MICHENDORF, EAST GERMANY, JUNE 29 -- Oddly enough, hardly anything defined East Germany -- the formerly Communist country that will vanish from the economic map on Sunday -- as much as West German money.

East Germans may gain a new way of life this weekend, when they exchange their virtually worthless East marks for the rock-solid West German mark. But in the final hours of their country's 40 years of economic independence, many East Germans say they are losing one of the best things in their lives -- the luxurious and rare feeling they had when they got hold of a few West German marks.

The West German mark always played an essential role in the Communist system. It was the only currency accepted at the Intershops, special stores that stocked Western liquors, juices, cigarettes, ice cream and small electronic items.

It was the money that West Germany paid for the release of political prisoners and other dissidents. It was the cash that built the sleek Western roads that connect West Berlin with West Germany. West German marks were what the Communist bosses were after when they made secret deals with terrorists, drug traffickers and arms dealers.

West German money was something an East German received as a gift -- from relatives, from the best of friends, from someone with the kind of connections that were not discussed. And if one could get some, he might be able to get that spare part for the car, or that operation his child needed.

"The West money -- that was special," said Friedrich Maass, a 57-year-old East German policeman who never could get much West German money because police officers were not allowed to contact their relatives in West Germany.

This afternoon, Maass was spending the few West marks he got from friends at the Intershop here, a supermarket-sized building once open only to those with Western passports or party connections. All 400 Intershops will close for good on Saturday. With nearly every store in the country busy stocking its shelves with Western goods over this weekend, the Intershops no longer serve any purpose. Some will be converted into regular supermarkets; others will simply be shuttered.

"In the former times, I'd visit my uncle in the West and I was allowed to change some money and see the Western products," said Undine Schmidt, a nurse's assistant who lives near Magdeburg. "There was a sweet tension, an excitement about seeing those things you couldn't have and then suddenly get a chance to buy it.

"Now the {West German} mark will just be normal money, to buy the regular things."

Heavy-hearted writers in both parts of Germany are getting a bit weepy over the impending loss of the West German mark's special status.

"West money," said Martin Ahrends in the West German weekly Die Zeit, "was -- before the {Berlin} Wall fell -- always the money for the extras, for something special, for Western cigarettes, for Western coffee, for Western chocolate, for all the glorious things that one got on exceptional occasions."

West German money looks vastly different from the tiny bills and almost weightless coins that East Germany produced. Gone will be the renditions of tractors and electronic control rooms that look like something out of a 1930s science fiction film. Replacing them will be the etchings of a violin, sailing ship and castle that adorn the back of West German bills.

"At the moment, it's still a dream to have West marks and use them every day," said Harriett Leo, 31, a clerk at the Intershop here. "I guess when it happens, it'll seem real."

Saturday and Sunday are the last days when East Germans can use their own money, but there are precious few opportunities to spend East German marks. Most state-run stores have been nearly emptied, as consumers rushed to stock up on subsidized staples such as bread, rice and canned goods.

And many other stores -- especially those that have been bought by Western firms or that are trying to convert from government-run to private businesses -- are closing to refurbish and fill shelves with goods trucked in from West Germany.

One of the few remaining outlets for East German marks today was the open-air markets where entrepreneurs from the West have set up stands to teach East Germans the Western way of spending.

At Magdeburg's Old Market today, West Germans were busy selling pornographic videos, gold chains, T-shirts, Belgian chocolates, vegetables, fancy fruits, sausages and used books. Romanians and Bulgarians stood on the fringes of the market hawking bootleg cassettes, eager to get East German marks to trade for West German marks on the black market.

East Germans shuffled through the plaza, gawking open-mouthed as West Germans demonstrated vegetable slicer-dicers, delivered hard sells for cleaning fluids and invited any and all to disprove the incredible power of Superglue.

East German marks still worked today, but merchants said they accepted the old money largely to build goodwill. Beginning next week, only the "real money" will be valid.

Many merchants at the market were not selling anything. East Germans have been bewildered by the number of giveaways coming their way in recent days.

White-uniformed folks from Lucky Strike offered a 1-to-1 exchange of their own: Give us any East German pack of cigarettes and get Lucky Strikes free of charge. People dressed as candy bars handed out KitKats and often had to explain what was inside the wrapper.

There were wine tastings and beer samplings, contests and sweepstakes. West German companies were offering trips to the United States and new cars.

Attitudes seemed to change by the minute. An old woman walked up to a West German fish merchant and asked if he took East German marks for his herring.

"Of course, East money is still good today," the merchant said.

"Then it must be bad fish," the woman replied. "I'll wait."