Caritas Führer – Dreaded Mondays (content in English)

Readings in Belgium: 19.02.2013 Brussels, 21.02.2013 Antwerp (for more information see Patricia Holland Moritz on facebook)

Licence of the German publication can be aquired at Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, Berlin, Germany.

Dreaded Mondays


Caritas Führer

Foreword by Marianne Birthler (from 2000-2011 Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic):

Parents in the former East Germany whose political or religious beliefs were at odds with the all-powerful SED party faced a daunting dilemma that came into sharp focus when their children reached school age: should they urge them to conform with the system in hopes of avoiding conflicts and to improve prospects for the future? Or was it better to remain steadfast and encourage their young ones to speak truth to power?  In both cases, the price was high. Children either learned quickly to lead a double life of lies and pretense, or they were often cruelly cast aside as undesirables, with all opportunities for higher education and advancement put at risk.  It is impossible to calculate how many dreams were destroyed and the damage done to young souls, the scars of which are still evident.

The fears and hardships that so many children suffered in the schools of the GDR are not scars but open wounds, even more than two decades after the collapse of the communist dictatorship. It is a legacy that is rarely discussed in public, nor is it subject matter for film or theatre. Caritas Führer’s Book, ‘Dreaded Mondays’ is one of the few literary works that directly examines the oppression of dissident children in the socialist school system.

Not being a member of the Young Pioneers or the Free German Youth; having a pastor as father, or parents labeled as politically unreliable or even worse as enemies of the state; these factors alone often meant banishment from the elite high schools and exclusion from the diplomas vital to pursue university degrees. In the late 1970s, many young East Germans were forced to ‘volunteer’ for three years of active military duty. Those who refused ran the risk of being denied access to higher education. And young men who refused to serve in the military for reasons of conscience or religious conviction were often sent to prison or forced labor camps. Their futures were all but destroyed at a young age. Some found alternatives, attending night school to earn their high school diplomas. But those were the exception and still there was no guarantee of advanced education.

So far there has been no attempt to come to terms with the political and moral consequences of this discrimination against children and young people. Public debate has focused far more on the ‘unofficial collaborators’ of the feared secret police, the STASI. In turn, a kind of protective shield has been created behind which teachers and principles, local party functionaries and those in the Education Ministry have hid.

It is increasingly important that the humiliations and discrimination be exposed.  Those who continue to suffer the consequences, those whose chances for proper education were hindered or destroyed, the gifted children denied a future, should at the very least be allowed the pale satisfaction that the injustices suffered by them are being brought to light.

The darkest chapter of East Germany’s education system was the reform schools and youth work farms. These have recently been exposed to a wider public and subjected to expert analysis, although the extent of media coverage remains minimal. What remains largely secret is that this system of repression was far more than just an anomaly in an otherwise intact system of education and upbringing. Rather, it was rigorously promoted and sustained.

As the years pass, we increasingly see attempts to rehabilitate the East German education system. We hear a lot about its reputed qualities, especially the concept of equal opportunity for all.

I can already hear the outrage of all those who read this critical view of a school system that, for many, provided an oh-so worry free and happy childhood, complete with understanding teachers and unlimited opportunities.  Caritas Führer’s book makes no attempt to belittle those memories. But it does serve to open people’s eyes to the little-seen dark side of that system – the indoctrination and the constraints that each and every student was subjected to, often with no knowledge of it.  It was a system of lies and forced conformance that hindered a clear evaluation of one’s own actions. Those who remain still feel no chains.

But it wasn’t just children who suffered under this system. Teachers who refused to tow the line were quickly fired, victims also of a repressive system, not to mention those whose unwilling adherence led to physical illness.  But the book also singles out teachers who, within this system, managed to create an atmosphere of trust and liberal exchange and tried to protect dissident children from the all-powerful state. In doing so, they put themselves at grave risk.

Caritas Führer’s book and others like it are not written specifically for those who suffered. Rather, it makes us all aware of the injustices wrought on children and young people by a repressive education system that was a vital pillar of a communist dictatorship.  And it heightens our respect for those courageous enough to stand up to that system or to protect the children victimized by it.

The young people of today know too little about the horrors that children were subjected to under the East German dictatorship if they were unwilling to renounce their Christian faith or otherwise bend to the will of an education system that aimed to produce the ‘perfectly rounded socialist citizen.’  It is the same fate that has awaited dissident children under dictatorships since time immemorial. Caritas Führer tells the story of one such child and her family. In her own words, a young woman takes a critical look at past injustices wrought upon her and, with a childlike innocence, attempts to make sense of what has happened. She describes the growing fear as she confronts a nightmarish reality, exacerbated as she one day tears down a publically posted newspaper article she knows to be full of lies. The machinery of oppression is set in motion…the interrogations, threats and ostracism. Until this time her family had always provided a measure of protection but they too were unprepared for what was to come. Her will nearly broken, she finds comfort in the actions of a teacher who recognizes her artistic talents and ultimately helps her to overcome her fears. The young girl accepts this as a miracle, an almost biblical reversal of fortune that allows a child branded as an enemy of the state to grow in self-confidence and to continue to follow her own conscience. Thankfully, the seventh edition of this book contains an addendum that will help young readers better understand her story. The new edition also includes fascinating and thought provoking responses from those who have read the book. In all, Caritas Führer has transformed her personal experiences into a literary marvel, in the grim knowledge that many dissident children did not escape the trauma of school life so unscathed as she. The response to her book is also proof that it can be a powerful tool in healing the scars all of those who suffered the humiliation and the life-long consequences.                                              Marianne Birthler

Dreaded Mondays


Fear has a name. It’s called Monday.

Fear has many names but a child can’t specify them all. It senses only that life is shaped by a multitude of interconnected fears, a dark and sinister mosaic. The child knows it cannot break free of this mosaic.

Every morning her mother braids her hair. The girl chooses between red and blue bows, packs a sack lunch and eats her cereal, all the while dreading what awaits.  Sometimes a brother or sister will utter the dreaded alarm and they all jump to their feet and hurry out the door. They take each other’s hands and run. “Faster, faster,” cries one. But the girl is already sprinting as fast as she can. The young maple trees fly by in a blur. Up ahead, the wooden gate, the fence, the weathered old building with the clock tower, closer, closer, her heart pounding wildly. As they round the corner a smiling schoolmate wearing a white armband over a blue shirt shuts the gate slowly yet too quickly to let them slip inside. They can hear the fanfare in the schoolyard. Late again. She leans against the fence, a sickening dread growing in her belly. “Too late,” someone says. “Detention,” says another. But the child feels only fear. Fear has a name. It’s called Monday. Monday begins with the flag raising ceremony.

Mother remembers more often than not. Usually the child marches into the schoolyard on time and finds a place behind her classmates, who stand at attention in their Young Pioneer uniforms. The teacher takes her by the arm and shoves her into the last row. To her right and left, white blouses and shirts with blue and red neckerchiefs and blue caps. The girl wears a blue nylon jacket, its hood lined with fake fur. “The Pioneers set the tone, we’re moving forward, Pioneers take the lead, let the flags wave, our road leads to a bright new day, we are proud to be Pioneers!”

But her road does not lead to a bright new day because she is not a Pioneer. She is not a Young Pioneer and will never be an Ernst Thälmann Pioneer. She cannot be proud to be a pioneer.  She can’t even join in the singing.  She knows that these chants are part and parcel of the music collection at every socialist school. They pervade the music classes and yet she’s not allowed to sing along. She fears that the teacher will notice, stares at the ground, slouches, as small as she possibly can, practically invisible. “Attention! Stand tall! Eyes forward” You have to gaze ahead to where the men are standing, even if you are gripped by fear. You must watch and listen. The Pioneer leader, with a name that’s truly absurd considering his profession… ‘Traugott Kirchner’ – ‘Trust in God Sexton’. He’s also the assistant principal.  The older kids wear blue – students with a purpose. The endless announcements, the constant danger of being subjected to public reprimand or having to take part in one.  The growing fear, from year to year, of being singled out to come forward to the flagpole, where all the children focus their gaze…straight ahead. To stand alone, rebuked as the student body watches. A reprimand for not singing Pioneer songs during the flag ceremony.  “Dear God, anything but that,” she prays. A leftward turn of the eyes. The flag rises into the sky, a hammer and sickle emblazoned on black, red and gold. The memorial lights up. Ernst Thälmann is eternal, the voice and iron fist of the nation. Somehow she understands that all of the platitudes are unimportant and that in this world the trivial is of great value. She must let it sink in to her heart and mind. It’s essential for survival.

Perhaps that’s why, decades later, she feels a vague sickness when reading the newspaper; the laborious concentration when listening to public speeches; the sensitive interpretation of the German vocabulary; the nauseating gag reflex upon entering schools to meet with her children’s teachers.

Move! Open your school bags! The leather satchels over the shoulder, lined up single-file, part of the herd waiting in front of the girl’s entrance. Two-plus-two. Memories of long, dark hallways, gloomy classrooms, nightmarish years of school. Green paint. High, brown doors. Standing next to your desk as the teacher enters. “Always prepared for peace and socialism!” The fingers of your right hand shaped like a rooster’s comb for the salute. “Always prepared!”

But she is not a Pioneer. She doesn’t have to repeat the Pioneer greeting but knows it by heart. They could greet her in a normal fashion… a simple good morning or calling out her name. But no, there is no alternative to the Pioneer greeting because these aren’t children, nor are they classmates. Each and every one is a Pioneer. ‘Class 1-a has 10 Pioneers. Class 1-b has 15. How many Pioneers are there in all?’ Our math books are illustrated with pictures of Pioneers with their blue neckerchiefs. Then comes the red neckerchief of the Lenin Pioneers, sent in friendship by pen pals named Sergey or Natasha from other socialist countries.

Those who don’t repeat the Pioneer greeting are enemies of peace. But she wants to work for peace. It’s an important teaching of her Christian faith.  But she isn’t allowed to ‘be prepared’ for socialism. Socialism means sealed borders. It means going without toilet paper for months on end.  It is the flag ceremony and the last dreaded day of school and the Pioneers and the teachers who force all Christian children to stand and be ridiculed, the biology teacher who insists that humans evolved from apes and that God doesn’t exist. Socialism means the dilemma of being excluded from the ‘workers of the world’. Socialism means the demonstrations on May first and the red flags that she has no desire to wave. It is the high school diploma that Christian children are not allowed to complete and Pioneer leader Kirchner and the posted newspaper article about brothers in arms and the ban on western television and the simple word ‘bug’…wiretap. Always prepared for socialism. She cannot and will never accept the ideology, and that means opposing it, which is not allowed. Those who dare often wind up in prison. In Bautzen, a horrid place. Even a child of seven is aware of that. Seven years later, the young woman is surprised at just how beautiful the old city of Bautzen is. Always prepared. Sometimes she really wants to wear a neckerchief, no matter what kind. A teenager now, she loves shawls. But never red or blue.

The candy bags sweeten the way to school. I have received two, a big one and a small one. Four school schedules hang on an old wooden kitchen buffet. My siblings have polished their book bags with wax. I have to walk to school on my own but at recess I search for the others. Every class has its own tree. My sister protects me from the youngsters who slug other kids. I enjoy staying in the classroom when it rains. In social studies we learn that our town is called, ‘the city of seven valleys’ and we have memorized the names of all seven.  Our teacher is young, a cousin of the girl who sits next to me. But Maria must still use formal German and address her as Miss Summer. Their relationship is a secret. Our teacher plays the violin and because I’m also learning violin, I imagine that I’m her favorite pupil. Our teacher has a baby and brings it to daycare every morning.  Sometimes she allows me to read my compositions in front of the class. And when Miss Summer praises my work, it’s the best feeling in the world. In second grade I write small poems in a notebook, verses I make up myself. I draw pictures to go with them and put the notebook in a place so conspicuous that the teacher can’t help but see it. She takes it from my desk and reads, but I can’t remember what her reaction was.

The class goes on a day hike and I desperately want to hold hands with Miss Summer along the way. But other children are ahead of me. I want to show her how high I can jump so I call to her loudly. But we’re not supposed to yell in the forest. And she doesn’t look my way. I walk behind her for a long time, scheming. Then, I offer to share my popcorn if she’ll hold my hand and she is cross with me. Back home I tell the family that the day hike was stupid…

The author:

Caritas Führer, born in 1957 in former Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) is a German freelance author, living with her husband and her sons in Greece.


2 Kommentare zu “Caritas Führer – Dreaded Mondays (content in English)

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