This past May, I was able to visit Berlin and spent part of my time there exploring the area around People’s Park Friedrichshain and what was Lenin Square. This GDR-era still resonates strongly in this part of the former East Berlin, so join me as I go in search of these sites.

1960 - Homeric JWK II

My father, John Kleiner, at a masquerade ball on board the Homeric, the ship which transported him to Europe in the fall of 1959.

Today would’ve marked the 82nd birthday of my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a professor of at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Canada, and the man whom I have to thank for my interest in German history. To mark this date, I thought that I’d share some photos and notes from a trip he took to Berlin in the winter of 1960. I think that these provide an interesting perspective on the divided city before the Wall and I hope that after reading this post that you’ll agree with this assessment.

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Whenever I’m in Germany, I try to spend some time in places which evoke the former-East. With the passage of time, this has become increasingly difficult, but there’s one destination which has never failed to engage my powers of imagination: Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. I think part of the reason is that the Allee today is quite dead, the relative calm allowing one to project one’s thoughts onto the scene without much competition from a contradictory present.

The Allee was in two phases between the early 1950s and mid-1960s and as a result the street manages to embody a significant chunk of the GDR’s architectural history and since it also served as the stage for some of the country’s most important events, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to observe and consider. (I’ve written a lengthy piece on the Allee’s history which includes a number of, if I do say so myself, fine pictures, so if you have have any interest in that angle on things, I’d encourage you to click here.)

Meissen Porcelain Tile

First up is an original Meissen porcelain tile removed from one of the Allee’s apartment blocks during the renovations which took place in the 1990s/early 2000s. The choice of Meissen porcelain for the facades of the Allee’s buildings was intended to underscore their status as “Workers’ Palaces”, however, the material proved ill-suited for the task at hand and by late-period GDR, falling tiles were a real hazard on the Allee. During renovations in the late 90s/early 00s, all the exterior tiles were removed a number of these were saved to be sold as a fundraiser (how I got mine) for a social service agency which operates the Cafe Sibylle, one of the few GDR-era businesses to have survived unification. Even if you’re not keen to acquire a porcelain tile from the Karl-Marx-Allee as a souvenir, it’s worth seeking out the cafe if you visit Berlin as they have lovely homemade cakes and a very good exhibit on the history of the Allee.

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This week’s item is an Aufbaukarte or Construction Card issued as part of the GDR’s Nationales Aufbauwerk (NAW), the National Construction Project, which was called into life as part of efforts to clear East German cities from the destruction wrought by World War II. Construction Cards such as this one issued to a Ms. Johanna Goldberg, were used to keep track of the number of hours which individuals volunteered on NAW projects. Those who reached set milestones received pins and certificates of recognition at public ceremonies.

This piece is a new addition to my collection and I wanted to post on it as closer examination has raised a few interesting questions for me about the holder of the card. But before getting to those, allow me to give a thumbnail history of the NAW.

Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman), a sculpture by Edmund Neutert from 1955 and which stands in front of the unused Lichtspieltheater der Jugend (Young People's Film Theater) in Frankfurt/Oder (author's photo)

Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman), a sculpture by Edmund Neutert from 1955 and which stands in front of the unused Lichtspieltheater der Jugend (Young People’s Film Theater) in Frankfurt/Oder (author’s photo)

Trümmerfrauen and The Immediate Post-War Years (1945-46)

The massive destruction wrought in German cities by World War II required considerable effort and time to undo. In the immediate post-war period, the occupying powers throughout Germany (that is, in both what would later come to be become East and West) ordered all able-bodied women between the ages of 15 and 50 to take part in the clearing of rubble and reclaiming useable building materials from the war-ruined cities and towns. While such heavy labour was not previously carried out by women in Germany, the demographic situation after the war made this necessary (There were 7 million more women than men out of a total population of approx. 77 million). Indeed, scenes of women doing this work became ubiquitious in German and international media to the point where the Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman) has become one of the best known symbols of Germany in the immediate post-war period. Read More

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