Jun 11, 2017

Leipzig Resurrected

By Karen Gallagher

My students who studied abroad have benefited in many ways because such travel often helps to build professional connections in the country of their choice. Last year, for example, Germany’s Bosch Corporation supported two Chapman students in the Munich interterm program. These foreign excursions also create lasting friendships between the students from our school and others and students of other countries too, who often described their overseas experiences as “life-changing.” Total immersion allows students to learn the target language and culture firsthand. For this reason, my colleague Heather Terjung and I have taken Chapman students to Munich, Germany, for the last four years. Our most recent course was in June 2016.

Travel abroad is valuable at any age. I owe my third and most recent experience as a Fulbright scholar in Leipzig to my Chapman students, who accompanied us on consecutive journeys to Munich. They are ultimately why I succeeded when I applied for a summer Fulbright scholarship for professors of German to Leipzig in 2014.

Our group of Summer Academy professors on the steps of the the Bibliotheca Albertina, the University Library founded in 1542 (for more information about the library itself, please see the full-length article of the Chapman University Blog)

My experiences in Leipzig reframed my preconceived notions about the former East Germany. My talk before the Rotary Club of Indian Wells, California, which sponsors college scholarships and study abroad programs, was titled “Leipzig Resurrected: The Past in the Present” and summed up my observations of the two-week summer seminar the prior year. This pioneer Fulbright program was designed for American professors to learn about the “New” united Germany and the former East German educational system. That was perfect for me, since I spent five years of my childhood in former West Berlin because my father worked there for Pan American Airways. I was literally a product of the Cold War, taught to believe that Communism was evil and I thought it was normal to have a wall run through your city. A metaphorical wall still exists in the minds of many Germans, based on the vast cultural and economic differences between East and West, a division that is only now disappearing.

Tour of the permanent German Democratic Republic Exhibit at the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig.

Leipzig has been a commercial hub since at least the time of the Holy Roman Empire, standing at the intersection of two important medieval trade routes between eastern and western Europe. During World War II, Leipzig suffered from conventional air raids, but not incendiary bombing like the neighboring city Dresden, and Leipzig’s center was not entirely destroyed.

After World War II, Leipzig remained a major city in East Germany, but its cultural and commercial importance declined, even though the East German economy was the strongest in the Soviet bloc. Toward the end of the Cold War, Leipzig played a significant role in the fall of Communism, because of demonstrations in and around St. Nicholas Church, as 70,000 protesters took to the streets.

Three days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, East German television showed a documentary called “Is There Hope for Leipzig?” Contrary to what East German authorities had long claimed, the film showed Leipzig crumbling to pieces. Saving it would require so much money that some of the architects who appeared in the movie said that it would be better to tear down the historic quarters altogether. Since German reunification, however, Leipzig has undergone such a dramatic transformation that the British newspaper The Guardian reported in September 2014 that it had become the “most livable city in Germany.” Based on media stories like these, it might appear that the transition to Leipzig’s current condition was seamless. During my two weeks there, though, I realized that the city’s rebirth has been a complex process, where the past continually informs the present.

The Fulbright program required that our accommodations would consist of a “home stay,” something that I had not done since I was a twenty-year-old exchange student in France. Although this arrangement was unnerving at first for my fellow professors and me, it turned out to be the most educational part of the trip.

My hostess, a 67-year-old single mother of two, had married early to qualify for an apartment, which was then a scarce commodity. She still lives in the same Stalinist-style housing block where I stayed for the entire two weeks. Once she got divorced, her earnings were insufficient to cover basic expenses, so the Government compelled her to study engineering to operate the machinery used in a strip mining town called Ferropolis on the outskirts of Leipzig. She even joined the Communist Party and rose to the top of her department, a decision that I did not question. She also earned extra income as a tour guide. The state provided free day care and she relied on a community of neighborhood women in similar circumstances. It seems that it was easier to be a self-supporting single mother in East Germany than in the West.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she secured a good administrative job in a German firm, but was eventually laid off. She still serves as a tour guide on trips that now span the globe (including two separate tours to Anaheim and Buena Park, California, where we arranged to meet again) but must live frugally, earning a little money by hosting foreign boarders like me. Her housing is no longer subsidized by the state and she must live on a small pension. She says, however, that some West German women of her generation envy her because she has led a more independent life than they ever did. At the same time, she envied West Germans’ relative wealth and political freedom, and she tried to acquire western products and media through visitors from the West. She and I both discovered that our preconceived ideas about the “other” Germany were not necessarily accurate.

Boat ride on an excursion to the Wörlitzer Park in Dessau.

Our group of Fulbright recipients later visited the now-defunct coal-mining operation at Ferropolis where my hostess had worked. It has been converted into a venue for music concerts, with the old machinery serving as a backdrop.

The changes underway at the University of Leipzig also affected the affiliated Herder Institute, where our program was based. This institute, which teaches German to foreign students from all over the world, had been an arm of the former East German Government and had mostly educated students from Soviet-aligned countries such as Cuba, Angola, and North Vietnam. Many of the instructors were fired after reunification. It seemed that many who succeeded in getting full-time employment at the institute had studied abroad in the U.S. or elsewhere, while others had more difficulties adjusting to capitalism. 

The institute and its affiliate, InterDaF, a German language school founded in 1992, still serves students from all over the world whose goal is to enter the German university system. I sat in on some of those classes and met remarkable young people. Several of them originated from war-torn countries and I admired their determination to acquire enough German language skills that would allow them to enter such difficult fields as physics and math, thereby creating a more secure future for themselves. Although unemployment in most of the former East Germany is still higher than in the West, Leipzig has undergone a surprising renaissance in the last 25 years.

It is definitely a good idea to apply for grants and fellowships to benefit from study abroad, because it will broaden one’s perspective in keeping with Chapman’s mission of encouraging students to become “global citizens.”

To read the full blog of Karen Gallagher, Assistant Professor at Chapman University, please go to:


Karen Gallagher is Assistant Professor of German in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Chapman University. She received her Ph.D. in German from the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation was on the life of the Austro-Hungarian writer Marie Herzfeld (1855-1940), based in part on research she carried out in Vienna, as a Fulbright scholar. Dr. Gallagher then received a second Fulbright grant to teach in the Austrian school system, and later worked at the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
In 2014, she was selected by the Fulbright Commission in Berlin and the German Academic Exchange Service in Bonn to participate in a summer seminar at the InterDaf/Herder Institute at the University of Leipzig. Her experience there in June of that year gave Dr. Gallagher a view of contemporary Germany that she can impart to her students. Since 2012 she has co-led a group of students to Munich, Germany, for three weeks each January and in June 2016. She finds this trip particularly rewarding because it allows her students to experience the German language and culture first hand.

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