“You had to think on two tracks”: One family’s survival strategy within GDR state socialism

Last year while searching eBay for potential new acquisitions to my collection of GDR ephemera, I came across some used school notebooks, a rather unusual find but one which had me excited as I’m always on the lookout for items which have a clear personal angle. When they arrived, I discovered that the notebooks were from 1970 and had belonged to a grade 1 girl with the rather distinctive name of Kordula Striepecke. While the notebooks for her mathematics and German class were unrevealing, young Kordula’s notebook for Heimatkunde, a sort of introduction to civics, told a rather interesting story.

The notebook contained a number of dictations including one on then-GDR leader Walter Ulbricht (“Walter Ulbricht lives and works in the capital of the German Democradic Republic.“; what could be a more appropriate teaching method in a dictatorship than a dictation?), a few loose newspaper clippings on Soviet space exploits and a cycling race testifying to the child’s interest in the world around her and, as one might expect, a few lovely drawings as well. One depicted some flowers, another a typical GDR-prefab apartment block festooned with GDR and Soviet flags for May Day.

Kordula completes an exercise on her parents' occupations (photo: Jo Zarth)

“Freelance graphic artist” and “Independent merchant”: Kordula completes an exercise on her parents’ occupations (photo: Jo Zarth)

But it was the answers to an exercise in which the students were to list their parents’ occupations that got my eyebrows raised. Here Kordula reported that her mother was a “freelance graphic artist” and her father an “independent merchant”. In the GDR of 1970, such professions were more than a little unusual and suggested that I’d come upon some “outsiders” to the system. What would life have been like as the daughter of two parents who didn’t fit the socialist mould? Would Kordula have experienced problems at school because of her class background? The notebook betrayed no sign that she was not a fully integrated member of the Kollektiv, but did frictions emerge later? How did the family negotiate this “inside/outside” existence? This was something to follow up on.

I set the notebooks aside and decided to see if an Internet search might be able to tell me anything about a Kordula Striepecke. It could and a few clicks later I had a mailing address, so I drafted a letter introducing myself and requesting an interview and popped it into the mail.

A few days later this response arrived in my inbox:

Dear Mr. Kleiner,

I was astonished to find myself holding your letter in my hands. More than a year ago, I had to clear out my parents’ home and business, but I ran out of time to finish the job. Only one room remained, the one with my school things, but several acquaintances agreed to take care of the rest of the job for me. . . . As a result, I was all the more surprised to learn that my school things landed on eBay. Without my knowledge. . . . But in response to your questions, I can confirm that the notebooks you bought on eBay were indeed mine.”

Remarkably, Ms. Striepecke overcame her initial surprise at being contacted by a total stranger with questions about her past and agreed to speak with me. Indeed, in her mail she wrote that she had already done some reflecting on her GDR past, but not in the context of her schooling and that she would be interested in doing so.

When work took me to Germany this past spring, the opportunity to speak with Ms. Striepecke face-to-face presented itself and so we made arrangements to meet up in her home in a small town in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. On the day of our meeting, Ms. Striepecke and I sat down in her living room for our chat. She began by giving me some background on her family and their lives in the Erfurt, a city in the Thuringian region of the GDR’s southwest. This information helped underscore my initial impression that Ms. Striepecke and her family were a fine example of the many East Germans who sought to arrange themselves with the state socialist system in a way that allowed them to maintain the highest possible degree of personal or familial autonomy.

The Family Business: Robert Striepecke Hardware
Robert Striepecke Hardware, Erfurt, in the GDR era (photo: Striepecke family archive).

Robert Striepecke Hardware, Erfurt, in the GDR era (photo: Striepecke family archive).

Ms. Striepecke’s parents Werner and Ursula ran Eisenwaren Robert Striepecke, a hardware store in Erfurt’s north end that had been founded by Ms. Striepecke’s great-grandfather in 1911. On the surface the store was a classic family-run business with the parents managing and overseeing all aspects of the store’s operations. Technically, however, the store was controlled by GDR authorities through a Kommanditgesellschaft (KG), a rare sort of limited partnership structure (by 1980 there were only approx. 100 extant in the entire GDR) that put a 51% stake in the hands of the state Retail Trade Organization (Handelsorganisation (HO), with the remaining 49% held by Ms. Striepecke’s father. Crucially, the KG agreement included a provision rendering it null and void upon the passing of Ms. Striepecke’s father, a clause that guaranteed the continued existence of the family business in the immediate term, but in a manner most precarious for the Striepeckes. As Ms. Striepecke noted to me: “We just prayed that nothing would happen to my father, because had he died, the store would’ve been ‘nationalized’ immediately and we couldn’t have done anything about it.” (Interview, Kordula Striepecke, April 11, 2014).

Church in State: An Enclave
Martini Church in Erfurt-Ilversgehofen in 2009 (photo: Michael Sander, Wiki Commons).

Martini Church in Erfurt-Ilversgehofen in 2009 (photo: Michael Sander, Wiki Commons).

Besides running ‘their’ store, the other pillar of the Striepecke family’s life was its membership in the Martini Church, a Lutheran church congregation in the Ilversgehofen district of Erfurt. The Striepecke parents were devout churchgoers and raised their children to be the same. Indeed, in speaking to Ms. Striepecke, an active Christian to this day, it became clear to me that the family’s involvement with the church informed all aspects of their lives. It did this by providing both a moral compass for their actions as well as a physical space in which they could experience a freedom of thought and deed that was hard to come by in East German society. As Ms. Striepecke stated in our conversation, “The church offered me a place where I could be myself, because whatever happened there was something that we could help shape . . . For me [the church] was naturally a place that offered more freedom than was on offer at school.” (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014)

Nichts wie ‘raus!: Nothing like getting outside!
Kordula as a junior paddler (photo: Striepecke family archive).

Kordula as a junior paddler (photo: Striepecke family archive).

Finally, the family also placed great value in physical activity and often spent free time hiking in the famous Thuringian forest or paddling on its many streams, rivers and lakes. This passion for paddling led the parents to become founding members of a canoe club in their hometown, Fortschritt Erfurt (Progress Erfurt). The family spent much time at the club (Kordula’s father even helped build its boat house), and it was here that its young daughter was first introduced to the sport of canoe slalom. As she explained, “I started off as a swimmer, but even as a young girl I could see that there were too many competitors. I was ambitious and so I switched over the canoe slalom as I thought I might be able to advance there more easily.” (Interview, KS April 11, 2014) This was an assessment that proved to be remarkably accurate.

School Days

Having established the basic context of Kordula’s family life during her childhood years, we turned our attentions to her experiences within the East German education system. I began by asking whether she had ever felt herself disadvantaged, placed outside of the collective at 36. Polytechnic Secondary School “Wilhelm Pieck” because of her family’s unconventional job status as small business owners and their being active Christians? After taking a moment to consider my question, she offered:

“I’ve thought about this in advance of our discussion today and I have to say that nothing of that sort ever happened, because we simply accepted [the ideological perspective of GDR education] as a fact. It was clear to us that we were not in a position to change the situation through our behavior, so we knew that we had to find a way to arrange ourselves within it. . .

 We never sat down together and said, ‘How can we rise up against this?’ That was not the sort of thing that happened in our family. . . We just tried to find a way. My father was a fighter and he always said, if one door shuts, then I’ll look for another and I’ll find one. . .

In this respect, though, there was no open confrontation [with the school], there was no tension there because we were aware of the situation at school and knew that what happened there and what happened at home were two different things. At home I had a whole different set of opinions, and was raised to have these views, but I was well aware that I couldn’t present these at school, that was clear. You really had to think on two tracks, . . . but that didn’t cause any tension for me. I lived with it, I arranged myself with it.” (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014)

Kordula's grade 4 class (photo: Striepecke family archive)

Kordula’s grade 4 class (photo: Striepecke family archive)

Well, that was rather definitive. There was, it seemed, no basis to my assumption that Kordula’s family and social status would’ve seen her branded an outsider at school. In fact, the next part of the conversation suggested that her integration into the collective was rather advanced. Ms. Striepecke reached into box that sat at the foot of the sofa she was sitting on and pulled out a notebook before beginning,

“I was a member of the Thälmann Pioneers [ed. note – the state youth organization for 6 to 14 year olds] like everyone else. It wasn’t fun, more something you had to do. I was a so-called ‘Brigade Leader’ and I found this [pointing to the notebook] while preparing for your visit. Our class was divided into Brigades of five or six students and each member had certain tasks. . . . As the leader one of my responsibilities, and this was interesting and something that I had completely forgotten, was to keep a record of each of Brigade members’ performance in class. So if someone hadn’t done his homework, I recorded this. If someone was praised or reprimanded, I wrote that down too. And the teacher would check this book to make sure that it was up to date. . . . .That was when I was in ’74 or ’75 (ed. grade 5) and I was 10 or 11!” (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014).

 

Ms. Striepecke’s incredulity at having been incorporated into a system of control and observation of her fellow students at such a young age was clearly genuine as was her surprise at having forgotten this episode. It’s important not to blow this experience out of proportion; as a capable young girl, it’s not surprising that Kordula was selected by her teacher to take on the role of Brigade Leader. But there’s no question that this decision would not have been made solely on the basis of her abilities, rather it would’ve been intended to encourage Kordula onto the ‘right path’ and to inculcate the responsibility of the collective to exercise control over the individual, a key tenet of the socialist value system taught in GDR schools.

Priorities

In the course of our conversation, Ms. Striepecke repeatedly made it clear that her parents were very engaged with carefully navigating themselves and their children into and out of the GDR mainstream. They apparently never stopped assessing to what degree they were prepared to fulfill the terms of the social contract the East German state demanded of “its” citizens. But as Kordula’s membership in the Thälmann Pioneers suggests, the Striepeckes were not members of the tiny group of GDR citizens who pushed back every time the state implicated itself into their family members’ lives. For the Striepeckes, rather, the approach was more pragmatic: “We asked ourselves, ‘What is important to us?’ And if something wasn’t important to us, we just went along with it, but we didn’t place any value in it.” (Interview, AS, April 11, 2014)

Kordula photographed at the ceremony marking her  Jugendweihe (Socialist Confirmation) (photo: Striepecke family archive)

Kordula (circled) after at the ceremony marking her Jugendweihe (Socialist Confirmation) (photo: Striepecke family archive)

A clear example of this approach was Kordula’s participation in the Jugendweihe, or Socialist Consecration (see my earlier post on this subject), the official coming of age ceremony organized for East German youth. For many devout Christian families in the GDR, the state sponsored Jugendweihe, in which young people were called upon to pledge their loyalty to the socialist order and East German state, was a line which they would not allow their children to cross. In some cases, pastors forced the issue by making their parishioners choose between having their children participate in confirmation or the state sponsored process. But Ms. Striepecke related to me that no such pressure existed for her parents and they had Kordula do both. She related an anecdote that reflected the family’s attitude towards the Jugendweihe:

“I remember that the final ceremony took place early on a Saturday morning and that my parents didn’t attend, but they picked me up immediately afterwards so we could drive out to our datscha in the Thuringian Forest. The meaning of this was clear, the Jugendweihe had no meaning for us . . . And that manifested itself practically in the fact that we didn’t celebrate it. My parents always emphasized that for us it was the confirmation that was crucial.’ (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014)

By having Kordula complete the Jugendweihe, the Striepeckes saw to it that Kordula, on the surface at least, remained “inside” the officially prescribed order. However, their behavior and discussions within the family ensured that she understood that they saw the Socialist Consecration as a hollow act devoid of any real meaning beyond arranging themselves with authorities.

Performance
Kordula at a competition in the 1980s; note her name on the leader board behind her! (photo: Striepecke family collection).

Kordula at a competition in the 1980s; note her name on the leader board behind her! (photo: Striepecke family collection).

Kordula’s decision to focus her sporting energies on the sport of canoe slalom proved to be a smart one and she quickly distinguished herself as a junior talent of some promise with her performances on the Progress Erfurt team. Between the ages of 12 and 16, Kordula competed in the GDR national youth championships, the Spartakiade, three times (1975, 1977, 1979) and she recalls the experiences fondly:

“The Spartakiade were really important for us. They were like a mini Olympic Games. You were nominated for your district team and we got resources to train more than usual . . . , in those years we even had a winter training camp . . . And then you would get a team tracksuit for your district and an athlete ID. It was just like a major competition.”

Interestingly, Kordula’s sporting achievement had a clear impact on her place in the hierarchy of her school, trumping whatever reservations her family background may have raised with school authorities. In our conversation, she recalled how she was featured on the school bulletin board several times for her canoeing performances and when I asked about whether she could recall instances at school where she had felt she was placed outside of her class Kollektiv, her answer referenced her athletic activities:

“I wouldn’t say that I experienced anything like that, and to a large degree that was probably a result of the recognition of my athletic performance. . . . Any standing that I enjoyed at school naturally came to me through sport. This had such a high social value in the GDR that, if you were good at sport, you really didn’t have to worry about anything.”

Remarkably, Kordula’s sporting achievement even managed to gain her entry into the Erweiterte Oberschule (EOS), or academic stream high school. Normally, this path would’ve been blocked to her as she was the daughter of a member of the Intelligensia (her university-educated mother) and an “independent businessman”. However, when Kordula had to return home to Erfurt from an elite sport boarding school after her canoe slalom lost its Olympic status, her parents managed to successfully argue that, having thrown their daughter’s life and education into chaos, the state owed it to her to allow her the chance to continue her schooling at the highest level.

Perspective

Another factor that I see as key in allowing the Striepeckes to be relatively comfortable with their arrangement inside of GDR society came through the perspective that they had on their situation. While by no means completely satisfied with the political, social or economic realities that shaped their lives under state socialism, the Striepeckes lived experience was broad enough for them to recognize that the lives they were able to lead in East Germany were more than simply tolerable.

At one point in our conversation, I asked Ms. Striepecke whether her family ever considered trying to emigrate to West Germany. She shook her head: “No, leaving was never something we considered. My father said, ‘We may not have it easy here, but through effort and persistence, we can achieve something.’ And that’s how we felt.” (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014) By GDR standards, the family certainly did enjoy a reasonably good life. They had a large degree of control over the family business, resided in an apartment above the family’s shop in a building they owned, had several cars and a datscha in the lovely Thuringian forest and last, but not least, were fully integrated into a supportive church community. Indeed, it was the connections that their congregation had with the Siebenbürgen Sachsen, a German ethnic minority in central Romania, that helped the family appreciate what their lives in the GDR had to offer.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Transylvanian Saxons, as the Siebenbürgen Sachsen are known in English, were a tiny minority trying to eke out an existence within the bleak confines of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist Romania. Not surprisingly, the community faced considerable challenges and was dependent on outside support, support that came from folks like the Striepeckes. As Ms. Striepecke told me, every summer her parents would attach a trailer to the family car and fill it with staples hard-to-come by in rural Romania such as flour, sugar, salt, even bread and the church newspaper. They would then drive to Siebenbürgen and offload the goods to locals whose heartfelt appreciation and generosity made a profound impression on the young Kordula. As did the hardship these people suffered and the environmental degradation of the surroundings that the family had to traverse to reach their destination: “Whole areas which we passed through were completely contaminated by a sulfur factory that spewed out yellow clouds, dust and a stench that was absolutely terrible. . . . Experiences like that made us aware of the fact that, we had it pretty good at home despite the sort of day-to-day annoyances (ed. note – Schikanerie in the original) we faced.” (Interview, KS, April 11, 2014)

My sense is that this sort of perspective was not something that was particularly widespread within the general populace of the GDR. While East Germans were aware that they enjoyed a standard of living higher than that of their East Bloc brethren, this didn’t mean much to many of them. For most East Germans, the point of reference was West Germany, specifically West German television, not Romania or Bulgaria. Many East Germans had family in the West and received the occasional care packet with much cherished consumer goods which only served to underscore their impressions of the “Golden West”. The Striepeckes, however, had no western relatives and, while they watched West German TV, to hear Ms. Striepecke tell it, her parents were considerably more skeptical about the world depicted there than many of their countrymen. The Striepeckes’ experiences travelling through the poorer parts of the East Bloc managed to put the life on offer in the GDR in a more favourable light – for them at least.

Conclusion
Kordula Striepecke with her parents and brother Matthias when she was 13 (photo; Striepecke family archive)

Kordula Striepecke at age 13 with parents Ursula and Werner and brother Mathias (photo; Striepecke family archive).

What I found so striking about my conversation with Ms. Striepecke was the way the stories she told served to both confirm and contradict accepted wisdoms of what life in the GDR was like and how the system worked. While Kordula’s class background and religious affiliation do not seem to have produced the negative ramifications at school one might have expected for her, this has to be seen in light of her sporting achievement. Maybe Kordula’s position as an integrated member of the Kollektiv was a function of the importance of sport within GDR society and an illustration of how success in this field (or stream!) could effectively trump any political or social goals that Party leaders may have had. This certainly seems to be Ms. Striepecke’s own conclusion of her school experience.

The Striepecke family were in no way ‘typical’ East Germans. Their status as independent merchants and their devout Christian beliefs set them apart from the GDR mainstream in significant ways. However, the family’s success in carving out a niche for themselves in which they could exist and, by GDR standards at least, thrive, are testimony to the fact that the boundaries of the possible within the GDR could be quite wide indeed.

 

 

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5 comments
  1. Cyndi Cunanan said:

    I always enjoy reading your posts, but I love the personal angle on this one? How wonderful that you found her!

    • Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading!

  2. Cyndi Cunanan said:

    Shouldn’t have been a question mark at the end of that first sentence in my comment, and I can’t even blame autocorrect!

  3. Schteve said:

    Great piece. “Arranging ourselves within it” would make a great tittle for a book on the different ways people negotiated life in the GDR.

    I’m amazed someone would think to sell something as personal as someone else’s schoolbooks on eBay. Just out of curiosity, did you offer them back to her?

    • Glad you found this post interesting. In answer to your question, yes, I did offer Ms. Striepecke her notebooks back, but she told me that I could keep them. Rather gracious of her I thought.

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