25 years of learning English in East Germany

25 years of learning English in East Germany
Friends of Sommerschule Wust celebrate 25 years of language learning. Photo: Scott Usatorres
As 'Sommerschule Wust' celebrates its 25th birthday, The Local asks how this English language school in an East German village of 500 inhabitants has remained so popular for so long.

For young people growing up in East Germany in the 1980s, learning Russian was compulsory.

So when an English language summer school opened in 1991, just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it sparked high levels of interest.

25 years later, Sommerschule Wust is still going strong – and celebrated 25 years of English language teaching with a bilingual performance of West Side Story last weekend.

Sommerschule Wust: the beginnings

Dr. Maria von Katte founded the Wust school in 1991.

An Oxford graduate who grew up in West Germany, von Katte's parents came from a small village in East Germany.

That village was Wust. And for von Katte, it seemed like the ideal place to put her brainchild into action.

'Sommerschule Wust' offered young people the chance to learn English, helping them transition following German reunification.

The summer school took place – and still does – in the village primary school, a former manor house of the aristocratic von Katte family.

Now, around 200 students gather in the village for four weeks every summer. A hefty number, considering Wust only has a population of around 500.

Yet things have changed a little since the school was opened, explained Iva Leutloff, executive board member at the summer school.

In 1991, the school's main focus was on English language tuition.

There was a “backlog of demand” for tuition, Leutloff told The Local – with many adults, particularly teachers, wanting to refresh their English skills after German reunification.

25 years of change

However, a quarter of a century on it's the “community experience” in the forefront, Leutloff explained.

Students take English language classes alongside a range of other activities – including baseball, Scottish dancing and music lessons.

“The intercultural exchange is extremely interesting,” Leutloff said.

She described the summer school's “easygoing, friendly atmosphere,” adding: “many of the participants stay together on the nearby campsite, and evening events and parties are often organised – to which everyone in the village is invited!”

The “Wust Virus” is contagious, she said – and people return year after year simply because they value the experience so highly

West Side Story: a play in two languages

In 1992, New York theatre director Arthur Shettle set up a bilingual theatre programme at the school.

“When I first came to Wust in 1992, the encounters between American and British teachers and young and old eastern German students hungry to learn English were electric,” he said.

“It was like both sides couldn’t get enough of each other.” 

Preparing for this summer's West Side Story production has been “very exciting, as always,” Leutloff told The Local.

In the last three and a half weeks, amateur actors have been working under Shettle's expert instruction to learn the bilingual script.

The show premiered on Thursday evening, with additional performances on Friday and Saturday.

“We choose plays that symbolically represent the tension between two sides, like the tension that still lingers between eastern and western Germany,” Shettle said.

by Hannah Butler

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