Thursday, June 3, 2010

East Germany by the Pacific

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall perished, a museum in California evokes the land that lay behind it


(From the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)

Twenty years ago, Germany was reunified, and soon the remnants of the Berlin Wall disappeared. So did many of Communist East Germany’s weird features, it’s uniforms, banners, slogans and snooping gadgets. But there is one curious place where they have been amply preserved: the Wende Museum building close to the film studios of southern California.

As I entered “Suite E” of the bleak office building on 5741 Buckingham Parkway in Culver City I was perplexed. There on a platform I spotted three rows of wooden jump seats reminding me of rural movie houses in decades past. It turned out that these chairs once accommodated the rears of East Germany’s leaders as they pondered political matters. They were part of the furniture of the now-defunct country’s “Staats­ratsgebäude,” or building of the Council of State, according to Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, the Wende Museum’s program director.

“Wende” is the German word for turning point. The turning point this museum’s name evokes was the collapse of the East German Communist regime in November 1989, and then the creation of a unified Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

Wandering through this museum triggered diverse sensations in me; I remembered my childhood escape from Soviet-occupied Leipzig, my coverage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 as an Associated Press reporter, my banishment from entering East Germany for many years, and then my return immediately after this hideous structure was breached.

I imagined smells that weren’t there. As I stared at some of the museum’s 120,000 Cold War artifacts, the inimitable odors of the “German Democratic Republic” (GDR) seemed to return to my nostrils, odors that once hit me even before I handed my passport to GDR border guards whose uniforms, badges and medals are now on exhibit in Culver City. It was a peculiar cocktail of emissions from cars with two-stroke engines, of industrial disinfectants, of chickens broiled in stale oil, and lignite-fired stoves.

Of course all of this was only in my mind, for even a young genius like Justinian Jampol, 32, the Wende Museum’s founder, would not have been able to ship the stench in containers across the North Sea, the Atlantic, Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the Coast to Los Angeles. But the sight of a poster bearing the image of a helmeted East German soldier and the inscription, “Der Befehl ist Gesetz” (The Command is the Law) was sufficient to give me a dose of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know what that slogan meant. I remember standing on the Western side of Bernauer Strasse, a Berlin street sealed off by men following a “command” elevated to “law.” I watched people jump out of windows just a few feet away, desperately trying to evade men executing this “law.” Some jumped to their deaths. I watched East German workers’ militiamen shoot over the heads of a family of nine escapees until a French military jeep with a mounted machine gun raced right up to the border and fired over the militiamen’s heads until they quit executing the “law.”

Jampol, a Californian completing his doctorate in history at Oxford University, told me that a former border guard at “Checkpoint Charlie,” the key crossing point for non-Germans, donated the construction and maintenance plans for the Berlin Wall. I remember the early days of this checkpoint well; for a while I had my reporter’s observation post in a bedroom above a sleazy beer bar in the last building on the West Berlin side before the official border post.

This wasn’t a pretty period in recent German history, but a memorable one it was nonetheless, and so it was a brilliant idea by Jumpol to preserve so many of its relics ranging from a 2.6-ton piece of the Wall to a “Minol” gasoline pump of the kind in front of which East German motorists sometimes lined up for hours to fill up their tiny “Trabant” cars whose bodies were made of plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton.

The Wende Museum’s exhibit is breathtaking, ranging from rows and rows of busts of Communist luminaries to the straw hat and last private papers of Erich Honecker, East Germany’s penultimate Communist Party chief, and his secretary’s office furniture; from Stasi (secret police) listening devices and other snooping paraphernalia to an impressive collection of oil paintings in the style of “Socialist Realism;” from artfully embroidered flags and banners of party front organizations to films concerning personal hygiene, and a collection of “Das Magazin,” a state-owned popular soft-porn publication.

After the “Wende,” East Germans found out that Honecker himself preferred more salacious materials, as evidenced by his personal film collection. He also had grand architectural visions, namely the “Palace of the Republic” he had built in downtown East Berlin where the Kaiser’s castle once stood. East German wags called this glittering structure, which was razed two years ago, “Erichs Lampenladen” (Erich’s lamp store). It housed the country’s rubberstamp parliament, a cultural center and elaborate restaurants. Guess where their silverware and china marked with the letters “PR” (for Palast der Republik) in gold, and where their menus have ended up? Indeed: in Culver City.

As a German with memories of the Nazi regime and its Communist successor I got goose bumps, though, when Jumpol told me about one of his eeriest items, the black robe of a judge in the National Socialist “people’s court” system in World War II, not the regular judiciary. This robe had a swastika embroidered to it. What makes this item so intriguing is that its owner later became a “Volksrichter” (people’s judge) under Communism, as Jampol said.

How come a youngster from America’s surfers’ paradise developed such a consuming passion for artifacts, art and kitsch from the Cold War era particularly in the eastern part of Germany? Well, it’s hard to say. But when he was nine years old he already acquired an East Berlin policeman’s uniform of the 1950s. A young man with a love for history uncommon among most of his contemporaries, he briefly studied in West Berlin’s Free University and found it astonishing that almost nobody in Germany seemed to take much interest in collecting memorabilia of the vanished GDR culture. So he started collecting, at first randomly.

“Soon people were bringing me their stuff,” he recalled. Then he found “scavengers,” as he called people scouting eastern Germany on his behalf. One of these “scavengers” was a man with perhaps a murky background making a living on flea markets. Jumpol was now a graduate student at Oxford University where things East German filled his dorm room. One night, he received a particularly urgent call from his scout, who had found an extraordinary “treasure” in the basement of a house near Dresden.

This was in 2006 at the time of the huge Dresden flood when water from the Elbe River kept pouring into people’s basements threatening the “scavenger’s” find – ledgers containing the complete collection of the daily newspaper “Neues Deutschland,” the East German Communist Party’s central organ. “My scavenger could not rescue them from the water by himself,” Jampol told me. “So, as many times before, I took the first bus from Oxford to Heathrow, flew to Berlin and raced down to Saxony to rescue the ledgers before they were soaked.”

They are now, he said, among his favorite items in his museum, which is funded primarily by the London-based Arcadia Fund whose key mission is the protection of endangered culture and nature. Peter Baldwin, Jampol’s former history professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the earliest supporter of his collector’s passion, serves on the Donor Board of this international charity.

And which of his artifacts renders Jampol particularly contemplative? “Well,” he said, “a former East German prison guard gave me the tools of his former trade, his handcuffs and electrical shock equipment, for example.” And how, I wanted to know, does this man earn his living in reunified Germany? Said Jampol: “He is still a prison guard.”