Schwedt: “A Sanssouci of Socialism”

East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here.

Not actually a “Socialist City”

Like the other “socialist cities” (except arguably Halle-Neustadt), Schwedt was not only a product of the GDR, but was actually a settlement pre-dating the intervention of East German city planners. In Schwedt’s case, it had been a regional agricultural centre of some import up to the end of World War II, but the Nazi defence of the town during the Red Army’s advance left it devastated. In the initial post-war years, the area limped along as its tobacco-based economy was by no means a priority for the GDR economy’s decision makers. Schwedt’s prospects changed virtually overnight, however, with the GDR leadership’s 1958 decision to site the country’s first oil refinery in the town. That the town got the nod was due almost solely to its proximity to the Polish border as this would allow the most cost effective access to the Soviet oil pipeline supplying raw materiel to the plant.

While Schwedt was frequently referred to as a “socialist city” by GDR authorities in the years after its founding, Springer argues that, “In the debates surrounding the establishment of this new town, there is no trace of the utopian notions of a socialist city, rather the decision centred upon where one might best place the oil refinery around which the town was to be built.” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 67) Indeed, in a chapter entitled “The Planned and the Built City”, Springer persuasively demonstrates that GDR-era Schwedt came to its form through of a series of decisions dictated primarily by economic considerations and circumstance, not any ideologically driven mandate. He contends that the use of the “socialist city” label in reference to Schwedt was should be seen as an attempt by authorities to associate this concept with “the technology-oriented optimism and the push toward modernity” for which the town was a symbol in early 1960’s East Germany. (Verbaute Träume, pg. 90).

PCK Oil Refinery: The Engine of Schwedt’s Economy

Once the decision to make Schwedt an industrial centre was made, GDR planners moved quickly to turn it into a reality. While construction of the refinery and a paper plant kicked into high gear, city planners were charged with building the town that was to become home to the workers and their families who would move there by the tens of thousands in the coming years. The construction of Schwedt came as the GDR was moving to adopt the industrial construction methods that would characterize East German building for years to come and the highly schematic, linear initial plan for the new city reflected this technology’s limitations. This approach came in for significant criticism from residents and observers, critique that echoed similar complaints that had come during the construction of Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second “socialist city” only a few years earlier. One local journalist commented: “A capitalist developer focused only on maximizing his profit could have come up with this. . . Socialism demands more!” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 178)

GDR-era grocery store sits abandoned (photo: author)

GDR-era grocery store (Kaufhalle) sits abandoned (photo: author)

“A Sanssouci of Socialism”: Utopian Conceptions of City Building – Briefly

Remarkably, the criticism of the plan for the new town did not fall on deaf ears and a new chief architect was brought in from Berlin to take over the project. Selman Selmanagic was a professor of at the Weissensee College of Art and someone with a history within the East German planning scene. From 1945-50, Selmanagic had worked on the reconstruction of Berlin before being removed from his position when the modified “garden city” vision being pushed by his mentor Hans Scharoun fell out of favour with Party leaders. Selmanagic moved to put his stamp on the plans for Schwedt, stating that the city was to become “a Sansoucci of socialism,” a reference to Frederick the Great’s Rococo palace in the city of Potsdam. (Verbaute Träume, pg. 185) As this quote would indicate, Selmanagic harboured some utopian ideas of what Schwedt should be and Springer argues that his design was “intended to reflect the concept of society as a socialist community” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 184).

Practically, this meant a proposal for a town core with a dense mix of shops, cultural facilities, administrative buildings and schools that was to be bordered by a semi-circle shaped green belt accessible to all residents. On the other side of the green space (a clear reference to the “garden city” ideal) Selmanagic placed a number of residential areas consisting primarily of 8-10 story high-rises. These apartments would be within easy walking distance of the central core with its cluster of services. Quickly, however, it became clear that the utopian impulses of this project could not be reconciled with the realities at hand. First, the inclusion of so many high-rises outstripped the budget capacity available; second, the utility infrastructure that had been begun was inadequate to support the population density of Selmanagic’s vision. So, having delivered a plan that was both hugely expensive and largely impractical, Selmanagic was relieved of his position in 1962.

Pulling in the Reins: Pragmatism Wins the Day

Plan for Schwedt's centre as drafted by R. Paulick in 1962

Plan for Schwedt’s centre as drafted by R. Paulick in 1962

In the hopes of avoiding any further problems, the central authorities turned to a known quantity as the project head. Richard Paulick was a veteran of the Stalinallee project, former chief architect for the “socialist city” of Hoyerswerda and generally considered a reliable professional. Paulick revised the original plans for the town in a way that sacrificed what Springer rightly calls Selmanagic’s “socio-utopian content” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 202). In place of the expensive high-rises came much cheaper five story blocks, however, in order to accommodate the same number of residents, Paulick built upon the green belt that was to surround the town centre. There the effects of Paulick’s restraint were evident as well: where Selmanagic had foreseen a series of distinct, individual buildings in close quarters to each other in order to create a sense of urbanity, the new plan eliminated a number of facilities (e.g. an indoor pool, cinema) in favour of two one-story blocks that would house the most essential of services/shops while leaving large swathes of land unbuilt.

Life in “New” Schwedt: The Early to Mid-60s

Life in the new town was shaped by two groups in those early boom years. In the GDR of the 1950s, an entire cohort of itinerant workers had emerged out of the construction sites for mega-projects intended to catapult East Germany into the industrial age. Moving from site to site, these so-called “gold diggers” were typically unattached young men and attracted to projects by higher than average wages and the promise of adventure. Many hundreds of such men descended on Schwedt and while essential for the town’s construction, their presence posed considerable challenges as well. One of these was how to keep these well-paid men entertained in their off hours. Schwedt offered little in the way of amusements and the boredom this caused led to not infrequent incidents of public disorder, often to the detriment of the more settled segment of the populace. This friction between this itinerant workforce and locals (or Party officials)  had been seen at other large scale building projects throughout the country and emerged as a relatively common theme in GDR literature and film of this era. In the mid-60s, director Frank Beyer drew on it for his film “Traces of Stones” and the clip below (German-language only I’m afraid) gives some sense of the tensions that were often present between in front of the backdrop of the large-scale building project. (Interestingly, Beyer’s depiction was clearly a bit too accurate for the liking of authorities as his film was banned upon completion in 1965 and was only screened after the Wende.)

While Schwedt served as a sort of way station for many constructions workers, the town drew many other seeking to settle in the new city. Desperate for labour, Schwedt’s factories launched recruitment campaigns throughout the country promising challenging, rewarding work and a comfortable standard of living. For many young people, this combination was irresistible and Springer’s book includes his interviews with many long time residents who have nothing but fond memories of their early years in the town. One interviewee nicely summed up a general theme of the interviews in the statement: “You always had the feeling that you were needed here, do you know what I mean?” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 533.) This sentiment appears to have arisen out of two experiences.

A group of Schwedt Kindergarteners out an about: in the 1960s and 70s, the town was one of the GDR's youngest (Das Magazin, Jan. 1969).

A group of Schwedt Kindergarteners out an about: in the 1960s and 70s, the town was one of the GDR’s youngest (Das Magazin, Jan. 1969).

First, it reflected the fact that many of the news arrivals were quickly placed into positions of responsibility well above those they’d have had elsewhere, a challenge which most welcomed with enthusiasm. This experience resonates with that of my guide in Schwedt, Dr. Goldberg as she too was drawn there by the professional opportunities on offer in the new town. During our walk through the town, Dr. Goldberg explained that she wanted to find somewhere she could pursue her profession (lung specialist) outside of the extreme hierarchy of a hospital setting and Schwedt gave her this chance.

"Pair of Lovers", a sculpture that came to symbolize Schwedt of the early years with its young population (Axel Schulz, 1965; photo: author)

“Pair of Lovers”, a sculpture that came to symbolize Schwedt of the early years with its young population (Axel Schulz, 1965; photo: author)

A second common theme of the early years was the sense of solidarity and common purpose that the construction of the new town gave to its residents. This was reflected in a general willingness to volunteer free time to projects for the common good. One such example was a the construction of an open air swimming pool in a forest clearing on the edge of the town in the late 1960s. Though not convenient for many, this site was expanded over the years and evolved into the town’s most important recreational facility.

Walrus slide at the open air swimming pool built with volunteer labour in the late 60s

Walrus slide at the open air swimming pool built with volunteer labour in the late 60s

Don’t Stop Believin’?: Utopia’s Last Gasp

Even after the initial boom years, Schwedt continued to grow at a remarkable pace. Between 1960 and 1970, the population doubled reaching 40,000, in the subsequent decade it added another ten thousand residents. This growth was spurred by  the establishment of a number of industries spun off from the refinery, all of which employed workers needing homes. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that priority was, again, placed on the creation of housing and not the services and amenities. While this was tolerated as a necessary evil in the first years of the boom, as time went by residents grew impatient with the inconveniences that had become part and parcel of everyday life in the city. City leaders were well aware of the discontent and focused their efforts on upgrading the town centre to something more in line with what Selmanagic had envisioned. From 1965 to 1968, plans were developed for this area in conjunction with Hermann Henselmann, another veteran of the Stalinallee, but one more sympathetic to Selmanagic’s utopian impulses than Paulick’s bottom-line pragmatism. Presented to the public in 1968, it called for several representative skyscrapers but also the long-yearned for cinema as well as a museum and park. Approved by the politbureau in East Berlin, hopes were high for its realization but Erich Honecker had it shelved shortly after coming to power in 1971.

Hermann Henselmann's sketch for Schwedt's main square as approved in 1968, but shelved three years later.

Hermann Henselmann’s sketch for Schwedt’s main square as approved in 1968, but shelved three years later.

Further stoking dissatisfaction among many was the fact that the new residential construction was not meeting many residents’ expectations. From the late 60s through late 1970s, the town was dramatically expanded with the construction of two massive Wohnkomplexe (WKs; or Living Complexes or Districts) on a site well to the west of the original town centre. Eventually, these WKs would come to be home to more than half of Schwedt’s fifty thousand residents, including Johanna Goldberg and her husband when they first moved to town. While she tells me that they were pleased with their flat, to read Springer’s account, many others were not. WK VII, for example, came to be known by some as “Bangladesh” because of the check-to-jowl living it featured (Verbaute Träume, pg. 228) and authorities were bombarded with complaints about the lack of services and amenities (Ibid., pg. 227). These new districts with their monotonous, grey prefab apartments, each virtually indistinguishable from one another, came to dominate Schwedt’s image in the years that followed their construction.

View of WK 6 circa 1975 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183-p1210-0301), one of the districts criticized for its grey, monotonous appearance.

View of WK 6 circa 1975 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183-p1210-0301), one of the districts criticized for its grey, monotonous appearance.

Going along with this growth and a general dissatisfaction was a retreat from the “all for one” sentiment that had been present in the 1960s. One interviewee of Springer comments, “The enthusiasm that was there in the 60s, from ’70 or ’75 on, it just wasn’t there. . . . Everyone tried to distance themselves from the “social” things and place their own interests in the foreground.” (Verbaute Träume, pg. 541) Tracing the causes of such an inward turn is difficult, but we have seen this emergence of “niche culture” in previous blogs and it is something that was a nationwide phenomenon. While I would imagine at least part of this tendency lay with a growing dissatisfaction with the socialist system in its many different manifestations, I think that the cooling enthusiasm of the “construction generation” can also be traced to their life stages. No longer young singles or couples, many of them would have been firmly established in their careers and occupied with the responsibilities of children. That development would have helped drive an inward turn as well, so I think one needs to be careful not to see a rejection or skepticism towards the socialist system as the sole driver of this important trend.

Delivering the Goods: Centrum and the House of Culture
Opened in 1971, the Centrum Department Store was a point of pride for residents. Today it has been converted to a mall with multiple tenants (photo: author)

Opened in 1971, the Centrum Department Store was a point of pride for residents. Today it has been converted to a mall with multiple tenants (photo: author)

Football program from 1983 with Schwedt's two 'landmarks', the refinery and Centrum.

Soccer program from 1983 with Schwedt’s two ‘landmarks’, the refinery and Centrum.

One interesting aspect of Schwedt’s GDR-era history is the way in which it is emblematic of the way in which the GDR was a victim of its own (relative) success in shaping the expectations of its populace for a glorious, socialist future. Having been subjected to these hymns for years, East Germans all over the country, and Schwedters were no exception, were quick to hold these promises up to Party officials whenever they felt things were not up to snuff.

Looking at the situation in Schwedt from a broader perspective, there can be no doubt that by GDR standards, its residents had things quite good: most were well paid in the town’s priority industries and the vast majority lived in housing stock that was new, came heated and offered hot and cold running water. By the mid-80s, authorities even wired the city for cable TV that included West German channels!

As a key economic centre, the town also received preferential treatment in the distribution of consumer goods, though again, it was never enough to meet demand. An excellent example of Schwedt’s “special status” in this regard is found in the 1972 opening of a Centrum Department Store in the city. Normally Centrum stores were reserved for district centres with considerably greater populations than Schwedt, however, placing one there was an attempt by authorities to deliver on their promise to pep up the town’s centre and deal with the clear shortcomings of in the town’s retail sector (Verbaute Träume, pg. 568). While this was only partially successful, Dr. Goldberg related that Centrum was a real attraction for many years. Indeed, its central (ha, ha) role in the city’s self-perception is reflected in its appearance in both many postcards from those years as well as in the cover of this soccer program from 1983 that I have in my collection.

Another constant theme amongst Schwedt residents from the early 60s was the lack of a suitable space for cultural events. Initially, the town’s two main industries, the refinery and paper factory, each ran their own Houses of Culture, but these were intended to service only their employees and not the town as a whole. As Schwedt grew, calls from residents for a House of Culture grew louder. City leaders pressed their case, but plans for such a building were consistently postponed due to either cost or lack of construction capacity. This situation persisted for over twenty years until, in 1973 when the mayor went behind the back of the District Party Organization to begin the construction using funds the city had left over from other projects. Thought technically illegal, authorities intervened only half-heartedly and the building continued finally opening in 1978.

The House of Culture provided a home to a theatre company, touring musical and stage acts as well as clubs of various sorts, but its significance was largely in giving residents the sense that they lived in a “proper” city (Verbaute Träume, pg. 655). Based on my experience during my day with Dr. Goldberg, I would suggest that the facility has lost none of this meaning in the intervening years. Now known as the Uckermark Stage Schwedt, it is clearly still the main hub of the town, and region’s, cultural life. I was surprised at the lively scene that greeted us when we dropped by for a tour of the building which Dr. Goldberg had kindly arranged. It remains home to a theatre ensemble and receives nearly 150,000 visitors each year. Inside, I was pleased to see that little has been altered from the original GDR design: the light fixtures, murals and the lovely wood panelling from the original construction remain intact.

Schwedt: Home Sweet Home

There is undoubtedly going to be much in this post with which my gracious host Dr. Goldberg will take exception. While certainly no apologist for the GDR regime, her experiences living in Schwedt appear to have differed significantly from many of those individuals interviewed in Springer’s book (which Dr. Goldberg has read). The arc for Schwedt as presented in Verbaute Träume is that after a period (corresponding roughly to the 1960s) of euphoria and enthusiasm for the opportunities life in the new town presented, the general mood in Schwedt was shaped by feelings of dissatisfaction and negativity at worst, passivity and disinterest at best. I asked Dr. Goldberg about this directly and she was adamant that the mood in Schwedt only turned sour in 1987 or ’88; before that, she stated, things were just fine in the town.

Looking at Dr. Goldberg’s career arc, it’s not hard to see how she would have perceived things in this way. By nature, she is prone to action, not complaint as it testified to by a biography in which she managed to clear every one of the significant hurdles life placed in front of her (e.g. being given up for adoption as a young girl, significant sight problems, a husband ill with TB for many, many months during her first pregnancy, etc.). Schwedt presented her an opportunity to be grasped and this she did; having corresponded with and spent time with her, I have a very difficult time imagining her slowing down enough to decry her lot in life. She would have simply got on with things.

Another aspect to consider is that Dr. Goldberg would’ve been materially relatively well off by GDR standards. While the differences in income in the country were not as pronounced as in the capitalist world, a medical specialist like Dr. Goldberg would’ve been remunerated well beyond the average worker. This would have made some things possible for her and her family that would have been closed to others, such as owning their own home and indeed this is something that the Goldbergs did.

Dr. Goldberg on her old street; her family's former home is on the left side (photo: author).

Dr. Goldberg on her old street; her family’s former home is on the left side (photo: author).

As part of our walking tour through central Schwedt, Dr. Goldberg took me to the Fischerkietz (Fishermans’ Neighbourhood), a small part of town just up from the Oder Canal and adjacent to the centre. Here she showed me the house that she and her husband had had built in the mid-1980s. It is a modest, tidy bungalow, but owning such a property was something reserved for relatively few in the GDR and Dr. Goldberg was justifiably proud of it. Knowing how difficult it was to get approval for such a project not to mention acquiring the necessary labour and materials to have it realized, I was amazed and asked whether she had needed to call in favours or use “under the table” workers. She shook her head: “No, never. I never paid a bribe or more than the list price. If I needed something, I would go straight to the top and ask for it.” She then proceeded to tell me a lovely story about how she used this approach in regards to procuring bathroom tiles for the house.

Ceramic tiles were in short supply in the GDR of the 1980s so the fact that Dr. Goldberg’s house plans had been approved to use this material in the bathroom was a minor miracle in and of itself. However, getting permission to use the tiles and actually finding any to buy were two very different things. Not to be deterred, Dr. Goldberg put out her feelers and soon learned of a factory that produced the desired item and put in a call to its director. Now, Dr. Goldberg had no idea what the name of this person was, but told the secretary that she was an old friend, but that, embarrassingly, she’d forgotten his name. When the secretary tried to brush her off by telling her that the Director was in a meeting and could not be disturbed, Dr. Goldberg would not to be deterred. She informed the secretary brusquely that not connecting her would cause the poor woman more trouble than putting her through possibly could. The threat worked and soon the phone was ringing.

When the Director picked up the receiver, he was greeted with “This is Dr. Goldberg speaking.” He replied: “Is that supposed to mean anything to me?” Dr. Goldberg explained that it ought to be as she was a well-known health expert and a frequent guest on East German state television. When the Director replied that it still didn’t ring any bells, Dr. Goldberg retorted, “Well then I think it’s very clear what TV channels you watch!”, a veiled reference to the propensity of most East Germans to watch Western channels, something frowned upon in Party circles. That did the trick. “So, Dr. Goldberg, what can I do for you?” “Well Mr. X, any time talk turns to the subject of ceramic tiles in the Republic, yours is the name that comes up.” “Is it really? So tell me, what is it you need?” Dr. Goldberg’s new friend took down her order and put her back through to the secretary with the comment, “She’ll take care of you. I have to get back to my meeting.” Dr. Goldberg assured me that she didn’t always use such methods, but explained that the times called for a certain degree of assertiveness.

Public Art from the GDR Era, Pt. II

Walking around any of the “socialist cities” one of the things that jumps out is the amount of public art to found, one needs to keep an eye out, but it’s there. At the outset of this post, you’ll find a gallery of murals, mosaics and sculptures from the GDR period still to be found in and amongst Schwedt’s streets and neighbourhoods. Below is a slide show of decorations found on buildings running adjacent to the Julian-Marchlewski-RIng, the name GDR authorities assigned to the ring road running along the semi-circle formed by central Schwedt. Marchlewski was a Polish communist and colleague of Rosa Luxemburg, an East German icon. Each of the designs below are intended as graphic tributes to pioneers in the fields of natural science, though German women’s rights activist Clara Zetkin is also honoured here too. This emphasis on science as the key to progress was a clear reflection of the science-based socialist ideology adhered to by the GDR regime and which drove the establishment of the “socialist cities” such as Schwedt.

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Schwedt post-1990: “Selective Deconstruction”

Like almost all eastern German communities since 1989, Schwedt has seen its population decrease drastically over the past twenty five years. From a peak of 55,000 in 1989, Schwedt is home to approximately 30,000. This dramatic shrinking has been caused primarily by the disappearance of jobs that came with the integration of the East German economy into that of the West. While still the city’s main employer, the PCK Oil Refinery employs just 1,400 workers these days, compared to the 8,000 who found work there in GDR times (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCK-Raffinerie, Aug. 1, 2014). Similar developments have taken place in the town’s other workplaces and forced many, primarily younger people, to leave the region in search of opportunity elsewhere.

This dramatic collapse in population had significant effects for eastern German communities and posed considerable challenges to keeping them viable and functioning. WIth the relocation of so many residents, vacancy rates rose dramatically, particularly in the less desirable GDR-era housing stock. The lack of residents also posed huge challenges for the sewage and water systems, to the point that by the late 1990s a number of eastern German cities began to consider tearing down empty GDR-era prefab apartment blocks, to shrink themselves to a manageable size. Buildings, which only a few years before had been the height of comfort and living quality for many East Germans, had become an albatross around many municipalities’ necks.

Schwedt was the first city to make the decision to go down this path and the model they chose was by far the most dramatic. Where other towns chose to “loosen up” their prefab housing districts by removing individual buildings to free up green space and give residents a greater sense of openness, in Schwedt the plan was to tear down entire streets and districts, return what had been densely populated residential areas to green fields. Between 1997 and 2010, more than 6,000 apartments were demolished in Schwedt, the grounds they stood on slowly covered with grass and turned into parks, fields or pathways. To get a sense as to what was involved, the video above was shot in Schwedt in 2010. In the areas that were to remain residential, some “editing” was done to achieve more space. Not surprisingly, the town’s decision to take these radical steps faced considerable resistance from some residents many of whom had spent much or all of their lives in the buildings and quarters slated for demolition. However, in the end most have apparently pronounced themselves satisfied with a process that has seen great investment in improving the quality of the remaining housing stock and their surroundings.

Having spent the day in Schwedt, I came away with the impression that the town is indeed slowly coming to itself thanks to the surgery it chose to undergo. While only a shadow of its former self, present day Schwedt seems sustainable and offers residents a perfectly reasonable quality of life. Between the refinery, paper factory and the tourist industry driven largely by the region’s lovely natural surroundings, there is an economic base that should see Schwedt remain, if not anyone’s version of utopia, at the very least a viable, functioning community well into the future.

Dr. Goldberg and the author in Schwedt, April 2014. In the background, one of the town's landmarks, the Berlischky Pavillion, an 18th c. building that originally served as home to the area's French Protestants the Hugonotten (photo: author).

Dr. Goldberg and the author in Schwedt, April 2014. In the background, one of the town’s landmarks, the Berlischky Pavillion, an 18th c. building that originally served as home to the area’s French Protestants the Hugonotten (photo: author).

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2 comments
  1. Nice story, nice pictures especially from the public art. This kind of public art, Socialistic Realism, is very specific for the GDR. In Berlin you can find a lot of different kind of public art and I hope it will be there a long time.

  2. DavidP said:

    Thank you for the nice article. Very interesting story, of Dr. Goldberg and Schwedt.

    I lived there in 1979 as a kid, when my father worked at the PCK. It was an interesting place indeed. Living in the GDR as an English person was quite eye-opening to say the least.

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