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"Let the fig leaves fall" - photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.

“No more fig leaves” – photo from front page of Junge Welt, Nov. 7, 1989.

As the fall of 1989 progressed and the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) grip on power began to loosen, many of the Party’s more than 2 million members watched in disbelief as the socialist project crumbled before them. One window onto the myriad of reactions that these developments gave rise to is found in the newspapers under SED direct control. Junge Welt (Young World) was the organ of the GDR’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), and with 1.4 million copies printed, it was the country’s largest circulation daily. My collection includes this paper’s November 7, 1989 edition, and it provides an amazing reflection of the disintegration of state socialism in the GDR just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

Plastic pin produced for participants in the Spartakiade of the Combat Groups of the Working Class in Halle / Saale in 1973 (photo: Jo Zarth).

One of the distinguishing features of state socialism in the GDR was its use of awards, medals and commendations as a means of acknowledging and encouraging its citizenry along the ‘correct path’. Such items were distributed in workplaces, at schools and in all manner of social settings and as a result are still floating about in considerable numbers. In the early years after German unification, these items were everywhere in the former-East, and the seemingly exotic bits of socialist kitsch were eagerly snapped up by tourists as souvenirs. (Indeed, these things were so popular at one point that in the mid-late 90s it was not unusual to encounter knock-off versions for sale at some major tourist attractions like the Reichstag in Berlin.) While most of the object presented here are not particularly rare, they warrant a closer look as they do provide an interesting window into an East German society that has almost completely vanished.

This post presents my collection of such items. I got a few of mine from hawkers set up near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate or at flea markets in Leipzig and Berlin in the mid-90s, but most were passed on to me by friends clearing out their parents’ attics. As a result, I’m fairly confident that most of my stuff is authentic, but should the eagle-eyed among you spot any fakes in here, please do let me know!

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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?
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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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To understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in the “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. (For an overview on BFC, see my earlier post on the club and its history here.) BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.

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