RANGSDORF, EAST GERMANY -- Edith Raasche stopped in mid-sentence as the silver BMW turned the corner into her rutted cobblestone lane, and she and her neighbor stared silently as the car rolled slowly by.
"Whenever I see a West German car, I fear that's the one, that's my 'Westie,' " Raasche said.
It wasn't this time, but in villages and cities throughout East Germany, homeowners and renters alike live in daily fear that one day very soon, a West German will drive up, get out of the car and say, "This used to be my house, and now I want it back."
Millions of East Germans live on property their government took from people who fled the Communist regime or the Soviet occupation after World War II. Now the two Germanys have agreed that anyone who owned property confiscated by East Germany has six months to take back what is rightfully his.
By the hundreds of thousands, they are doing just that.
Edith Meyer's 'Westies' drove up the other day in a fancy car. "A woman with a young son," Meyer recalled. "She's the heir to the man who owned it back in the '50s. I said, this house was always ours. My husband bought it in 1974, and we rented it from the state before that."
The house is a concrete and wood bungalow on a sandy street in this lakeside village, once a weekend playland for Berlin's wealthy class, today a sleepy collection of neglected but regal mansions and pocket-sized summer cottages for East Berlin professionals.
The Hamburg family that claimed Meyer's house told her she can stay until she dies. "I'm 79," Meyer said. "What else can happen to me? I've never known what was going to happen to me tomorrow.
"It's all so crass. They don't have to be this way. It could have been done decently. They don't want our houses, they would just tear them down. They just want the land underneath, so they can get money for it."
That's the argument East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere made in negotiations with West Germany. Why not just compensate the previous owners for the property taken from them, he asked. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted that West Germans be given back the homes they fled.
Both Germanys are in a hurry to resolve the property question because it is putting a severe crimp on the reconstruction of East Germany. West German bankers say they are loath to make loans to East German individuals or businesses until they can be certain that property used as collateral really belongs to the loan applicant.
Rangsdorf's history as a vacation spot has left it with it a particularly thick concentration of disputed properties. A citizens' group formed to fight West German claims won four of the 20 local council seats in May local elections, but their street protests and lobbying failed to persuade the Bonn government.
Now people like Rainer and Andrea Friedrich can only wait for the day they know will come. "We've seen them," said Andrea, 28, a hospital lab assistant. "They come in their Mercedes and sit in the car and take pictures. If I look through the window, they take off. Where have they been for 30 years? We saved this house."
"They could at least look us in the eye," said Rainer, a 29-year-old auto mechanic. "We're all Germans. Look, this house is my life. Nobody forced those people to leave. And I obviously didn't choose to be born in this country. I will do everything in my power to protect my property."
But whose property is it? Rainer Friedrich was born in this house; he has known no other. He has insulated the cellar and installed new windows.
But he has no title. The Friedrichs are in the process of buying their house under the old communist system, in which about 40 percent of East Germans own their homes while the state owns the land beneath them. For now, however, the Friedrichs still rent, paying 78 marks ($47) a month, although they have been told the rent will jump by about 400 percent in January.
The parents of the West Germans who claim the house left in 1960, shortly before the Communists built the Berlin Wall. The heirs want to use the house as a weekend getaway.
"Of course, it does not help matters if the West Germans go around threatening people," said Wolfgang Probandt, a West Berlin lawyer who represents many West Germans and Americans who claim East German property.
"But these people have a right to their native land, the place where they were born, where they grew up. Why should they lose everything just because they fled an indecent system? Sure, they never expected to see their property again, but the situation has changed."
Probandt says the East Germans need not panic, that everything will work out amicably in most cases. East German renters will be protected under West German laws that permit owners to kick out tenants only if the owner himself plans to move into the house.
But East Germans who bought their houses from a government that considered everything it confisacted to be Volkseigentum, or people's property, may have to move. But even they will be compensated, Probandt said.
Still, many questions remain murky. The East-West agreement on property covers only land confiscated after 1949, leaving unresolved claims by people who lost property to the Nazis or the Soviet forces that occupied eastern Germany after the war.
Many thousands of Jews who were thrown off their property in Nazi antisemitic campaigns still have claims on East Germany, whose Communist government always refused to take any responsibility for Nazi war crimes.
West Germany, which has paid more than $40 billion in war reparations, has said it plans to honor those claims, perhaps through additional payments to Israel, Jewish organizations and individual Jews.
Despite last month's agreement on property claims, the East German government is not working in unison with Bonn on the issue.
Indeed, the East Germans -- desperate for cash to prop up shaky government enterprises that find it impossible to compete in the newly united German economy -- are still selling off houses that soon will face claims by West Germans.
The Rangsdorf city council, for example, has offered to sell the Friedrichs their house for about $18,000 -- less than a 10th of what West German real estate agents say it would sell for on the open market.
"I don't understand how the East Germans can let their own people buy property that they know someone is going to claim," Probandt said. In some cases, East German housing officials say, it is not clear there is a previous owner, while in others, no one can be sure the former owner still wants the property. In any event, many East Germans remain confused and fearful that the house they've called home for much of their lives will soon be turned over to someone else.
Meanwhile, many West Germans are angry that their claims to land now used for public purposes will be satisifed through compensation rather than transfer of the property to their control.
That put an end to some dreams of spectacular profits. An 88-year-old West Berlin man who claimed the land under East Berlin's Metropol Hotel fantasized about finishing out his life as a fabulously wealthy hotelier. He will be compensated for the value of his original property, but will not get the hotel.