Holidays with religious roots posed a bit of a challenge to the GDR’s socialist masters. Officially, the GDR was a secular state and a significant portion of both Party members and the general public regarded organized religion with great suspicion often bordering on hostility. (For an interesting piece on how these attitudes persist see this recent article in The Guardian which labels the former-East “the most godless place on earth”.)
That said, as is the case in today’s Canada, religious-based holidays (e.g. Christmas and Easter), continued to have great significance on the social calendar. In the GDR, the state naturally downplayed the religious aspects of the holidays, sometimes to rather comical effect. An example of this is illustrated by this week’s featured item, a set of handmade angels crafted by a folk artist from the Saxon city of Leipzig.
“Year-end Figures with Wings”
Angels had no place in the “scientific” worldview upon which the GDR’s socialist ideology was based. Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous mentions of how East German media referred to angels as “year-end figures with wings” (Jahresendzeitfiguren mit Flügeln), but this sounds like the sort of apocryphal tale which has emerged since unification and has East Germans calling the Berlin TV tower the “Tele-asparagus” and the Leipzig university tower the “Wisdom Tooth”. At any rate, whether the term was in widespread use or not, it does reflect the official attitude towards the religiously-rooted aspects of Christmas.
Gerda Elten Arts and Crafts
Even after the nationalization of many of the country’s privately-held workshops in the years following Erich Honecker’s assumption of power in 1971, the state continued to tolerate the existence of some very small, privately-run companies such as “Gerda Elten Arts and Crafts”, the one which produced these handmade angels. This company was largely a one-woman outfit and existed from 1945 to 1993 producing a variety of seasonally-oriented items such as Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas angels and Easter items including Easter egg warmers and the like. A dancer with the Leipzig Ballet until the end of WW II, Mrs. Elten found herself searching for a way to eke out an existence in the difficult post-war period and came up with the idea to produce handicrafts for sale. Indeed, this sort of improvisation was commonplace in this difficult time as people made use of whatever resources or skills they had to try and get by.
There are few details known about the firm’s early years, but Mrs. Elten was able to set up a workshop in her home from 1955 onwards. Here she assembled her figures and then shipped them out to various privately-held shops in Leipzig and the Ore Mountain region to the city’s south, an area where the production of this sort of handicraft had a strong tradition. She would often trade finished items for materials she needed for their production (e.g. beads, pearls, fabric and wooden pieces). In addition to placing her items in shops, Mrs. Elten also had a presence at some local markets and fairs, including the annual fair of Leipzig’s Grassi Museum for Applied Art during the 1950s and 60s.
In the 1970s, demand for Mrs. Elten’s work was such that she moved her workshop out of her home and into the basement of her son’s house where he and his wife began to assist her with production. A wood lathe was installed to allow him to produce wooden pieces (candle holders, angel bodies, etc.), and much of the hand-painting and sewing required for these items was done in this workshop as well. Even with this increase in capacity, however, the firm had a hard time meeting demand and night shifts and weekend work were apparently not uncommon. This success held through to the end of the GDR as the quality of the wares offered by “Gerda Elten Arts and Crafts” was beyond question. In addition, the firm clearly benefited from the relatively limited palette of holiday items offered in the state-run stores as well as the generally shoddy quality of what was available.
The “Wende” and the economic downturn
With the end of East Germany, however, everything changed for the company. Initially, Mrs. Elten tried to continue on as always, however, her firm soon felt the effects of customers’ reorienting themselves towards Western tastes. Demand dried up for domestically-produced items, even those which, like Mrs. Elten’s, had been highly-sought after and treasured in former times. These changes in consumer interests were quickly reflected in Mrs. Elten’s relationships with her suppliers as began rejecting the barter-type of arrangements used in the past while others simply stopped producing the items Mrs. Elten needed for her work.
After several years of disappointing sales, Mrs. Elten last displayed her items at several markets and fairs in Leipzig in 1992 and decided to return her business license the following year. The remaining inventory was packed away in boxes and remained in storage until her passing several years ago.
The Legacy Remains
When the family came upon the remaining stock, I am told that the initial inclination was to send the boxes to the landfill. Mrs. Elten’s now adult granddaughter, however, was appalled at the thought and took possession of the remaining items. Over the past several years, she has approached both the aforementioned Grassi Museum and the Museum for Saxonian Folk Art in Dresden to see if they areinterested in adding pieces to their collection of locally-made handicrafts. She awaits formal responses, but there is reason to hope that one or both will indeed take pieces for their holdings. The remainder of the inventory went to a collector in the Ore Mountains.
Expertic® Tree Ornament
As mentioned above, the production of wooden handicrafts is a traditional art form common to the Ore Mountains region of eastern Germany. This practice continued during the GDR period and a number of small, family-run workshops produced most of these items. These pieces were typically Christmas-specific and included tree ornaments, ‘smoking’ men (small figures which housed incense cones to produce a smoking effect), and nativity scenes. Ore Mountain Wooden Folk Art is beloved in Germany and beyond for its filigree and high-level of design, qualities which the angel presented here displays quite clearly.
Wanting to capitalize (poor choice of verb?) on the popularity of these handicrafts, in 1968 the GDR set up Expertic®, a company which marketed Ore Mountain wooden folk art in Western Europe and North America as a means of generating hard currency. This item comes from my parents’ collection and would typically adorn our tree each year. Expertic® items are now quite attractive for collectors, particularly since they are no longer in production.