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Fresh Air: Fiction Based on True Events & Places


Zionskirchstraße was quiet. It descended along the gently sloping hill as the northwesterly wind whistled softly and scattered a few parched leaves onto the walls of the apartment buildings. If one was to walk out onto the street and look to the left, the steeple of the Zionskirche could be seen towering above the naked trees. The church gave the street a majestic quality, uncharacteristic of the drab buildings that otherwise inhabited the neighborhood.

The day opened with the lonely sound of empty branches stirring in the wind. It was early and it was not normally Kerstin’s custom to wake up before the alarm tore through her dreams. She stretched, happy that she had some time left in between the covers, but the burning in her throat robbed her of the last few minutes of sleep. As she rubbed her eyelids the grit beneath them did not subside. She rolled up the blinds and looked outside. The weather had been heavy and still the last few days but with the start of February the wind had begun to stir the air. She peered out of her street facing window but she couldn’t see past the Linden tree that was 10 meters away. The sky was a soupy gray but the clouds, if there were any, were indiscernible.

It was Monday, February 2nd, 1987, and Kerstin lived in East Berlin. She was studying at the gymnasium, and had plans to study medicine to become a family practice doctor. She could hear her mother in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her. She rallied herself and rolled out of bed, heading to the kitchen to get a glass of water to soothe her scratchy throat. Her father had already left to work. He delivered briquettes of lignite coal to both residents and businesses in the neighborhood. The briquettes were the most common way to heat the buildings and maintain a warm glow inside through even the most grueling of winters. As she dressed hurriedly, the absence of her older brother’s laugh as he teased her mother over breakfast made a lump in her throat. Steffen had moved to the Lusatia region, south and a little east of Berlin in Saxony. He was working at the Nochten Lignite mine that had opened in 1968. She hadn't seen him in several months but still imagined that she heard his laugh at the breakfast table in the morning.

Kerstin finished her breakfast and headed to school. She spotted some friends through the brown gloom of the early morning and broke into a jog to catch up with them but was checked by the deep hacking cough that wracked her body. Her friends turned around and laughed as with an embarrassed expression, she spit out the slime. She had been wheezing and hacking for so long now she didn't really notice it anymore, but always regretted when someone saw her having to spit after a coughing fit. They completed the journey to school and gratefully entered the warm air of the classroom.  Kerstin shed her coat and settled in for another day of science classes that she enjoyed so much.

Kerstin reached home later than usual because she had stayed longer at school with her friends. She wanted to stay longer but had to hurry home to finish helping her mother clean the apartment. She was sweeping the floor, but had to stop because of her coughing. As she spat into the sink, she noticed traces of blood in her spittle.

***

In the same Zionskirche neighborhood early that morning, two figures slipped into the door of the Zionskirche Parish Hall on Griebenowstraße and hurried down the basement steps. They had been working for two years together to spread awareness of the causes for the poor air quality in Berlin. The pastor of the church allowed them to use the basement and they had amassed a large collection of banned books. The official statistics released by the government stated that the air quality in East Berlin and surrounding areas was superior, as if there was no polluting industrial activity in the region. If someone from 2015 only noticed the absence of cars on the roads, perhaps this was believable. However, the “fog” that existed in the city alongside the residents begged a different truth.

The previous day in West Berlin a level one smog alert had been issued and accordingly most residents were prohibited from driving their cars, but in East Berlin, since it did not suffer from the same air pollution problem that its neighbor did, there were no warnings issued. The irony that existed as a result of the reported differences in air quality in the two sides of the city had not escaped the friends as they entered the basement.  Most of the pollution that wafted into the city was produced from the four lignite plants that were less than 100 kilometers from East Berlin. Separated by ideology but joined by geography, the two cities suffered as one from the poisonous air that rolled through the streets, regardless what the numbers said.

The basement had been named the Umweltbibliothek  and opposition to the current government had rallied there. The genesis for this group’s formation was the concern for the air quality which had been deteriorating significantly for some time. The members of the Umweltbibliothek produced a publication called the Umweltblätter that published articles opposing the government.  Today they were particularly concerned for their own welfare as they gratefully gulped the damp air of the basement.

***

Later that year, as the yellow leaves of late November collected along the lawn of the Zionskirche, Kerstin huddled on a bench. It was getting dark, and she needed to go home, but was lingering as she watched the last rays of the sunshine spread weekly around the steeple. She had missed too many days of school because of her lingering pneumonia and today had been informed that she would have to repeat the twelfth class as a result. That morning, the 25th of November, there had been heavy police activity at the church and on Griebenowstraße. Seven people had been arrested and the pastor of the church had been interrogated. Her parents had forbidden her from talking to anyone about the events, but still she dawdled, relishing the patch of warmth from the sunlight that still remained.  There was emptiness in the air, the approaching winter was surely to blame, but the trees whispered of something else too: something that promised action.

Action indeed did come. Resulting from the raid and arrests that had happened at the Zionskirche, the topic of the Umweltsbibliothek became a common whispered conversation amongst the residents of the neighborhood. As the months passed, Kerstin heard her parents speaking of the opposition group that was growing in popularity and visibility. At school some of the students had begun attending anti-government demonstrations. There was a humming in the air around the Zionskirche whenever she passed it. What had seemed before to her to be a symbol of sadness and destruction from the past, now hinted of change yet to come. In 1988 the church was renovated and restored, and The Umweltblätter, the magazine published twice a month by the Umweltsbibliothek, could be seen peeking out of the bags of people as the returned home from a day’s work. The Umweltblätter, or Environmental Leaves, discussed all kinds of political issues that Kerstin’s family had previously never discussed. It seemed that the noxious quality of the air had stirred the resentments of some people enough to form an opposition group. The government’s attempts to silence the group had only served to publicize it.

***

On March 20th, 2015, Dr. Kerstin Kohler, pulmonologist, was reading over her morning coffee. The sky was blue and the sun warmed the table as it streamed brightly though the window. She lived in the apartment where she grew up. It had been intended for her brother Steffen, but he had died of cancer years ago, so Kerstin had inherited it after her mother died. Her copy of The Telegraph, formerly known as the Umweltblätter, displayed a picture of the Swedish energy company, Vattenfall, one of the largest energy companies in Europe. The articles stated that Germany still produces at least 15% of its energy from burning lignite, which was one of the main culprits of the extremely poor air quality in Berlin during the years of the division. In the days before unification, East Germany had used lignite for at least 82% of its energy needs. Still today however, Vatenfall, a Swedish owned company that is one of Germany’s largest energy companies, still uses lignite to run many of its plants. Kerstin was all too familiar with emission standards and the consequences of industrial air pollution. In medical school she had chosen to study pulmonology instead of family practice as a result of her own battle with lung problems and both her brother’s and father’s deaths related to lung cancer.

However, despite the disappointment she felt that the lignite mines were still in operation, Kerstin’s practice currently consisted more of children with allergy problems than with patients suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung cancer than it had before she had bought it from the aging Dr. Balint. She still had the charts from his days in practice that spanned nearly five decades before his retirement in 2006, the year she had acquired his practice. She had been alarmed but not surprised at the numbers of patients with those disorders during his time in practice. Recently, Berlin usually falls in the category of “very good” concerning air quality, and if that weren't proof enough, Kerstin can always see past the linden tree that still stands outside her bedroom window and the remodeled Zionskirche proudly displays its steeple against smog-less skies. It was recently declared that Berlin had the cleanest air in Europe, mostly as a result of its superior public transport system and restrictions on auto emissions. There is always more to be done, but Berlin seemed to be going in the right direction as far as air pollution was concerned. Kerstin finished her coffee, stepped into the bright morning air, and listened to the singing birds as she admired the green buds on the trees and walked to work.

*Zionskirche is located at Zionstraße 44 in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.*

Video on the smog alert issued in February 1987 in West Berlin

Reference articles:

Lignite Combustion
Status and Impacts of the German Lignite Industry
Lignite Coal Mining: The Nochten Mine Case Tagebau Nochten Kopalnia odkrywkowa w Nochten
MfS-Aktion gegen die Umwelt-Bibliothek
Vattenfall plans sale of German coal operations
Lignite still Germany's primary energy source
Air quality index of Europe's major cities May 27: Berlin 'very good'
East Germany disputes its status as the most polluted country in Europe

By Sasha Prince
Sasha is a classical singer and animal lover and has been in Berlin since 2014. She is from the US and the place she lived the longest is Austin, Texas.

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