How do you tell a story of a vanished city in thousand objects? Or in a thousand words? It seems impossible yet we always try. The task appears easier if the city in question is not all gone. The streets still weaving their way through the same old grid, houses casting long shadows over the pavement just as they used to, street-trams screeching to a halt after crawling around the same old corner… Everything appears to be the same, yet nothing is.
But we if believe that a city is about the people who breathe life into it, then surely the best way to tell the story of places like East Berlin would be to focus on what its residents have to say. Yet for a surprisingly long time their voices went unheard. As if hardly anyone had been interested in hearing about how they experienced the “Days of Sickle & Hammer” in the GDR. Until now. At last, after many excellent events and exhibitions devoted to West Berlin and West-Berlin related cultural and historical accounts, it is time for the East to re-emerge from the increasingly thick fog of the ever-further receding past.
Finally, one could be excused to say, those are the people of East Berlin and their lives that the new Stadtmuseum (Berlin History Museum) exhibition at Ephraim Palais, “East Berlin: Half a Capital”, is about. Untypically for the past years, however, the focus is not on limitations, oppression and persecution which they – without any doubt – also suffered at the hands of the Big-Brother state – this time it is their everyday life that comes to the foreground. And that is precisely what makes the exhibition both so enjoyable as well as convincing and powerful.
Even though it has only been thirty years since East and West Berlin faded away from the map, having embraced each other again, history seems to have been doing less and less justice to the former Soviet Occupation Zone. As if the stream of bitter criticism and sarcasm directed at what used to be East Germany – and the critique is obviously justified although much too often delivered with what feels like a sledge-hammer instead of a fountain pen – was slowly erasing the good memories, too.
“Not all of it was bad”, you often hear people from the former East say. What they mean is not to exonerate the surveillance, the persecution or the mad economic policy of the land. The message they strive to convey is that amidst (and despite) all of that mess everyday people carried on being happy or sad, hungry or full, content or forever seeking. They simply lived.
That is why this particular exhibition is a must-see for anyone prepared to risk having the wall of prejudice they, too, might have built around their minds chipped. Its organisers and curator, Dr Jürgen Danyel (Deputy Director of Centre for Contemporary Historical Research in Potsdam) approached the topic with utmost sensitivity and great understanding, showing East Berlin not as a grey maze of incomprehensible rules and regulations – whose breaching could cost you your freedom or even your life – but as home to nearly 1.5 million people who considered being able to live there nothing extraordinary or even a pleasure or a privilege.
In collective memory it is West Berlin that is often associated with non-conformism, with Promised Land for those who wished to leave the well-trodden path and go for the Open and Cosmopolitan. But for many East Germans as well as West-German Leftists East Berlin deserved that description, too. Therefore it might come as a surprise that that “other” half of the city was cosmopolitan as well.
East Berlin was not an asbestos-ridden backwater with nothing but crumbling façades and an occasional Trabant farting (pardon the crudeness but those who know the sound will understand) its way along wide, empty, wind-swept streets. This seems to be the most common perception of the place, especially – and perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Cold War propaganda – among critics from behind the Big Pond. But focusing on images which capture just one moment, one face, one frame – however often repeated – robs you of a chance to get to know anything or to understand something.
This eagerly perpetuated carbon copy of East-Berlin prejudices, making its endless rounds in real life and on social media – “grey”, “menacing”, “boring”, “crumbling” or, alternatively, “covered with concrete from head to toe” – clashes with the snap-shots that East Berliners carry around with them in their heads.
Not all of those are positive – who of us could bestow nothing but praise on the places we come from? – but they are honest and reliable, unlike the often biased opinions of distant commentators who often quite indiscriminately multiply other people’s views. Or base theirs on the once omnipresent Cold-War clichés.
Like the blind men told to touch an elephant and then report what it is that they are facing, you cannot comprehend the whole just by focusing on a bit. You cannot see all of its facets from too up close either – distance is necessary to see the whole picture and to see it clearer. It is a paradox considering how time distorts our perception, how it blurs the edges and falsifies the hues. But sometimes it is this very distance that helps you escape the trap of tunnel-vision and allows you to see and understand more, both in positive and in negative sense.
The exhibition at Ephraim-Palais – the building which is an exquisite example of Berlin Rococo-architecture, crudely dismantled in 1936 by the Nazis and then re-created in 1985 by East Berlin authorities using some original elements they kept in storage – was built around “witness reports”. Stories delivered by contemporaries – from both East and West Germany – who experienced the city at its best and sometimes also at its worst.
It is through their eyes that a visitor has a chance to see how they worked, how they spent their leisure time, how they learnt and even how their babies were born (thanks to an particularly moving series of photos taken in a delivery room of a small hospital in the days when fathers were not even allowed to see their new-born children until the mother was released from the ward). You can take a ride on a virtual tram on a line many of them used on their way through the city – you can watch the passing cityscape as the wagons snake their way through it with you “standing” on the driver’s post.
Take a moment to peruse a facsimile of a visitors’ book from one of the oldest still existing East Berlin Kneipen (bars), the “Metzer-Eck”, in Metzer Straße in Prenzlauer Berg. Sat on the original bar stool, your arms resting comfortably on the original table, you will see dozens of entries full of good-hearted, incredible humour and of happy memories each of us would cherish to have.
Stop in the room devoted to Work and have a closer look at the original workbench standing at its other end. Those small pieces of paper carefully glued onto the metal shield attached to it to protect the wall behind it are no candy wrappings or bus fares. They are theatre and variety show tickets collected by those whose workplace it was. With twelve theatres and more than twenty venues East Berlin was a city with extremely rich culture, of which factory workers, nurses, schoolchildren and many guests from the province also partook. Sometimes willy-nilly (just like in the People’s Republic of Poland visits at the opera house, the theatre or a cabaret were often less of a choice and more of a duty, with an invitation you could not refuse) but it might have inspired some of them to explore further, to learn more. Or it might have fed the craving they had already had before without even knowing.
Take some time to look at East Berlin’s architecture or design which flew in the face of the “grey-and/or-concrete” stereotype. Many of the designs were daring, modern, very much in the spirit of the time and often with direct reference to the Bauhaus style (whose centennial we are celebrating this year). The old posters impress with both their humour and choice of hues. One of them invited East Berliners to the new amusement park, opened in 1969 (GDR’s 20th birthday) VEB Kulturpark Plänterwald, later known as Spreepark. Added in 1985 its Riesenrad, a 45-metre big wheel – then the largest in Europe – which still rising high above the long-since closed site, became a melancholic symbol of the past era and of the vanished city which nevertheless still somehow refuses to go.
In their choice of topics and objects for the exhibition Dr Jürgen Danyel and his team managed successfully to navigate a very narrow grade between “Stasiland” and “Ostalgie”. Individual rooms with their cleverly displayed objects make you feel curious but not overwhelmed. Passing from floor to floor, climbing up the beautiful winding staircase, walk slowly and read words printed across the steps: “Military parade”, “Courtyard”, “Coal stove”, “Centrum Warenhaus”, “Ostkreuz”, “Free parking spaces”, “Heimat” , “Fear”, “Palast der Republik”, “Queueing”, “Bulette”, “Separated families”, “Bathing in the Müggelsee”, “Loss”. Those are only some of the words East Berliners noted down when asked to describe their vanished hometown.
In his wonderful 2008 book, “Populäre DDR Irrtümer: Ein Lexikon von A bis Z“ (Popular GDR Misconceptions: Lexicon from A to Z) Peter Ensikat, an East German cabaret artist, thus explains the phenomenon of the GDR and East Berlin: “Just as it wasn’t only about the state power and party domination, neither was it only about “Gold-Kati”, “Sandmännchen”, “Spreewaldgürke” and “Rottkäpchensekt”[*]. It was neither heaven nor hell. The GDR was something quite usual and ordinary, in many respects not unlike the Federal Republic of today. But how do you explain it to someone who never experienced this co-op-minded, Small-Bourgeois Garden of Paradise him- or herself? There’s so much we cannot explain to ourselves. For there is too much of what we did that we shame ourselves for before the Wessis* who, however, seem to feel no shame for anything.”
How do you explain one vanished half of the city thirty years after it was swallowed by History? Perhaps exactly the way Berlin’s Stadtmuseum did preparing their Ost.Berlin exhibition: by listening and not preaching and by finally giving their voices back to those who really know.
“East Berlin: Half a Capital” will be running, quite symbolically, until November 9, 2019. You can visit the main exhibition at Ephraim-Palais, in Poststraße, Berlin-Mitte (details on the museum’s page at Ost.Berlin). The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events organised by smaller, local history museums all over Berlin; as well as by guided tours (also in English), lectures, discussions and film screenings.
[*] Gold-Kati (Golden Kati) is how GDR media referred to Katarina Witt, brilliant East German figure skater and winner of two gold Olympic Medals as well as four World-Champion titles; Sandmännchen is a very popular DDR children’s TV-series character; Spreewaldgürken are pickled cucumbers from the area south of Berlin known as Spreewald and covered by lush forests and numerous canals; Rottkäpchensekt was an East German sparkling wine which is produced until today. All of these are typical objects of today’s Ostalgia, GDR nostalgia.
* Wessi = a person from West Germany (Ossi – someone from the former DDR)