Early last year, I published a post on a Reconstruction Card belonging to a “Johanna Goldberg”, a young woman who’d resided in East Berlin in the 1950s. This name’s possibly Jewish character had me speculating on who this individual was and what her story might be. At the time I promised to do some digging to see if I could find out the story of this person. While doing so, I came across a self-published autobiography entitled Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin (From Whipping Boy to Doctor) by a Johanna Goldberg whose biographical information suggested that I might be on the right track. So, I bought the book and while reading, quickly realized that I had stumbled on to a remarkable individual.
However, as this Johanna Goldberg’s life path took her from a childhood spent largely in foster care through to medical studies, marriage and eventually a position as doctor, I began to suspect that perhaps I had not found the person I was looking for. There was no mention here of a period spent in post-war Berlin or any reference to Jewish roots. So when I managed to locate the author and asked directly, I wasn’t too surprised to find the following response in my email inbox soon after:
“Dear Mr. Kleiner, many thanks for your letter and your project.
I am not the Johanna Goldberg from Treskowallee in Berlin whom you are looking for, but I suppose that I do indeed belong to the ‘Reconstruction’ generation [Aufbaugeneration] of Germans.”
And on the issue of a possible Jewish connection in her family:
“My husband’s family has no Jewish roots. They come from the Czech/German border region and there was, maybe still is, a village with that name there. But that was long ago.” (email, Feb. 22, 2013)
And with that, both my theories were, alas, shot down. My spirits soon lifted, however, when Dr. Goldberg declared herself ready to answer the many questions that had come to mind while reading her book and sure enough, several weeks later the first of several extensive emails arrived with detailed answers and reflections on themes that I had raised. Because of the way in which Dr. Goldberg’s life illustrates a number of recurring motifs of life in the GDR, I will dedicate my next three posts to presenting her biography.
Nothing To Laugh About: A Childhood in Foster Care
Born on the eve of World War II in 1937 and placed into foster care by her unwed mother two years later, Johanna Goldberg sums up her difficult childhood as follows, “Unwanted and unloved; so began my life.” (Johanna Goldberg, Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin: Berlin, Frieling Verlag, pg. 10) Young Johanna’s earliest memories of foster care are of her arrival in a family that lived in Rotizch, a village near the industrial town of Bitterfeld in central-east Germany. She depicts a terrible home life here with her foster mother interested only in receiving the state subsidy for taking in children and using them as free labour to help around the small farm. No account was taken of the fact that Johanna had been born in blind in one eye and she was expected to carry out her full share of the chores. In addition, a harsh regime of corporal punishment was the order of her day and the household was devoid of such basic elements of humanity as cleanliness and human warmth. Tellingly the author recalls, “During the nine years I lived there, I can remember laughing heartily only once.” (pg. 11)
In addition to tending to the farm’s animals, Johanna was regularly sent with a foster brother and an empty burlap sack to the abandoned open pit mines on the edge of town. Here, the pair would climb into the pits, an activity not without risk since the soil was often loose due to the mining activity, and search for pieces of brown coal that had been left behind. She recalls how senseless this seemed as the family father had a job at a nearby pit which entitled him to a ration of cheap coal. That the children were sent out to scrounge in the dangerous conditions of old mines and then lug home the heavy sack was something they understood for what it clearly was: a cruel and unusual “educational measure” (pg. 18). These chores took a physical toll on the young girl and as the result of such activity, she developed a curved spine, a condition treated with therapeutic gymnastics, but one which has left her with a pronounced stoop.
Goldberg recalls one particularly heartless episode as having been key in coming to see her foster mother for the person she was. She relates a clear fall morning in the early years after the war when she was nine or ten and a gaunt young man in a soldier’s jacket, head shaved and unshaven, appeared at the farm. At first only the dog recognized him, but it soon became clear that he had once lived in the home.
“‘Mama, please take me in! I have experienced so much during the war and I’ve learned to pitch in, believe me! Try again with me!’ But she remained ice cold . . .
‘No, Eberhard, I will not ‘try it again’ with you. . . . You were and remain a good-for-nothing.’
And with that she actually managed to turn her back on this boy, her ‘son’, and sent him away to a completely uncertain fate.
This experience left a deep impression on me . . . In a matter of seconds the boy seemed to age before my eyes. . . . He was hopelessness personified.
. . . I never saw Eberhard again, that young soldier who’d had the good fortune to have survived the war only to be rejected by his ‘Mama’. I began to despise and hate her.” (pgs. 25-27)
Goldberg then goes on to add the almost unbelievable detail that, many years later, her foster brother told her that Eberhard had not been a foster child at the farm, but rather that he was the actual son of the woman and that she had essentially disowned him in front of their eyes that day.
Without wishing to take away from or relativize any of Johanna’s childhood experiences, what I find it worthwhile reflecting on is just how common a life in foster care would have been for so many German children of that era. While she wasn’t a war orphan, she did come into care at roughly the same time as many who were. And though many of these children likely found homes that weren’t characterized by such brutality, others no doubt carried significant emotional scars from the experience with them into their adult lives in the post-war Germanies.
School As Refuge
For Johanna, the counterweight to this dreadful home life was school. Although her foster mother placed no value on her receiving an education (“Chores come first! Homework is pointless and not something you need to waste time on!” (pg. 8)), for Johanna “school was the one place where I felt secure.” (pg. 17). Real friendships were not part of this world because the foster mother closely monitored her interactions to ensure that no one in the village found out about the farm’s affairs. Johanna, however, excelled in her lessons and a number of her teachers took note and encouraged the child.
Several events in Goldberg’s early teenage years then came together to change her situation dramatically. First, her school principal became aware of Johanna’s terrible home life with the result that he became her first ally. This arose after Johanna turned to him for support in her battle with the local Lutheran pastor over her insistence that she be confirmed in her birth name and not that of her foster family. The principal was confused by this stance so Johanna laid out the situation at home, one which horrified the so-called “new teacher” (a cohort of roughly 40,000 people which received accelerated teachers training in the early years of the GDR in order to both fill the spaces created by the firing of ‘Nazi teachers’ and make the education system responsive to the wishes of the ruling Socialist Unity Party).
Confronted with such a scene for the first time, apparently the principal was visibly shaken and told his young charge to come to him the next time she was beaten. This didn’t take long in coming and Johanna remembers the mark left on her temple by a wooden clog that had been thrown at her: “Oh how happy I was that I had been struck there and not somewhere which would have been more embarrassing to show the principal! “(pg. 27)
I find this episode interesting in that I wouldn’t have thought that a “new teacher”, a product of the new political order and likely hostile to organized religion, would have been particularly open to supporting the child in her confirmation conflict (which she won, by the way! See photo below). It’s possible, or even likely, that the young Johanna was unaware of the new regime’s stance and so approached him out of ignorance. Once confronted with the physical abuse of one of his students, the confirmation issue appears to have become secondary, so it’s unclear to what extent the principal’s involvement was important in that matter.
Postscript: Dr. Goldberg’s response to reading my reaction above is worth noting:
“You write of your surprise at the humane reaction of my principal upon learning of my suffering in the foster home. You should know that at that point, in the early 50s, the GDR and its party-political doctrine was still quite young and not yet so strict. Also, the new political direction, in which genuine as well as “wannabe” functionaries were later taught, did not prohibit humanist thought and action.” (email: Jan. 6, 2014)
A second decisive moment from this time came when her foster mother took ill and was unable to attend one of the semi-regular meetings with the Children’s Services (CS) authorities. Alone with those charged to oversee her care, Johanna seized this opportunity to tell the workers of her unbearable situation in the home. Onsite inspectors had never actually made it inside the filthy house with the foster mother keeping the CS employees out by plying them with produce from the farm, relative luxuries during the lean post-war years. After having heard of the abuse being meted out by the foster mother, however, authorities took an active interest in the situation in the home. As Goldberg notes with understandable satisfaction, “No amount of bacon or eggs could help my foster mother anymore!” (pg. 29) In the weeks and months that followed, the foster mother’s attitude towards Johanna changed and she turned her attentions elsewhere in the realization that the child had emancipated itself from her control.
Around this time, when the school asked the students about their future career plans, Johanna was steadfast: “Doctor or teacher, nothing else came into question for me.” (pg. 32) Determined as ever, Johanna was insistent and the school authorities complied by delegating her to an academic-oriented boarding school in the district capital of Halle an der Saale in the early 1950s.
Oh Mother, Where Art Thou?
Initially the foster family kept from Johanna the fact that she had been adopted, but over time this came out and the young girl began to construct a positive image of her birth mother as a counterpoint to the ogre in whose care she found herself. It was only in her early teens after she had established direct contact with Children’s Services that Johanna dared to make an inquiry with them. A worker there carefully copied down the last known addresses of both her mother and grandmother and handed the slip of paper to her. The young girl immediately memorized the details, anticipating her foster mother’s reaction should she ever find this note. Of course she did and, as expected, flew in to a rage accusing Johanna of having stolen the information from Children’s Services: “Well, I’ll salt your soup I will!”, she apparently exclaimed before throwing the paper into the kitchen stove, laughing while the flames licked at the slip in a scene that would qualify her for inclusion on any list of “Top 10 Worst Stepmothers” (pg. 31).
Johanna’s memory did not fail her though and once she arrived at her new boarding school in Halle, she immediately used the freedoms on offer there to write both her mother and grandmother. Into the post went the letters and the wait for responses began . . .
To be continued . . .