DESSAU, EAST GERMANY -- At 68, Charlotte Faulwasser thought she had seen it all.
First came the bombing of Dresden in 1945, when she and her husband lost everything three years into their marriage. Then the lean years after Germany's defeat, when one needed a ration ticket just to buy a used chair. On top of that came the Communist government that enclosed the East into an ideological straitjacket and walled it off from the West.
But the monetary union of East and West Germany taking effect Sunday has produced yet another upheaval for Charlotte and her husband, Horst, 73. For the Faulwassers and the rest of Dessau's 90,000 residents, life will never be the same after banks open at 9 a.m. and begin exchanging East German marks for the prized West German mark.
"We never thought we would live through this kind of transformation again," Charlotte said, chuckling at the new adventure life has dealt her. "Everything is like a seesaw, and you never know what is going to happen next."
Economic union has injected joy like Charlotte's all around Dessau, a city of medium industry and agriculture about 100 miles south of Berlin. But it also has brought uncertainty about an ill-defined future, along with West German businessmen eager to trade and West German officials reaching for the reins.
Horst Faulwasser, a retired mathematics teacher, said he got along fine during the final years of communism here on a pension of 1,000 East German marks, combined with Charlotte's pension of 390 marks. But things in Dessau are about to change on that score and many others.
The pensions, for instance, will be paid in West German marks from now on. But the Faulwassers have been told their rent -- hereafter also payable in West German marks -- will double at the end of the year and keep rising after that. They have been unable to find out whether their pensions will keep pace.
Prices for food and just about everything else already have begun to shoot up, heading toward market values in hard currency for the first time in 40 years. A little container of yogurt that cost 1.40 East German marks this spring now costs 3 West German marks, or about $1.80.
"It was no longer economically possible for things to go on the way they were," Faulwasser shrugged. "People thought it was normal to get low rent and subsidized prices, or to wait 15 years to get a car. Since we all went along with it all those years, now we will have to bite the sour apple to get a real currency."
Down at City Hall, a "Mr. Bombach" has penned his suggestion of what to do next in a book made available for the purpose. The government supermarket chain Konsum will no longer need its storage space, he noted, so why not open it up for commercial enterprise? Bombach specified that he himself plans to open a solarium and fitness center that would fit right in.
Since elections in May brought a new team to City Hall, things have been wide open, and Bombach may end up where he wants to be. But for the time being, decisions are hard to come by.
The new city council had a stormy debate recently over a program to deliver hot meals to the elderly. No one denied the worthiness of the program, but the subsidies that made it possible were doomed. After a lot of hand-wringing, the price per meal was tripled from 1.50 to 4.50 marks.
School lunches, facing a similar threat from lowered central government subsidies, were maintained at 0.55 marks. The city council pledged to make up the difference out of municipal funds at least until the end of the year, according to Dirk Gloth, a city official who quit the Communist Party in November and remained on the job.
But Siegfried Haag, who returned to Dessau this month as an urban planner after 44 years in West Germany, said this solution, too, was clouded in uncertainty. The state holding company that controlled most of Dessau's industry -- and tax base -- is still being broken up and most businesses have no settled ownership, he explained.
"This is a currency conversion, but of course it also is a conversion of the citizens and of the entire city," said Haag, 62.
With many of the businesses doomed to shut their doors, Dessau has braced for high unemployment within weeks. So far, 750 people have registered for unemployment benefits. That number is low, Haag said, because it does not reflect the nearly 10 percent of the population who moved to West Germany to look for work as soon as it became possible last fall.
In addition to being the home of the Bauhaus architectural movement of the 1920s, Dessau was the site of a big Junkers aircraft factory that built Stuka dive bombers for the Nazi air force. So U.S. bombers hit hard here, wrecking the main church along with the factory and creating a large, open space in the center of town.
To the space, where the former government once held mass rallies, the Opel auto company has dispatched one of four sales teams crisscrossing East Germany to soak up newly converted West German marks. Jorg Gronav, a West German demonstrator for the dozen vehicles arrayed for inspection like livestock at a county fair, said Dessau residents are buying up to 40 cars a day, delighted at the prospect of swift delivery.
"They used to have to wait 15 years -- and for that," he sneered, gesturing toward one of the wheezy Trabant minicars that were standard issue under the Communist government.
A Dessau electrician smiled broadly nearby as he closed a deal on a shiny maroon hatchback going for 19,750 West German marks -- about $12,350. Delivery was set for Sept. 20, he proclaimed.
Overhearing details of the purchase, a man moved near and asked, "Did you get a discount?"
"I asked," the electrician replied, his smile suddenly unsure, "but they said they didn't give any."
"Don't believe them," the other man asserted. "You've got to talk them down before you sign anything. I'm from the West; I know."