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In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

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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.).

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

"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

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We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.

Sun shining through the grey: a ceramic mosaic graces the wall of a block of flats in "socialist city" Hoyerswerda (photo: author).

A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).

When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.

The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.

My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”. Read More

In January 1989, lured by the poetry of Wim Wenders’ classic film Wings of Desire and the tragic melancholy of Berlin’s division, my younger self headed to Berlin (for two months of German instruction at the Goethe-Institut just off the West’s main drag, the Kurfürstendamm. The weather was dark, damp and grey and most mornings my classmates and I made our way to the school under a blanket of what we all took to be fog. One morning during our break, our teacher overheard us discussing how it was that landlocked Berlin had such wonderful fog. A native Berliner, teacher proceeded to inform us that those grey clouds were, in fact, smog, specifically, a by-product of the coal ovens many Berliners used to heat their flats. “Had we not noticed the acrid smell in the air?”, she wondered somewhat perplexed. “That was the stink of brown coal briquettes”, she told us,  “and a symptom of a massive environmental problem!” And so I was introduced to brown coal (otherwise known as lignite) . . .

Two chimney sweeps' bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993 (photo: B. Newson).

Two chimney sweeps’ bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993; note the bullet holes from WW II still unrepaired in the wall behind the bikes (photo: B. Newson).

As we explored the city over the following weeks, we began to notice ceramic-tiled coal oven in cafes and bars, usually in poorer districts, usually standing off in a corner of the room, emitting a lovely warmth into the room and a cloud of pollution into the air outside. When asked about the ovens, the locals would either decry the environmental cost of their use or praise the “gemütlich” (“cozy”) quality of the heat. Not surprisingly, the situation was no different on the East side of the Wall with the tenements of the old working class districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Lichtenberg and Mitte heated largely by identical brown coal ovens.

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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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Some time ago I came across an eBay listing for a collection of certificates, awards, pins and various other relics of a life lived as a loyal citizen of the GDR. This was not that unusual as eBay is flooded with this stuff, but what made this listing intriguing was that it was claimed that the items being auctioned all belonged to one person. Interest piqued, I made a bid and was lucky enough to win out. While making shipping arrangements with the seller, I asked whether he had any information on the individual to whom all these things had belonged. “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of reports, a CV and some other stuff lying around. You want me to throw these in the box?” Uh, yeah, I did.

When the package arrived a number of weeks later, I began sorting through my purchases and was astounded by what I discovered. These items had belonged to a couple each of whom were born in the 1920s and so members of the Aufbaugeneration, or “Construction Generation”, which formed the nucleus of the regimes’ supporters. The documents which had been sent included a biography of the wife written in 1972 along with a number of evaluations the husband, a Party functionary, done by various Party organizations. The more I read and sifted through the box, the more I came to see that these items spoke not only of this couple’s experiences but could function as representative of the lives of a much wider section of East German society.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be telling the story of this couple to the extent that my items allow it, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I do.

 

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