Saturday, November 8, 2014

An East German Way Of Life

During our recent trip to Berlin we spent an afternoon visiting the DDR Museum. We initially decided to visit since it promised to be a hands-on and interactive place where touching and exploring the exhibits was encouraged. (This is always especially important when traveling with a curious and energetic little boy who wants to touch everything). The museum was all that but what we found was a combination of sadness and nostalgia and the reality that regardless of what side of the Wall one resided on, families wanted the same things.

The interior of the museum itself is dark and concrete which appropriately sets the tone for what you are about to see. Kitschy is a word that can be used to describe many of the exhibits in the museum (and I say this in the best way). An ubiquitous Trabi was meant to be sat in and "driven" through the streets of East Germany. Every day life is portrayed through the model kitchen, living room and bathroom in the museum. The appliances, furniture and accessories looked remarkably similar to those in my own American grandparents home. The avocado green and gold of the 1970s? Yes, the East Germans lived with that too. And the bathroom? It wasn't American at all and could only be described as functional but it did look awfully similar to many that I encountered in 2012 Albania. (Powder blue). Sidney was especially taken with the rotary telephone. He eagerly sat on the scratchy plaid sofa and dialed and chattered into the phone. He only stared at me in disbelief when I explained to him that that type of telephone was the one I grew up with. The manuel typewriter was another novelty for a boy who is
The novel rotary telephone
growing up in the electronic age. He wanted to know where the screen was and why the keys were so hard to push. Children's toys and books looked very similar to those of the same period in the west. I suppose the biggest difference would be the picture books, which obviously geared for a young audience, were filled with images of stern looking soldiers holding even fiercer looking weapons. The best part of all of these exhibits was that they were meant to be touched, opened and pushed; perfect for little explorers.

But there were obvious differences between life in the west and life in the east. The food that was available for purchase was limited, involved queueing for hours and in the end was pretty unappetizing. Essentially every aspect of life was dictated by Moscow. There were sparsely filled wardrobes displaying the "fashions" of the time. None were fashionable by any stretch of the imagination and even during a time when polyester was all the rage, these man made materials were enough to make my skin crawl. But these fashion options were deemed appropriate by Moscow so that is what was available. There was the vacation display showing happy families cavorting in the buff at the beach, playing tennis or simply lounging. The first thought that entered my mind was that such a display would be deemed pornographic and simply not be allowed in any American museum. Sidney actually spotted the display before I did. He paused, looked at it then turned and told me that all of the people were naked. His only other commentary was that it was silly to play tennis without clothes. That was that. One exhibit focused on women's reproductive health which seemed to be quite advanced for the time and in many senses was ahead of where the U.S. is today.

Gas up your Trabi, grab you atlas and hit
the road through these countries
But the museum displays the darker side of East German life as well. Set between displays of soldiers and Stasi were mock prison cells and interrogation rooms. And the listening posts? They were everywhere but you could experience them from both sides of the table--as the interrogator and as the one being interrogated. This portion of the museum sent chills up my spine and reminded me of how dark and often terrifying East German life was for the ordinary East German citizen. The Party leaders and other high level officials, however, lead a very different life. While those Germans who could afford them drove around in their little German built Trabis, solid and reliable Volvos were the car of choice for the Party elite. The explanation? Locally made cars were simply too poorly made and unreliable for official use. Now that really says something, doesn't it?

And there are so many more things to see and explore here. Overall this museum is compact but every space is dedicated to portraying an aspect of daily life in East Germany. Our visit was interesting, I learned a few new things and it was the perfect place for younger kids to have a hands on exploring experience. And for what is a relatively low price when compared to so many museums, spending an afternoon at the DDR Museum is well worth the time and expense.

If you go:

DDR Museum
Karl-Liebknecht-Str 1
10178 Berlin-Mitte
+ 49 30 847 123 73 - 1

Open daily 10.00-20.00, Saturdays until 22.00
Adult 7 Euro, Children 4 Euro
Lockers are available but bring change since they won't make it for you. There is also a restaurant on site. Eat outside overlooking the Cathedral and river if possible.

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