GDR Museumswohnung

Grashina Gabelmann visits an East German home that’s been preserved as a museum…

Image by Grashina Gabelmann

Whether it’s through movies such as Goodbye Lenin, books like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Berlin institutions like the Stasi Museum, the GDR Museum, or the former prison at Hohenschoenhausen, or one of the city’s many themed walking tours, you’ll probably know something about the GDR (German Democratic Republic).

But unless you actually lived in East Germany between 1949-1990, you probably won’t know what the inside of a residential apartment was like.

Stadt und Land, a residential building association, assumed that this kind of insight might be of interest to the general public (residents as much as tourists), so when a bunch of former GDR high-rises were being redeveloped between 2003 to 2006, the company ensured one of them was left un-renovated, and then partially refurbished it in the original GDR-style.

Image courtesy of museum website / Statd und Land

The result is a nostalgic experience that calls itself a museum but is much less formal than that term suggests. The 61-square-meter apartment consists of a bathroom, hallway, office—though usually this would be a children’s room as limited space in the GDR didn’t allow people to have an office unless they could prove that their job demanded it—a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom. During its refurbishment, some local tenants also contributed things like furniture, pictures, books, electrical devices, dishes and bathroom and kitchen utensils. The living room wall even features the best-selling art print in the GDR: “Young couple on the beach” by Walter Womacka.

You can just drop in on Sunday (the only day it is officially open) and the person in charge that day will take you from room to room, telling you not only about the apartment but about life back then in general since they only employ former GDR residents for the task. You can also call ahead to request an appointment on another day completely free of charge and it’s always possible to receive an English tour.

You’re also completely at liberty to rummage through all the cupboards, closet doors and handle any object that finds its way into your hands—only the toilet is out of use, for obvious reasons. As much as that’s fun, it’s worth asking the guide to tell the story of the furniture and bric-a-brac since background and context is readily supplied.

Image by Grashina Gabelmann

Surprisingly enough, though I have never been in a GDR apartment before, I recognized objects like the corduroy couch and the massive, almost oppressive living-room closet, demonstrating that, at least in some respects, West and East German homes weren’t too different from one another.

What was different though was the price and means of obtaining these objects, as my chatty 65-year-old tour guide Wolfgang Sawatsky, a Hellersdorf native, explained. A TV cost 6,000 Marks, a sofa 920 Marks, a table 800 Marks and a washing machine 1200 Marks. Considering that an average person earned around 950 Marks (most probably earned less) it took a lot of time and money to pimp up one’s home. That said, the monthly rent was just 109 marks per month.

“But people were happy just to live in these modern apartments,” explains Sawatksy. “The older flats didn’t always have warm water or a heater that worked.” You needed a lot of patience, and kids, to get you into one of these babies. “There was no real estate agent to find you the perfect home like nowadays. Flats were distributed by the government and your chances were vastly increased if you had kids, since the authorities liked the idea of kids living in relative comfort.”

Image courtesy of museum website / Statd und Land

It’s funny that Sawatksy describes the apartment as modern, since amidst the crocheted tablecloths, decidedly vintage-looking sofa and wallpaper so old the flowers on it actually look wilted, it’s near impossible to imagine that the word ‘modern’ was once an accurate description of the place. There are no bright colours; looking around the place I feel like I am wearing sepia-coloured tinted sunglasses and some of the furniture, especially the bedside-table-cum-shelf all-in-one combination makes me feel a touch claustrophobic.

It’s not only the specific objects in the flat—cameras, vinyl, bottles of booze and kitchen appliances like a “party grill” (a sandwich making device)—that tell a tale, but also the thin, low-cost walls, which were made from cast concrete except one in the kitchen that’s purposely devoid of kitsch flowery wallpaper so that visitors can see what lies beneath. (This wooden wall covers up pipes and ventilation, and if either one decided to break the whole wall was quickly dismantled like a children’s playhouse and whatever was broken got fixed). Astonishing to think that 42,000 of these WBS 70 apartments were built in Hellersdorf, and it only took around 18 hours to build one.

Image by Grashina Gabelmann

I found it interesting that items like old butter packages had the price (1,85 Mark) printed on them. This was because the price of things was the same everywhere so there was no need to browse different super markets for a discount or collect coupons…and no reason not to put the price directly on the package.

As a German who studied the GDR in school it was really satisfying to see what I only knew from dry textbooks brought to life in a unique and authentic environment. In school the realities of GDR domestic life were never discussed as much as the politics, so I really enjoyed the shift in perspective.

And to fully provide the visitor with the whole picture. the museum invites visitors to step into a renovated and post-GDR furnished apartment right across the hall. This shows what the GDR apartment would have likely become had it not been preserved, i.e. a much more pristine, Ikea-fied and somewhat characterless counterpart. I couldn’t help but detect the tiny subliminal message here. “Ah, the good, old days. Weren’t things better then?”.

The Museumswohnung is open every Sunday 2pm-4pm (except holidays). Admission is free. 

Hellersdorfer Straße 179
12627 Berlin-Hellersdorf
U5: Cottbusser Platz

Appointments by arrangement: 0151-16114447