In my last post, I started relating the life story of Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a retired physician from the eastern German city of Schwedt. The information found here is based on Dr. Goldberg’s autobiography Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin (From Whipping Boy to Doctor) and a number of email exchanges I have had with her over the past year. I have decided to present her life in some detail as it illustrates a number of prominent themes of East German life in a remarkable way.
When we left the story, Johanna had just left behind the brutal foster family where she had spent her childhood to study at the Francke Foundations, a boarding school in the industrial city of Halle/Saale. Once here, she had immediately written to both her birth mother and grandmother in the hopes of establishing contact with her natural family . . .
As Johanna’s mother had emigrated to Denmark, a response from her took some time in coming, but the grandmother lived a short distance away in the town of Merseburg and soon Johanna was visiting there semi-regularly. During her first visit, Johanna’s relatives went to great pains to inform her “of all the ‘apparent’ sins of mother”, something that disturbed the girl greatly and caused her to reflect on whether “a person can be only bad and is he or she that for all time?” (pg 38)
When she questioned her grandmother about why she had stood aside and let Johanna be placed into foster care, the explanations were weak and unconvincing. First and foremost, the old woman referred to the counsel of her doctor who’d apparently pointed to Johanna’s bad eye and advised the grandmother that this indicated that the child would undoubtedly be mentally deficient (“blöd”). Johanna is appalled by this reasoning and particularly put off by the contradiction between her supposedly pious grandmother’s actions and religious beliefs: “That was too much hypocrisy for me!” (pg. 39)
So when a response from her birth mother arrived and it included an invitation to travel to Copenhagen to meet, Johanna was filled with excitement. With the border between the two Germanies not yet sealed, travel to the “Non-Socialist World” was still possible and soon Johanna found herself boarding a plane (!) to Hamburg at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. From here, she took a train to the Danish capital. As one might imagine, her anticipation of this encounter was intense, but when it finally took place on the platform at Copenhagen Central, it was a let down:
“There I stood in front of my mother, the object of all my yearning, let myself be hugged and felt – nothing! My feelings left me in the lurch. No feeling of happiness . . ., no warmth, no love, not even sympathy – nothing, just nothing!” (pg. 40).
During the weeks she spent in Copenhagen, Johanna got to know and even like her mother, but here to the explanation for her past actions was wanting. All Johanna could get from her mother was that “It was shameful to have an illegitimate child.”. Nothing more, no apology or no plea for forgiveness. So at the end of the visit, despite offers to stay, Johanna decided to return to the life she knew. For Johanna, it was clear that staying in Denmark would mean saying goodbye to her dreams of teaching or medicine for there was no money to send her to university in Copenhagen, and staying would have made her a dependent of her mother, something that she bristled at. Given this, the choice was really no choice at all: “I possessed a strong desire for freedom and wanted to be independent and free. And so I decided to return. Of my own free will.” (pg 42)
Laying the Foundations for the Future: High School at the Francke Foundations in Halle/Saale
The Francke Foundations was founded in the 17th c. by a Christian Pietist in order to provide education to underprivileged or orphaned children. Over the centuries and under various regimes, it had kept this function and so it was when Johanna began attending boarding school there in 1951.
While excited by the change of scenery and liberation from her foster home, adjusting to life in the boarding school proved challenging at first. Thanks to her back problems and blindness, Johanna stood out from the others physically, but it was her lack of social graces that caused her the most problems. As she relates in her book:
“‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ were foreign words to me. But, to the horror of my schoolmates, I had complete command of the entire vocabulary of the vulgar expressions that were in common use by my foster parents.” (pg 33)
With time, Johanna adapted to the new school and once again excelled as is testified to by a report card from those years:
“This student is an optimist through and through, who convinces one through her words, deeds and sense of humour. Among her most prevalent characteristics area willingness to help, her enthusiasm, an unusual amount of self-discipline, courage and stamina.” (pg. 34).
Reflecting on this phase of her life, Dr. Goldberg recalls that she and many of her classmates were “searching” for orientation points. Naturally the school offered up the new socialist dogmas and the official ideology’s pledges to equity and fairness had considerable appeal to many young people. Johanna joined the Free German Youth (FDJ), the official East German youth group, and slowly distanced herself from the church. She relates one anecdote in which, still searching for a world view to call her own, she attended a church service in her distinctive blue FDJ blouse. In a period where the Party and its FDJ allies were openly hostile to the church, such an action was clearly provocative and Johanna intended it to be so. But in her telling, it was not as a means of attacking the church, but rather as a way to see how seriously the pastor took his duty to attend to “all his flock”. To her disappointment, he “didn’t try to retrieve his ‘lost sheep’, but left me over to the worldly powers without putting up any sort of fight.” (pg. 37).
The Workers Uprising of 1953: “Neither Goatee, Gut nor Glasses!”
The Workers Uprising of 1953 did not leave Halle unscathed, in fact, protests by workers in the area’s many factories and plants helped make the city one of the rebellion’s main hotspots. Goldberg recalls how she and her fellow students were attracted by the unrest in the nearby city centre and witnessed demonstrations on the main square. A banner attached to the city’s Handel monument read: “Neither Goatee, Gut nor Glasses are the will of the Working Classes!” (a reference to the GDR leaders Ulbricht, Pieck and Grotewohl respectively). When Soviet tanks appeared and shots were fired in the vicinity, Johanna went scurrying back to the relative safety of the Francke Foundations’ walled compound.
In the aftermath of the uprising, school authorities struggled to explain what had happened. The teacher of “Social Studies”, the course which most clearly propagated the official Party line, came in for particularly harsh questioning as the students noted that he had removed the otherwise omnipresent Party badge from his lapel during the chaos and only reattached it a few days later. “Why,” they demanded, “had he done so?”
Goldberg recalls how teacher began sweating profusely and stammered:
“You have to understand, one never knows how these situations are going to develop. Sometimes, in a situation like that, it’s sometimes better just to keep on the shirt . . .” (pg. 35).
A Summer Adventure – Take One
In the summer of 1954, Johanna marked the holidays by undertaking a three week bike tour of West Germany with one of her school friends. The sight of two teenage girls on their own – and from “the Zone” no less! – gave rise to comments like “You’re from the East!? And you’re not starving?!” Goldberg recalls feeling some resentment at these sentiments and notes:
“One can’t say that things were easy in the young German Democratic Republic in those years . . . but the population had taken note of how the new government was trying to help those most in need and to improve the lives of the poorest classes. Education had become accessible to those without money [Ed. note: like her], free healthcare was available for all, school lunches were guaranteed for the poorest of the poor even in very difficult circumstances. This was the care that had been provided me and my friend by our state and we were not about to deny it.” (pg. 49)
In reading her autobiography, I would suggest that this sentiment is one which Goldberg held on to throughout the GDR period. While never a Party member, she did nevertheless agree with the general aims of the socialist project and was by no means hostile towards efforts to provide a decent standard of living including universal health care and education to all members of society. Given the privations of her upbringing and the opportunities which the system presented to her, it would perhaps be more surprising if she did not identify with the official values of the GDR to some degree.
From what I’ve read and learned in speaking with former East Germans, I think these attitudes were very well established in the GDR populace, particularly amongst those in the Aufbaugeneration (Construction Generation); there was a real pride in the equity of their system and the achievements which had been realized in the extremely difficult circumstances following World War II. That said, this pride typically did not blind people to the many shortcomings of “real existing socialism.”
Postscript: while providing feedback to my draft text, Johanna offered this insight on the above topic:
“I believe that my terrible experiences and the absence of any emotional warmth during my childhood are the reason that I thought so highly of and placed such a high value on the social conditions as they were to be found in the GDR up to its demise. The experiences of one’s childhood do indeed shape one’s later life.” (email: Jan. 11. 2014)
Physician Heal Thyself! – Medical Studies in Jena
After high school graduation in 1955, Johanna saw her dream of medical studies come true when she was accepted to study medicine at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena. She threw herself into her studies while struggling to make ends meet on her meagre student scholarship. To supplement her income, Johanna worked as a street car conductor for the local transit system during the semester vacations. The privations of her childhood prepared her somewhat for the challenges of student life and she recalls leading night time expeditions to the farms on the the edge of town where she and her student friends “liberated” fruits and vegetables from the fields in order to better feed themselves.
A Summer Adventure – Take Two
In the summer of 1956, Johanna began preparing for her next adventure: a cycling trip to Italy. To prepare, she bought a used “Italian for Beginners” textbook and began teaching herself, telling inquisitive friends that she was just interested in the language: “While it wasn’t written anywhere that such a trip into a foreign country was not allowed, one had to be careful. In 1956, such an act could have resulted in being thrown out of university.” (pg. 58) When one considers just how badly Johanna had wanted to study medicine, it seems remarkable that she was willing to put it all at risk for a foreign adventure.
Initially, the plan was for Johanna to travel with a friend, but when she backed out, Johanna decided to head off on her own. With cleverness, resourcefulness and a remarkable faith in human kind, Johanna overcame the many challenges she encountered on her way down “the boot” and back up again. For her, the trip becomes a milestone in her life and functions as a very real reminder of what she is capable of.
An incident in the trip’s aftermath also provides an interesting insight into the interpersonal climate present in Johanna’s Jena dorm. One day shortly after her return from Italy, Johanna was surprised by a dorm mate while organizing the photos from her trip. Initially Johanna told the other student that they were pictures from a pen pal, but when the dorm mate spotted Johanna in one of the images, she confessed to her travels. The dorm mate was flabbergasted: “You were in Italy for six weeks and didn’t mention it once! Why? Why didn’t you tell me?” Johanna remained silent.
The reason for this reaction is worth relating. Apparently, this woman had report some minor indiscretion to the dorm authorities earlier, and Johanna had taken note. While the infraction (washing clothes in a dorm bathroom) had been relatively trivial, Johanna registered her fellow student’s lack of solidarity with her dorm mates and decided that, if she’d blown the whistle once, she might well do it again (pg. 56). When this same student raised the issue of trip again several months later by asking Johanna directly whether she’d take her with her if she were to go to Italy again, Johanna decided to answer her:
“Probably not, because I can’t be sure you wouldn’t betray me.” (pg. 79).
In my view, this is a remarkable story as it testifies to Johanna’s character and a determination to live what some have called “a life of truth in the midst of falsehood” (Christoph Dieckmann, “Das wahre Leben im falschen’). It was a risky strategy as, were her dorm mate a Stasi informant, telling her that she didn’t trust her enough to let her know her travel plans was the sort of information that could be used to infer that Johanna was planning further “impermissible travels”. But in taking this position, Johanna opted for a radical honesty, an approach that allowed her to maintain the structural integrity between her internal and public selves in a society which excelled at bringing these two into conflict.
Young and in Love
During her studies, Johanna met her future husband, a student at one of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculties set up by the new regime to accelerate the education of young people from the working classes who were without the formal prerequisites for post-secondary education. An orphan himself, he and Johanna immediately found in each other the warmth, love and security they had lacked for so much of their young lives and Johanna soon became pregnant. To complicate matters further, her fiance’s dormant TB became active and he was sent to a sanatorium, leaving an expecting Johanna on her own to find an apartment for the young family while continuing her medical studies. With her usual determination and resourcefulness, however, Johanna managed to do just that and there is a lovely scene in the book when her husband returns from his convalescence to discover their newly renovated apartment – an almost unimaginable luxury in the Jena of those years.
Sadness soon entered this joy, however, as Johanna had complications with her pregnancy and the couple’s child was stillborn. Goldberg relates that the experience is “the first real test of our young marriage,” (pg. 86) but writes that it brings the pair closer together. This trauma takes place in the middle of her final exams, but, in keeping with her character, Johanna was insistent that she be allowed to complete these and she graduated from medical school with the rest of her class in 1960.
In our correspondence, there was one passage where Johanna reflected on the education she had received in the GDR:
“I have always wondered if I could have had the same [educational] development in the years between 1951 and 1960 if I had been in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG)? I can’t answer this with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as I don’t have the necessary knowledge.” (email to author, )
Well, Dr. Goldberg may be reluctant to weigh in on this topic but, despite not being a social historian of post-war West Germany by any means, I will hazard a semi-educated guess: I believe that she would have encountered even more hurdles placed in her way had she been in similar circumstances in the 1950s FRG. Since education was (and remains) organized largely on the state (Land) level in the FRG, much would have been determined by where she would have found herself as possibilities and attitudes varied widely from place to place. Even in the most optimistic alternate narrative, however, I have a hard time imagining that the opportunities for social mobility that Goldberg accessed as part of the GDR’s efforts to remake itself into a Communist state would have been open to her had fate placed her in the West after the war.
To be continued . . .