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Biographies

Last year I used the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to tell my personal “Wall fall” story. There are many that are more exciting, but few that provide that all important “view from Saskatchewan” perspective.

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz (photo: author).

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz. Graffiti in underlined in black reads “Germany is more than the Federal Republic of Germany” (photo: author).

This year I’d like to share my memories of my first encounter with the Wall in the spring of 1985 and reflect on the reality that this structure imposed on the divided Berlin for the 28 years of its existence. Read More

The GDR Objectified is pleased to have contributed a piece to the Sunday, November 9th edition of the Toronto Star on the remarkable career of East German hockey icon Dieter Frenzel. You can read this article at:
http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2014/11/08/german_hockey_star_recalls_missing_shot_at_edmonton_oilers_glory.html

For more detail on Dieter Frenzel’s career, below the first of two blog posts on the subject that will appear on the blog over the coming days.

Dieter Frenzel in his Dynamo Berlin uniform.

Dieter Frenzel in his Dynamo Berlin uniform.

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I am among those who believe that the fate of the GDR was sealed on, not on November 9, 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather on October 9, 1989 when 70,000 East Germans overcame their fears to march peacefully through the streets of Leipzig to call for change in their country. Coming just two days after the brutal suppression of protests in Berlin during celebrations marking the state’s 40th birthday, Leipzigers ignored the ominous signs that a violent crackdown was imminent and asserted their agency with the chants  “We Are the People!” and “We Are Staying Here!”, cries that must have sent shudders down the spines of  Socialist Unity Party leaders as they sat in East Berlin receiving reports on the situation.

Below is a brief German-language report telling the story of October 9 in Leipzig. Even if you don’t speak the language, it is worth watching for the images of that night, a genuine turning point in world history:

At the centre of the Leipzig protests, were a small group of civil rights activists, the core of whom had been working to change the GDR for years. With resolve, persistence and creativity, these few individuals managed to change the world, theirs and ours and without their efforts, the East German regime would have undoubtedly remained in place. Given this, October 9th is an appropriate day to write, if only briefly, on one of the grassroots activists who has gone on to play a central role in the united Germany, Joachim Gauck. Read More

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.

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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 . . .

The Francke Foundations in a photo from 1972 (photo: VH-Halle, Wikicommons).

The Francke Foundations in a photo from 1972 (photo: VH-Halle, Wikicommons).

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)

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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.

Dr. Johanna Goldberg's autobiography Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin (From Whipping Boy to Doctor).

Dr. Johanna Goldberg’s autobiography Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin (From Whipping Boy to Doctor).

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.

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Wed, February 10, 1999

“Do you have time?”, she asks ambiguously, the friendly but pleading tone perfectly complementing her difficult situation. I am on the way back to my apartment in my new hometown of Leipzig when I happen upon her: an elderly woman balancing precariously on her cane, afraid to go further upon the icy, uneven path. Stranded and in need of a way out, preferably not at the price of her dignity.

Her question catches me off guard as I move to pass her. I stop and am momentarily confused, thinking that she wants to know what time it is. As she waits for an answer, I realize that she really wants my help. “Time for what?”, I ask.

"The Socialist Family", a sculpture in front of Frau Karich's apartment (photo: author).

“The Socialist Family”, a sculpture in front of Frau Karich’s apartment (photo: author).

“A short walk perhaps?”, she suggests, her steady tone betrayed by the onset of panic in her pale blue eyes. When I nod in agreement, her body visibly lightens as she straightens and slides her arm through mine. We have walked a few meters in silence when, with the disarming directness that appears to be one of the few privileges old age bestows, she asks, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

“A man,” I answer. She smiles, only momentarily embarrassed by her uncertainty.

“Of course. A man.”

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The Brigade Diary is one of the most interesting items that testifies to working life in the GDR. These books were kept by “Brigades”, the work units created in the late 1950s as part of the program of “Socialist Competition” which was intended to increase efficiency in East German workplaces by having groups of workers compete with one another. The Brigades were supposed to foster a lived socialist culture both at and outside of work and the Brigade Diaries were to serve as a repository for information on a Brigades’ working and social activities.

Bestand:Bild 183 - Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst - Zentralbild Signatur:Bild 183-73766-0083 Originaltitel:info Zentralbild Gahlbeck 13.6.1960 2. Arbeiterfestspiele des FDGB. Schriftsteller-Treffen im Wälzlagerwerk Fraureuth. Ein Schriftsteller-Treffen mit über 20 bekannten Schriftstellern der DDR fand am 10.6. und 11.6.1960 im VEB Wälzlagerwer Fraureuth statt. Die Schriftsteller besuchten einzelne Brigaden des Betriebes und unterhielten sich mit den Arbeitern. UBz: Die Schriftstellerin Helga Höffken-Kast im Gespräch mit dem Brigadier Werner Sachse über das Brigadebuch. Werner Sachse ist schreibender Arbeiter. Datierung:Juni 1960 Fotograf:Gahlbeck, Friedrich Quelle:Bundesarchiv

Author Helga Höffken-Kast speaks with Brigadier Werner Sachse about his Brigade’s Diary during a visit of writers to the People’s Own Anti-Friction Bearing Factory in Fraureuth in June 1960 (photo: Bundesarchiv, 183-73766-0083) 

As originally conceived, the Brigade Diaries were supposed to provide an outlet for workers’ creativity and typically included reports on a collective’s activity, but could also contain drawings, collages and more creative writings. The form a Diary varied from Brigade to Brigade, but many were perfunctory in content and simply kept to satisfy the representative of the Free German Trade Union Associaion (FDGB) charged with vetting these books on a regular basis.

The Brigade Diary for "World Peace" from People's Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

The Brigade Diary for “World Peace” from People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant Bitterfeld (photo: author)

Recently I acquired a Brigade Diary for my collection which was produced by the Brigade “World Peace” at the People’s Own Brown Coal Power Plant in Bitterfeld during the years from 1984 through to early 1989. This Diary is by no means as elaborate as some I’ve seen, but does include 18 reports of varying lengths and quality and manages to produce a narrative illustrating aspects of both the place of its production and the lives of several of the workers who contributed to it. Read More

This week’s post will wrap up my examination of the lives of Benno and Christel B., two GDR citizens from what has been labelled the Aufbaugeneration (“Construction Generation”), a cohort born between 1920-1935 which made up a significant chunk of the socialist regime’s loyal supporters. (For previous entries on this subject, see Part 1 and Part 2.) By considering a number of items and documents which once belonged to the couple I hope to illustrate a number of storylines from the GDR’s history. Here I’ll focus on the life of Benno B. after he and his wife Christel made the fateful decision to leave their Heimat northeast of Berlin for Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second “socialist city” which sat in the relative isolation of the Lausitz, the country’s brown-coal mining region.

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called "Lenin Year" which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher's birth (photo: R. Newson).

Plaster of paris bust of V.I. Lenin presented to Benno B., most likely in 1970 during the so-called “Lenin Year” which marked the 100th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth. (photo: R. Newson).

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This week’s post will continue examining a number of items which once belonged to Benno and Christel B., two Party loyalists from the socialist city of Hoyerswerda. Last week’s post parsed the the life of Christel B., a task made possible thanks largely to a short biography which she submitted in 1972 to some sort of Party office. This document provided considerable detail on Christel’s activities up to 1972, however, my collection of materials unfortunately sheds little light on her life after this point.

In the case of Christel’s husband Benno, the situation is reversed. It is his early years which remain opaque, while a collection papers from his time working at Hoyerswerda’s Combine “Black Pump” as both a functionary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and a senior member of his plant’s Combat Group give a fairly clear sense of his life from 1959 onwards.

Benno B.’s Early Years: What We Know, What We Can Surmise

Included in the materials I acquired on Benno and Christel B. were a number of evaluations done of Benno by various Party bodies between 1965 and 1982. These documents include details on Benno’s background and form the basis of the biography which I piece together here.

The only information that can be gleaned about Benno B.’s life before the end of World War II is that he was born in Liepe District Angersmünde “to a family of workers” (Evaluation by Party Secretary Zirz from Jan. 16, 1967, pg 1.) on July 14, 1921, an area just to the north of the Bad Freienwalde/ Eberswalde area from where his future spouse, Christel, was raised. The various documents contain no information on his youth which is not that surprising, but they are also silent on his activities during World War II. This strikes me as remarkable since It Benno B. would have been a healthy young man of fighting age during the period and it seems unimaginable that he could have escaped being mobilized into the German Wehrmacht for at least some of this time.

(photo: R. Newson)

Evaluation of Benno B. done by the First Secretary of the SED Basic Organization at Combine “Black Pump” as part of attempts to have Benno accepted to the District Party School in 1967 (photo: R. Newson).

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