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.
I was recently able to sit down with Dr. Luise von Flotow, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, to discuss They Divided The Sky her excellent English language translation of GDR author Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel Der geteilte Himmel. Our chat is now online through Radio GDR, the English-language podcast dedicated to all things East German and you can find it here: https://radiogdr.com/they-divided-the-sky-christa-wolf-episode-12/
Wolf’s novel is great place for those looking to get a sense of everyday life in the GDR during the “Construction Years” of the late 1950s and early 1960s and Dr. von Flotow was able to share some interesting insight into the work, its translation history and why it remains a vital piece of GDR culture.
Anyone with an interest in the GDR quickly encounters mention of Marzahn, a massive housing estate located on the northeastern edge of the East German capital Berlin. Made up of approximately 60,000 prefabricated concrete apartment units housed largely in high rise tower blocks, Marzahn was built over approximately fifteen years beginning in the mid-1970s to provide modern housing options for tens of thousands of East Berliners. Supporters of the socialist system saw the district as concrete evidence (I couldn’t resist!) of the state’s commitments to its citizens’ welfare and a tangible example of what the socialism could achieve. For critics, however, Marzahn’s seemingly endless blocks of anonymous, monotonous apartment blocks recalled the sort of dystopian world conjured up George Orwell in his totalitarian critique 1984.
While I didn’t get to Marzahn during the GDR era, I’ve had the chance to visit a view times over the past twenty years or so and been able to see first hand some of the remarkable changes that it has undergone since reunification in 1990. Before turning to my impressions, however, allow me to present a brief history of the district.
Marzahn: Heaven or Hell?
Berlin – Marzahn; This postcard presents Marzahn, an Berlin housing estate and the largest of its kind in the GDR (Bild und Heimat, 1989).
Marzahn by night, December 1985 (photo: Bundesarchiv 183 1985-1219-021)
It must be the grip that winter has had on us here in Toronto, but I recently began to troll around for a seasonally appropriate theme to post on. I quickly decided to write on Oberhof, a small town in the upper reaches of the Thüringian Forest which has achieved a certain profile as a winter sport site. I’d encountered Oberhof in my reading in its role as the training headquarters for many of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes including its bobsledders, lugers, cross-country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers, but I had heard that it was a beloved holiday destination as well. However, when I started digging, I was amazed to find the extent to which the history of this small town distilled so many of the developments which characterized GDR-era.
Oberhof in 1980 – clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, Luisensitz Holiday House, View from Rennsteig and “Fritz Heckert” Holiday Hotel.
Oberhof found its way on to the radar of the East German leadership even before the state itself was founded. This was due in large part to the fact that one of the leader’s of Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had come to know Oberhof during the Weimar period when he had led the German Communist Party in the region. A dedicated exerciser, Ulbricht particularly enjoyed hiking and skiing the area’s trails. When authorities decided to host a Winter Sport Championships in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in January of 1949, Oberhof was selected to host the event, the success of which apparently demonstrated to Ulbricht how sport might be instrumentalized as a means of cementing his and the SED’s popularity. Read More
In my former job as the Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University I supervised a number of German students in Canada on exchange who were assigned to our office as student assistants. For the first few years I was at York, the students I worked with were all white, had “German” family names and could trace their connection to Germany back over many, many generations. But in more recent years this began to change and our German students often came with family names betraying a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages. I greeted this development as a reflection of the fact that the German academy had begun – finally – to reflect the multicultural reality of the society around it.
That said, I was more than a little surprised when one year the C.V. belonging to our new German student bore a distinctly Vietnamese name. I immediately wondered whether Minh L. was from the family of a former East German guest worker as this was the provenance of many people of Vietnamese background in the united Germany. Reading on, the dates and locations suggested that this might be the case.
Vietnamese guest workers from “Banner of Peace” shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).
However, this remarkable aspect was quickly overshadowed by an entry in the C.V. which showed that from 1993 to 1999, Minh had attended elementary school in that most notorious of eastern German towns, Hoyerswerda! (For more on Hoy, click here for my earlier post on this subject) This was only two short years after German authorities had caved to several days of anti-foreigner pogroms by neo-Nazis and their sympathizers and removed all former-GDR guests workers and refugee seekers from the town. Neo-Nazis subsequently declared Hoy a “national liberated zone” (German: national befreite Zone) and the town became synonymous with the wave of xenophobia and violence that surfaced in the early years after German unification.
The mind boggled. Read More
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.
Kordula Striepecke’s notebook from grade one Heimatkunde, or introductory civics (photo: Jo Zarth)
International Workers’ Day, May 1st, as subject of a dictation (photo: Jo Zarth).
A picture of a typical GDR prefab apartment block with Soviet and East German flags festooning the balconies as was the practice on May 1st and the Republic Day (October 7th) (photo: author).
Illustration from Kordula’s Heimatkunde notebook; it accompanied a dictation on spring (photo: author)
Dictation on Vladimir Lenin (photo: Jo Zarth).
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)
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.
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).
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)
This week’s post picks up where I left off last week and examines the contents of a pair of house books I’ve acquired for two different apartment blocks in the Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s remarkable the way in which a number of facets of GDR history can be gleaned from the entries found in each of these documents . . .
Christburger Strasse 28
- The credits for the house book at Christburger Strasse 28 identifying Käthe Gipson as its keeper
The house book for Christburger Strasse 28 was started on June 12, 1959 by tenant Käthe Gipson and kept by her through to November 1, 1983. Wrapped in brown kraft paper, its cover was updated at some point as the GDR emblem found here has been pasted on, presumably overtop of the original state emblem which appeared on those house books issued in the early 1950s. It includes a few pages of entries for permanent residents of the address at the front of the book and separate sections for both foreign and GDR visitors. From the markings, it appears that the local Community Police Officer monitored the book on a regular basis through to 1967, but there is nothing to suggest that the book was controlled at any point after this. Despite this, however, Mrs. Gipson continued to fill it out conscientiously including all the details called for by law. Read More
House book for Christburger Strasse 28 in its protective kraft paper cover
Cover of house book for Christburger Strasse 28: note now state emblem has been updated after the original one was phased out
House book for Kollwitzstrasse 71
Recently a friend loaned me copy of German historian Karl Schlögel’s excellent book Moscow (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), the English-translation of Moscow lesen: Die Stadt als Buch (Reading Moscow: The City as Book), a work which originally appeared in 1984. In it, Schlögel used his explorations of the Soviet capital during a visit in the early 80s both as a jumping off point for a number of fascinating essays. Schlögel is a fine writer, and while this book includes excellent pieces on Russian architectural, political and social history, it is most satisfying when the author indulges his interest in the stuff of everyday life such as the signage on Soviet government buildings, second-hand bookshops, post offices and factories. Since I share his interest in such seemingly tangential matters, I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions, but it was a passage on his methodology that resonated most clearly with me. Because it is germane to what I am trying to do with this blog, I quote him here:
“I think that since every detail has a historical dimension, being a product of its own time and bound up with its own time, it is in principle a valid document, a readable letter or even a syllable in the great text that we call history. Every age has its own signature, its own bearing, its own manner, be it flamboyant or restrained. As we know, the reading of old texts enhances our ability to find our way into a period, to gain a degree of intimacy with it. The details are given, they are deposits of stone, marble or iron . . . The text is written. We can not change anything about it. All we can do is approach it with due respect.” (pg. 291)
Amen to that, Karl.
Feeling validated, I turn my attentions to this week’s items of East German ephemera, two “house books” which testify about the society of their origin in a most informative way.