Knut Elstermann, “Life in East Berlin? A lot of personal stories are waiting to be told”

Knut Elstermann, October 2013 © Katerina Oikonomakou

Knut Elstermann, October 2013 © Katerina Oikonomakou


He grew up in Prenzlauer Berg watching movies. When there were no new movies available, Knut Elstermann would just watch the same old ones over and over again. “It was not such a bad thing after all. In fact it was great practice for a future film critic”, he says when I meet him to discuss his new book that bears the name of the street he grew up on. In “Meine Winsstrasse” the author and journalist known as the Kino King, revisits the street of his old neighbourhood, thus offering us an unusual slice of East Berlin’s history.


Why did you decide to write about the street you grew up on, in Prenzlauer Berg?

I always wanted to write something about Berlin of my childhood years, but I was not sure as to how to approach it. But then the publisher had this wonderful idea for a series of books about Berlin, called Berliner Orte, that would be written by Berliners. So when they asked me if I would be interested to be a part of it, I knew I would write about my childhood street. The plan was for a mixture of personal memories and history.


So you did research in archives as well as interviews with older residents of Winsstrasse?

Yes, the research lasted a year during which I would return to Winsstrasse again and again. My initial source, if I may put it this way, was the film director Peter Kahane, who happens to live on the street and whom I have known for many years. So Peter introduced to me to a lady who is a neighbour of his, and then one person would lead me to another. In the process I learnt a great many interesting stories which are worth telling, so the really difficult part was to decide which of them to include in the limited space of a book.


Reading your book one gets the impression that all you children growing up on Winsstrasse enjoyed great freedom, that you almost lived in a separate world from the grown ups altogether. Like there existed two parallel worlds: one of the children and one of the grown ups and the war generation.

I think it more or less was so, indeed. Our parents were definitely very different from parents nowadays. It is not that they didn’t take care of us, of course, but rather that they left us to ourselves and didn’t spend time talking with us. What still makes me wonder was that we didn’t ask any questions either, when there was so much that was uncanny and needed to be explained. Why were all those old women living alone? Why did they seem so angry? They lived right next to us, after all. Why did that neighbour have only one arm? I still cannot explain our seeming lack of curiosity. So, yes, we did inhabit two separate worlds.




But at school you must have learnt about the war and what it meant for Germany.

Sure, the teachers talked to us about the war but you have to remember that this was the East. We were made to feel that we were on the winners’ side. That was the GDR’s version. Because ours was a socialist state, connected with the Soviet Union, where we had uprooted the ideological and economic foundations of capitalism and thus of fascism. So according to this official oversimplifications, all the war criminals lived in West Germany -by the way, this was not entirely false, since we know that many war criminals went on to have prominent careers even in public life. But the GDR had made things very easy on itself by delegating all the guilt to the western side. We were acting as if we had always been on the right side.


So according to that official version, where had all the former nazis gone?

Indeed where had they gone? The question seems rational, but it was never made. There was silence. And as a child I do not remember asking about the war because it seemed like something that had happened so incredibly long ago; which of course was not correct. For me the war was nothing other than the black and white films I would watch on television. I recall asking my teacher about the Red Army, for example, and her answering how the soldiers had taken care of all the children. Which was true, they had done so, but at the same time women were massively raped and this was an absolute taboo subject.


I was quite surprised to read in your book that during the war, many forced labour workers were living in Prenzlauer Berg.

It was fairly late that I learnt about this myself. Only recently has there been real research on the subject and there is a lot more to be done. Berlin was full of forced labour workers. There were 3,000 sites of forced labour in the city. And what is very important to point out is that there is absolutely no way that the Berliners did not know. Everything was happening out in the open. Even if some could argue that they did not know what was going on inside the death camps, there is nobody who could ever claim they did not know about forced labour; no way.


Didn’t older people speak to you about the war?

There have always been two realities in the GDR: the official, public one, and the private one. So I had the opportunity to hear a lot from my grandmother who always talked at length about the war. She had told us how she had fled the Czech Republic, where my grandfather had been posted. He was a soldier, so they were on the side of the occupiers. When Germany lost the war, the family was naturally made to leave. They walked all the way to Berlin…This was a very dramatic time. But my grandmother saw this as justice being done. She was a leftist, a dedicated leftist. She hadn’t had an education, she was a simple woman but very just and thoughtful.


Winsstrasee, Berlin, 2013 ©Katerina Oikonomakou


In the context of the “public reality”, weren’t there any small pockets of differentiation as to the official version of the country’s past?

In the realm of art, there were. Artists had the ability to express themselves with some freedom. There was more to life in the GDR than what was going on in public or what was discussed in the media, or what the Party said and did… One gets the impression that it was all terribly boring. When in fact a lot was going on in the privacy of people homes. For example many artists would showcase their work in apartments, at exhibitions where one had to be invited to attend. There were also many readings happening in people’s homes, or plays being staged. There was a sort of an underground cultural life going on, but more so during the years I was a child. The Prenzlauer Berg scene of artists, intellectuals and dissidents of the 1970s has been legendary. But I had no idea whatsoever, because my parents were not part of it. They were members of the Party, dedicated ones; moreover my father was a policeman.


Do you find that there are enough books or films around that narrate the more interesting, private stories?

I believe that this has only recently started to happen. The books by Eugen Ruge, or Marion Brasch are the first to spring to mind. But I believe many more books are bound to be written by people who wish to tell their stories. Let’s not forget that it’s now been 25 years since the GDR stopped existing.


While growing up in East Berlin did you have the opportunity to go to the movies a lot?

Yes, of course. There were many cinemas in the city and there was one very close to my home, so I would go there all the time. So it was never so much a matter of cinemas where one could go, as a matter of abundance of films one could watch there. The number of new films on offer was limited, so we would watch the older films many times over. Looking back, though, I tend to think this has actually been good practice for my profession. Because once you are already familiar with the plot, you start paying attention to the way the film is made – how the scenes evolve, how the way the story is presented, everything.

At one point you write that one has just to watch Peter Kahane’s film “Die Architekten” in order to understand why the GDR failed. Since I have not yet have the chance to watch it, could you offer a brief explanation?

This is a very good film that came right before the Wall fell so at the time it did not get all the attention it should and could have gotten. But in essence it is the portrait of a generation and in that sense also a document. “Die Architekten” tells the story of a group of young, creative people who plan to build a Plattenbau on the outskirts of the city. But while they start off with great enthusiasm, willing to do innovative and meaningful work, in the end they quit, they give up beaten by beaurocracy, financial hurdles, by narrow-mindedness…You know, in the GDR there was always this encouragement to work for the common good, to take part in things – but as soon as anyone tried to bring on some much needed change, one ran into walls. So the film -which I am now simplifying, of course- tells a really complex story, showing the resignation of a whole generation that neither could, nor wished to make any effort any more.




Did you experience this “running into walls”, on a personal level?

In a sense, of course. During the 1980s and the Perestroika, I was one among many who were hoping that the changes would also reach us. After all we had always followed in the steps of the USSR. Whatever happened, was sound bound to be repeated over here. But no, this time nothing happened. No reforms, no opening up..I think this was why everything would later fall apart. And in the following years there was so much disappointment, so much frustration, something finally had to change. Many people had given up much earlier. They expected nothing. But I was holding on to this hope of change until the end.


Had you ever been to West Berlin before 1989?

No, never. It’s not like I had no picture of the West, since I would watch television or talk with friends who had crossed the Wall. But I still had a very distorted image, I held on to all sorts of illusions about life in the West – well, the image of it that I had was filtered through all those beautiful home store catalogues and the TV, where everything looked shiny and wonderful and none of the hard sides of life was ever represented. So we thought that everything said about how difficult life can be in the West was nothing more than oversimplifications and official propaganda.


Would you draw, however roughly, the picture of the West that the GDR propaganda promoted?

This would be rather hard because the GDR lasted for 40 years, so the propaganda definitely varied a lot during that long period of time. And there have always been two sides to it: One the one side, there was the image of a very dangerous, aggressive system  that was threatening to attack us with atomic weapons. And one the other side, the GDR was systematically cultivating its diplomatic relations to the countries of the West in a very realistic, rationalist manner.


Living in East Berlin you must have always had the Wall in sight. How did you feel about it?

It’s hard to say…I grew up with it, so I only knew the city with the Wall, I could not imagine it otherwise. It had always been a part of my everyday reality. What was extremely frustrating, though, was the fact that there was no chance of crossing it and seeing the world. That was why I became a journalist, out of this yearning to travel. You see, there was no other reason to become a journalist since we all knew that it was completely impossible to work free of censorship. Ironically, though, I did not have as many chances to travel, as I had imagined. I went as far as Poland, that was all. So until the reunification I had almost no experience of life outside the GDR. As I had no experience of democracy and its institutions. I had to learn and understand how things function.




While growing up, or later as a young man, would you discuss politics with your parents?

Yes, sure, we discussed a lot. My parents, though, were dedicated communists and did not wish for things to change. I can still remember how upset and indeed frightened my father was when Gorbatchev was in power..He was saying that this was the counter-revolution. My parents were quite dogmatic and intolerant of other viewpoints and beliefs. But this was true of the majority of the citizens of the GDR.


Did you ever hung out or had friends who were dissidents?

No, never. I knew maybe a few artists in Prenzlauer Berg, but I didn’t really have any relations with them. I was also quite young at the time. And I was very naive, believing that changes would and should come from the party itself, that socialism could be reformed from within, that we could open up our country and make it a better place. But it was too late for that, much too late. But for the longest time I could not see it. Come to think of it, it was already too late in 1968.


Can you recall the days of November 1989 and how you felt at the time the Wall fell?

At the time the Wall fell, unlike many others, I had still been harbouring some hope that we could reform the system and that an open, just, democratic socialism was possible. When Günter Schabowski uttered those now famous words -that GDR citizens would from then on be free to travel- I was sure that OK this was it! Now we would all get passports and go out and see the world. But I did not see any need burst out of the place, I was a trusting GDR citizen. And then when I watched the news the same night, it was suddenly clear to me that it was all over: this was the end of the GDR.


You were a professional journalist so it must have been quite intense in more ways than one.

It was a very exciting time and a great time to be a journalist, definitely. It was a time full of suspense. And we could finally do our job. We could really report on the events. Until then there was no journalism, everything was being dictated by the Party. So for me the end of the GDR was a shock, but at the same time a wonderful experience. And professionaly it was absolutely liberating.




Were you already writing about the cinema at the beginning of your career in journalism?

No, I used to work in the news section of the Neues Deutschland, the big daily newspaper in the GDR. But I had always been fascinated by cinema and would sometimes write about films.


I always ask people who have lived in the GDR what they think about “The Lives of Others”, that has greatly influenced the image the rest of us have of the Stasi. So, in your experience, was it like that?

I think it is a very good Hollywood film, it is pleasant to watch, but I have to say that during the mid-1980s -which is the period that the film depicts- things were not like that. I believe that the Stasi did not have that much power over famous artists. Because these artists that are being portrayed in the movie are very well known, very successful, they stage their plays in large theatres; these are no dissidents. And according to the plot, these people were threatened by the Stasi? This was not possible. In the mid 1980s, the state was trying to keep famous artists from abandoning the country, so they would have been given some privileges among which would have been passports and thus the liberty to travel. Now, if they had indeed been unknown artists or dissidents then the Stasi would have been able to harass them. So, you see, the situation was a lot more complex than it is portrayed in “The Lives of Others”. And I am often a little annoyed by the fact that because of the huge success the movie enjoyed throughout the world, people now believe that things were actually so. They were not so.


Are there films that have painted an eloquent, accurate portrait of reality, regarding the lives of the victims of the Stasi?

I would definitely recommend a very beautiful film by Sibylle Schöneman, who was a victim of the Stasi. It was made right after the reunification and I believe it actually was the first film that touched on the issue. And it was not easy for Sibylle Schöneman, who had been imprisoned for a year. The title of the film is “Die Verriegelte Zeit”. It is a very moving film. Whenever I start feeling nostalgic -because after all the GDR was where I lived through my youth- and start thinking that “OK, not everything was that bad”, then I think about Sibylle sitting in prison. One should not idealize the GDR.


Most of the older residents of Winsstrasse have had to move, and about half of the current residents have moved there during the last five years. This has been happening all over Prenzlauer Berg and has been the cause of a lot of concern. How do you feel about it?

Well, I am no friend of generalizations or oversimplified answers. On the one side, we should keep in mind that if the reunification had not happened then Prenzlauer Berg would have fallen apart. Literally; all these beautifull apartment buildings that have now been renovated and are a joy to look at, would have collapsed. So the area has actually been restored and looks much more beautiful than it used to. It is full of life, with pubs and shops everywhere, people coming and going. However, it has indeed become somewhat homogeneous and probably a little boring. What I find rather sad is that you don’t find the exciting, interesting mix of people that once was so typical of Prenzlauer Berg and which I describe in the book. Some years ago the butcher lived next door to the university professor and the two of them would play football around the corner, chat and share a beer…Students, artists, dissidents outcasts, squatters and families with kids, people from different generations, class and educational background all mixed and shared the same spaces. Today it is more of a monoculture. And I sometimes wonder if maybe it would have been possible to somehow preserve that quality.




I noticed that in your book you never use the word “gentrification”. Was that a conscious choice?

Yes, it is. And I also never refer to the Swabians. I don’t like this bashing that blames eveything tha’s wrong on the West or the Swabians who have made their homes here. And apart from the old residents, I wanted to describe the people who have recently chosen to live on Winsstrasse. After all, I like the way the street looks and I like Prenzlauer Berg. I just wish that there were still some room left for alternative culture.


By the way, I can’t help asking this, I’m very curious: Is it true that waiters in East Berlin were indifferent to the point of rudeness to the patrons?

Yes, that’s true. There was no competition, they felt they had no reason to try to keep their customers happy, because they would come back anyway. They had nowhere else to go! There were so few pubs. It was the same with the taxi drivers, who were so much in demand that they would pick their customers. You know, the author Monika Maron once said that “In the GDR, I have suffered more from waiters and taxi drivers than the under the Stasi”.


Is it still, in its core, the city you used to know as a child?

Absolutely not, it has changed completely. The neighbourhoods have changed completely. During the GDR years they all looked the same, where now each one has a distinctive character. And Berlin has become a world city. There is a whole new generation of young Berliners who are cosmopolitan and open; they are leaving their mark on the city. Then there are so many people from all over the world who now choose to live in Berlin.




In the process of researching the book you were confronted with a family secret.

Yes, that’s right. I now know that I have a half-brother. I was quite shocked to find out my father had a double life. I have to admit I was rather frustrated by the fact that my father had not had found the courage to tell me that. People make mistakes all the time, I would have understood if only he had only told us. Of course my mother had always suspected as much. But they were divorced much later, after the reunification. However, she wasn’t exactly thrilled about me writing the story and said she was not going to read the book, but I am pretty sure she has already read it.


Your father, a policeman and a dedicated communist, was in a relationship with an artist. In fact this is what strikes me as strange.

And rightly so. He was the strict stalinist at home and then would go out and step into that other, much more exciting world. But he didn’t have the courage to actually make the leap and live in that world full-time. By telling his story I wished to show how in the GDR some people had been living double lives.


You have written “Gerda”, a book -which was then made into a documentary-  about your grandmother’s closest friend, a Holocaust survivor.

Gerda had emigrated to New York after the war, but had travelled back to Berlin to visit my grandmother when I was a little boy. It was the end of the 1960s and I must have been six years old at the time. I had already heard a lot about her because in our home everyone refered to her as “aunt Gerda”. So I knew that she had survived Auschwitz and that she had somehow lost a baby, but that was all. There was a lot of secrecy around the fate of her child, and my mother had specifically instructed me not to bring it up in front of Gerda. Which of course I did…Well, I did not see her again for many years, during which I learnt her news through the letters she exchanged with my grandmother. The fact that Gerda was living in the US was also a problem because my father was a policeman and thus should not be in contact with American citizens.

So I only met that wonderful woman after the reunification, when I travelled to New York. During our first meeting she did not open up. Her husband was still alive at the time and she had not talked to him about the circumstances under which she had lost her child.  He also was a Holocaust survivor but had not been in a concentration camp. Then a couple of years after he died, I gathered up my courage and gave her a call. She loved our family very much because my grandmother had hidden her for some time, before she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. And she decided to tell me the story she had kept a secret for decades. Gerda did not want to take it to her grave, she needed to finally speak up.


Was the child murdered?

It is complicated. At first the Jewish babies that were born in concentration camps were put to death right away. But Gerda’s child lived for approximately a week. It was November 1944. We could never be absolutely sure about what exactly happened, but we suspect that the child was starved to death by Josef Mengele, who was experimenting on how long a human baby can live without food.




Was there anti-semitism in the GDR?

II believe so, yes. But I also believe it was hidden. It went hand in hand with anti-zionism and anti-Israel politics. There was no hate speech in the media or in public life, but there was very brutal, very one-sided propaganda against Israel. And it was especially shameful for us journalists to be so one-sided when reporting on the conflict in the Middle East. The media were unquestioningly, ignorantly on the side of the Palestinians, a fact that I believe included an element of anti-semitism.


If you could suggest to people who come to Berlin to watch a film about this city, which would it be?

Oh, one would need to organize a whole retrospective…But, let’s see. I’d start with Berlin, die “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis”, which offers a wonderful view of the 1920s Berlin, the city’s golden era. And then I would see one of the Trümmerfilme, namely “Irgendwo in Berlin”, by Gerhard Lamprecht, where one sees the bombed-out city and its broken people. Moving on, a film that offers a very accurate picture of life in divided Berlin would be “Berlin Ecke Schönhauser”, by Gerhard Klein. And of course, “Wings of Desire”, by Wim Wenders, as well as “Christiane F: We Children of Banhof Zoo.”, by Ulrich Edel. As for an east Berlin film, I’d go for “Solo Sunny”, by Konrad Wolf. Another film, “Ostkreuz”, by Michael Klier tells the story of the end of the GDR and the reunification. And finally, after making a big leap and landing in our time, I’d say “Oh, Boy”, by Jan-Ole Gerster is a fine Berlin movie.


Berlin is a true film-city, isn’t it?

Absolutely. I’d say it has to do with two things: One reason is the architecture. Because the city might have been bombed out and in large part destroyed, but another big part was still standing. And a lot was built. So this lack of harmony, the fact that several different architectural styles coexist in the city, make it an ideal setting for stories playing out in different times and different places. One may even film it as Moscow, and I actually think this has already happened.

The other reason has to do with what I would call the radical transformations that have taken place during the last 20 – 30 years. And it is always changing, in large part due to the many young people. It is important that they can still afford to live here.



Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, October 2013                                BerlinInterviewslogo