony State Parliament and European Parliament. “Students in Leipzig thought they had to have a position on these developments, so that’s why they started with peace prayers. That was the beginning.”

With an artistic composition of music, spoken word and video, Leipzig remembers the dramatic events of Autumn of 1989 © Richard Varr

“I was born in the GDR and experienced the hardships during the time, and I’m very glad for the freedoms we now have,” says St. Nicholas Church Pastor Bernhard Stief. “It’s not only that you’re able to travel now, but it’s more about the possibility to educate yourself and having freedom of speech.”

“We had to wait 15-18 years for a car,” points out tour guide Birgit Scheffel. “And I tell young people, if I take away your smart phone, what would you do? We had to wait for a normal telephone up to 20 years.”

Scheffel is showing me some of the sights of the Peaceful Revolution including St. Nicholas’ churchyard, where a lone column stands – a replica of the church’s inside columns with their sprouting palm fronds design. The outside pillar and a bronze plaque with footprints below symbolize the thousands of people who couldn’t get into the church and who marched during the Peaceful Revolution.

The ’89‘ lights up every evening on the 9th of October at the so-called Uniriese (City Skyscraper) © Richard Varr

“I was here on the 7th of October, a Saturday, and the church was packed. We couldn’t all get in and were chased away by police,” Scheffel explains. “October 9th was the climax as everyone knew something would happen, as 70,000 came and spread out to Augustusplatz.”

I’m hoping I can make it back to Leipzig for next year’s 30th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution – an event that, just like the 25th anniversary in 2014, will draw even larger crowds and a march along the inner-city ring road. “One might begin to think the memory, excitement and electricity of this great historical moment in 1989 might wane into the past,” notes the Reverend Dr. Robert Moore, Reformation Ambassador for the City of Leipzig. “But the city has had this very successful annual memorial and it’s well attended and cherished by the people of Leipzig, as they’re very aware that they played a big role in the Peaceful Revolution.”
“We started to become braver citizens back then,” recalls Kallenbach. “It’s still as if it happened yesterday.”

Photo: Richard VarrRichard Varr - Blogger, Photographer and Travel Writer

Richard Varr is a blogger, travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). He currently lives in Houston, Texas USA.

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