In her memoir* of coming of age in East Germany just before the Wende, Jana Hensel observes, “There is hardly any of us who does not have a stack of certificates or a pile of medals lying around in a desk drawer or a box in the attic.” In truth, the social glue holding the GDR together was the custom of awarding citations for meritorious accomplishment. This applied to athletic performance no less than to civic duties, anniversaries, or that favorite socialist standby: target or quota fulfillment. In this way everyone was generously brought into the act, felt rewarded, and experienced a sense of constant “Betriebsamkeit” – a sense that ‘something was happening’.
Such certificates or Urkunden were an inexpensive way of sustaining the rewards system in a country where possibilities for self-realization were limited. In its last shipment the Wende acquired another small stack of Urkunden to go with the hundreds already in the collection. Typically, the certificate comes inserted in a red leatherette folder, like a diploma presentation in this country but vertically-oriented and with either the government’s compass emblem or the handshake of the SED embossed on the outside. It’s easy to imagine how one’s Urkunden could begin to take up space.
This most recent batch of certificates all belonged to one man, the painter Fritz Duda (1904-1991), who received congratulations in this form on his 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays. Greetings came from the Central Committee (ZK), the Artists’ Union, and his local district (Pankow). From the fulsome words of these official bodies, we learn that Duda was a miner’s son from the Ruhr, a youthful communist who was arrested and prevented from showing his work during the NS-era, who then later distinguished himself working on behalf of other artists in the GDR. While his own work seems to have occupied a lower tier among East German painters in later years, the Wende – thanks to this acquisition – will preserve a little of his memory.
Some of Duda’s paintings can be seen at:
* Hensel, Jana. Zonenkinder (After the Wall). Rohwolt, 2002.