This East German Life: A Different Johanna Goldberg, Pt. 3

This post completes a series of entries on the life of Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a physician from the eastern German city of Schwedt. It is based on an autobiography written by Dr. Goldberg (Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin/From Whipping Boy to Doctor) and a number of email exchanges I’ve had with her over the past year. I’ve chosen to present this biography in considerable detail as it illustrates a number of aspects of East German life very well.

For the first part of her biography, click here. You’ll find the second part here.

When last heard from Johanna, she had just graduated from medical school at Jena’s Friedrich Schiller University . . .

Working Life – Things Aren’t So Bad (Berka)
Central Clinic in Bad Berka where Johanna G. pursued her specialist training from 1961-1969 (photo: Tnemsoni, Wikicommons)

Central Clinic in Bad Berka where Johanna G. pursued her specialist training from 1961-1969 (photo: Tnemsoni, Wikicommons)

After her husband’s academic plans were derailed by his recurring TB, he decided to complete an apprenticeship program as a caregiver at a clinic in Bad Berka which specialized in treating severe TB cases. In order to be with her husband, Johanna decided to apply to complete training as a lung specialist at this same clinic. Once accepted here, Goldberg quickly distinguished herself and was invited by the Senior Doctor to complete a PhD qualification under his supervision. During the nine years the couple spent in Bad Berka, Goldberg completed both her specialists’ training and her PhD studies. And were that not enough, she also managed to bring into the world the couple’s first child, a son.

Worth the Schwedt: Move to the GDR’s Third Socialist City

In 1969, Goldberg and her husband decided to leave Bad Berka for the opportunities presented in Schwedt, a small town north east of Berlin that was being transformed into an important petrochemical centre and the GDR’s third “socialist city”. In response to my question about why she had decided to make the move, Goldberg pointed to two main motives:

      • the rapidly growing city offered her career opportunities and the chance to distance herself from the extreme hierarchy of hospital work
      • the move presented her with a chance to pursue her passion of promoting a non-smoking lifestyle to children and youth in a setting where the population was overwhelmingly young (email on April 28, 2013)

In Goldberg’s account of her work in Schwedt, we get a sense of how much satisfaction she took from this it. She took a holistic approach to care, trying to tend to both the body and soul of her patients, an unusual concept then as now. Next to her clinic work, she threw herself into her project of promoting non-smoking to children and youth in Schwedt’s twelve schools simply because:

“it was very important to me. I wasn’t supported officially, but I was left alone to do my thing as there was no harm in it. From the sidelines, I had to tolerate some smirks as some thought my work had ‘missionary qualities’. But when something I did got attention, the Party was always there acting as if it were their success, although it never had anything to do with it.” (email from May 14, 2013)

Johanna Goldberg's 1988 brochure ZIgarette? (Am I the only one to think the photographer wasn't quite sure how best to fulfill this commission?)

Johanna Goldberg’s 1988 brochure ZIgarette? (Am I the only one to think the photographer wasn’t quite sure how best to fulfill this commission?)

Goldberg’s research and experience in this field were gathered together in a brochure in 1988. Entitled Zigarette?, this work came out as a contribution to Medicus, a series of health-related brochures intended to address common medical conditions and provide guidance for dealing with them. Leafing through this, one quickly begins to understand why Goldberg dedicated so much of her time to educating young people on this theme as the figures for smoking in the DDR found here are truly astounding. According to the data from the 1970s used here, 47% of male adults and 20% of adult females were smokers in the GDR. Among youths the numbers were even more dramatic with 60% of 16 year olds reporting that they were smokers and 40% stating that they did so regularly! (Johanna Goldberg, Zigarette? (Berlin: 1988, pg. 11).

The main impression left by this text was that, unlike so much of the material that I look at from the GDR period, it seems remarkably up-to-date. There is little “missionary zeal” here, but rather a clear presentation of the facts regarding what factors encourage people to take up smoking and some practical information on trying to kick the habit. As legacy’s go, you could do a lot worse.

Smoking GDR style: a pack of Jewel cigarettes, Riesa matches and a promotional ashtray from People's Own Tire Factory "Pneumant" Berlin (photo: Jo Zarth).

Smoking GDR style: a pack of Jewel cigarettes, Riesa matches and a promotional ashtray from People’s Own Tire Factory “Pneumant” Berlin (photo: Jo Zarth).

In Conflict With Authority

Thanks to her non-smoking activism, Johanna earned some international profile which resulted in a 1980 invitation from an Austrian medical organization to participate in a study tour related to her work. Initially, she received permission to undertake this trip to the “Non-Socialist World”, but behind the scenes the wheels were turning and at the last minute, her permission to travel was withdrawn. Evidently someone had fears that she might not return to Schwedt from the “Golden West”. Naturally Dr. Goldberg was very disappointed at this turn of events, but recalls going to great efforts to try and conceal this from her co-workers, some of whom she suspected (correctly as it would later turn out) were reporting on her to authorities.

Later that same day, one of her superiors phoned her in her office, something highly unusual. Between the lines of the stilted conversation, Goldberg realized that the nervous apparatchik was ensuring that she had not made use of the travel papers in her possession. When confronted with her suspicion, the boss indirectly admitted that he was indeed checking up on her, something that caused Goldberg to lose her professional composure:

“Why wouldn’t I have come back? This is where I live, where my family is, where we’ve built our home! What sort of primitive do you take me for?” (pg. 134.)

Reflecting on this experience, Goldberg offers, “It was humiliations such as these which certainly made some GDR citizens decide to put some distance between themselves and the social system in place there.” (pg. 134)

Retirement but not Retiring

The final third of the book recounts some of Dr. Goldberg’s post-retirement activities, many of which have involved volunteering with and supporting the NGO “Doctors in the Third World.” Through this organization, Johanna has undertaken trips to both India and the Philippines, travelling to regions under served by physicians to offer care to residents there. The spirit of joy and resilience that she has encountered amongst the poorest of the poor has had a profound impact on Dr. Goldberg and inform her final comments in the book: “And again and again and again I compare this attitude with the indefensible complaining of some of many healthy residents of my home land.” (pg. 174)

Johanna Goldberg (photo: J. Goldberg)

Johanna Goldberg (photo: J. Goldberg)


I greatly appreciated the chance to read Dr. Goldberg’s autobiography, particularly because it captures her life during the entire forty years of the GDR’s existence. As I’ve mentioned before, her biography is similar to many of her contemporaries in the so-called Aufbaugeneration; like many others, she took advantage of the social mobility on offer under the new regime and used this to achieve a life that would have been unthinkable had she been born only a generation before. Out of these experiences arose a sense of identification with the social principles avowed by the state socialist system (equity, fairness) for many of this cohort and, as her recollections confirm, Dr. Goldberg was no exception.

Having engaged with this biography so deeply, I am also struck by a few things that are missing in Dr. Goldberg’s telling of her life story. First among these has to be the fact that the building of the Berlin Wall – such a key event in the history of this period of German division – receives only passing mention. While surprising at first glance, upon reflection this omission makes sense given Johanna’s life arc. In many ways, Johanna threw in her lot with the GDR in the early 1950s when she rebuffed her birth mother’s offer to stay in Denmark. The chance to pursue medicine or teaching, and a desire to be her own person, were something that the young Johanna felt she could only achieve in the GDR and so she decided to return and live her life there. As a result, the building of the Wall in the year of Johanna’s graduation from medical school (1961) had no impact on her life or how it was being lived, so there is no reason to include mention of its construction here.

Even more remarkably perhaps is that fact that the other key turning point of post-war German history, the Wende in the fall of 1989, receives absolutely no mention whatsoever in her book. For practically every former-East German that I’ve met, the revolution of 1989 marked not just an abstract historical event but was a personal turning point as well. Indeed in most biographies I have encountered of those who were adults at the time, the events of 1989 serve as a clear break, a “before and after” point, but this is not the case for Dr. Goldberg and it caused me to wonder why.

My first suspicion was that, as a doctor, Johanna belonged to one of the few social groups for whom the Wende period was not connected with existential fears of any sort. Certainly there was a new medical system to learn (and Dr. Goldberg has opinions on this subject based on our email correspondence!), but doctors are needed in every system and having established herself professionally, there was no question that she might lose her job. In our email correspondence, I asked her about this notable omission and she wrote:

“I generally tried to avoid making any statements of a social or political nature. I didn’t want to write a political work, but rather report on my personal development from its modest beginnings to the achievements of my working life.” (email, June 22, 2013)

She then went on to confirm my suspicions about the stability of her work: “In regards to what changed for me with reunification, I can not complain . . . I was never unemployed . . . as doctors are needed everywhere in the world.” (email from June 22, 2013). This is not to say that she was left cold by the developments of 1989:

“Reunification was met with frenetic jubilation by most people here, that is a fact. And I too had tears in my eyes . . . However, the expectations of the people were simply not realistic. They wanted the social system of the GDR and the FRG’s economy as they imagined it to be. In this regard I was rather reserved and skeptical.” (email from June 22, 2013)

Another explanation given by Dr. Goldberg as to why this historic turning point didn’t find its way into her memoir  is that “many, many other people have given detailed and euphoric accounts [of this period] to the point that I have nothing to add here.” She suggested that dwelling on the often difficult consequences of this upheaval is not in her nature, but then moved on to offer what I now feel is the central reason for why she downplayed the Wende in her biography:

“I am by nature a reserved and laid by character who doesn’t tend to announce her views for all to hear but who, when the situation calls for it, takes her fate into her own hands.” (italics Ed.; email from Jan. 6, 2014)

Looking at Dr. Goldberg’s life path, there can be no question that this is the case. She is the subject, or actor, of her biography and not a passive object. For so many East Germans, the Wende was an experience that made them objects of a process completely beyond their control. For Johanna, however, her occupation, experience and character have allowed her to experience the massive social, economic and political changes as just one more in the series of challenges which her life has required that she face. As such, they didn’t demand special attention in the retelling of her life story.

The other element that I often found wanting in Dr. Goldberg’s account of her life is the social context. Interestingly, this is not an aspect of which she is unaware for In one of our email exchanges, she wrote that “the social context can not be left out [when trying to understand a person’s life, ed.], for people are the result of their environment to some extent.” (email from 22.6.2013). I couldn’t agree more and I imagine that part of the reason this context is largely absent here is that she assumed (correctly I guess!) that her German readers would bring this knowledge to the table with them. For me, however, it would have been interesting to get more of Johanna’s perceptions of the social and political world in which she lived, but that was not a task she intended to address with this book.

As a Generation Xer who has benefited from the “mercy of a late birth” (Helmut Kohl) and thereby spared the upheavals and tribulations of World and Cold Wars and the like, I am always amazed and intrigued by the biographies of those regular people who had to navigate their way through such challenges. Dr. Goldberg’s life certainly belongs in this category and I am truly grateful to her for having assisted me in my efforts to share it on my blog.

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