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) . . .
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.
Perry Friedman was a folksinger from western Canada who emigrated to the GDR in the late 1950s and went on to play an important role in the East German cultural scene by introducing the country to a number of folk music traditions – including their own.
I first came across Friedman’s name when I stumbled on his obituary in the German newspaper taz in the spring of 1995. The mention of a Canadian banjo player and young Communist who had settled in East Germany in the late 1950s struck me as too bizarre to be true. (To the tune of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”: I’m Canadian, a Communist Canadian, Playing banjo in East Berlin!)
Intrigued, I began pursuing the story with an eye to writing a piece for publication in Canada. After some digging, I was able to track down some of his family and associates and I ended up speaking with his sister-in-law, Sylvia Friedman, a colleague from the CBC in the 1970s, Lorne Tulk, and exchanged letters with a relative of his mother’s second husband. These filled in some of the blanks, but Read More