East German Kitsch Now a Collector's Item

Communist-era consumer goods on show run from saunas to soup bowls

It is hard to explain the appeal of the mysterious white cylinder, about four feet tall, sealed with a blue vinyl covering. Yet the unwieldy home appliance, which East German engineers designed as a "portable sauna," is one of the main attractions at a current Berlin exhibit.

Following German reunification in 1990, most eastern Germans turned their backs on the processed foods, detergents, and cars produced by the Communist command economy. But nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans are rediscovering the world of East Germany's forgotten consumer culture. Some products have made a market comeback in eastern Germany, while others have become valued collectors' items.

"In the West, eastern products have taken on a cult status; in the East, their reappearance is a sign of eastern Germans' new self-confidence," says Elke Matz, a founding member of the Association for the Documentation of East German Daily Culture, which sponsored the exhibit "Intershop 2000."

The name is a play on the Intershops, hard-currency stores in the former East Germany that sold western consumer goods unavailable to the average citizen.

Ms. Matz, a West Berlin graphic designer, is a collector of all objects related to Mitropa, the former East German dining car company that now services trains throughout the country. Her collection includes menus, a chef's hat, receipt books, some virtually unbreakable glasses, and several thousand soup bowls with the Mitropa logo.

The crowning item in her collection is the exhibit hall itself, a so-called "portable room expansion hall" composed of eight 20-foot segments that can be pushed together like a telescope for easy transportation. In East Germany, such expandable trailers were used as highway rest stops, supermarkets, restaurants, and Intershops.

Matz bought the hall for a symbolic 1 deutsche mark (about 60 cents); scrapping it would have cost Mitropa $5,000.

"When I went to the East, I discovered these things, the garbage of history," says Matz. "They were throwing all this stuff away, but I knew that one day it would be collected."

Today Matz's association has 85 members, who collect items reflecting virtually every aspect of East German life, from medals and radios to appliance manuals and vending machines. One day Matz hopes to open a permanent exhibition.

For eastern and western Germans alike, the quaint - at times bizarre - consumer goods conjure up images of a time predating the materialism that reunification brought with it. Some commentators have called this longing "ostalgie," a combination of the German words for east ("ost") and nostalgia.

"Ostalgie is a bad term. The media paint it so negatively, as if we easterners only longed for the past," says Christiane Grodotzky, a visitor to the exhibit. "That was our daily life. We tend to forget a lot of these things - those pyramid-shaped milk cartons or that aluminum silverware."

Volker Schmitz, a western German, agrees. He says his best childhood memories are of the summer visits to his grandparents in East Germany. "It's an emotional thing," explains Mr. Schmitz. "That can over there, or this notepad. They are associations I can't explain rationally."

Gradually large companies are recognizing a different consumer mentality in eastern Germany, where there is still a certain loyalty to old brand names such as "Club Cola" and "Berlin Cosmetics." Last year the first trade fair for eastern products was held in Dsseldorf, and this summer a leading detergent manufacturer launched an advertising campaign specifically aimed at the East.

One display in Matz's exhibit documents the evolution of "Imi" brand detergent. In East Germany it was packaged in low-grade cardboard that hardly changed in appearance through the decades. Now owned by a large western German company, "Imi" comes in brightly-colored boxes, making it indistinguishable from the competition.

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