Wende Museum Provides Insights into Jewish Life Beyond the Iron Curtain


Rebecca Klempner

I pulled up to an office park in Culver City, ready to learn about the lives of Eastern European and Soviet Jews during the Cold War. Despite the non-descript surroundings, a giant slab of the Berlin Wall told me I’d reached the right place: the Wende Museum.

When I scheduled my tour, I mentioned a special interest in the Jewish experience behind the Iron Curtain. My tour guide, PhD candidate Katja Schatte, specializes in the experience of Jews in the GDR (communist East Germany), and added her insights throughout my visit. Katja hails from the GDR herself, and provided many personal anecdotes to illustrate her points.

A Turning Point

The Wende Museum gets its name from the German word wende (pronounced “ven-duh”) meaning “turning point.” Scholar Justinian Jampol founded the Wende as a research institution dedicated to the study of the Cold War during the 1990s. While doing research in Eastern Europe, he found that many of the period’s documents and artifacts were being discarded or destroyed.

Katja explains, “Either they were discarding them because they no longer thought they were worth anything – because they all wanted shiny, Western products – or they were like, ‘Well, we have all that stuff, and we would like to know it’s being preserved somewhere, but not in our own basement!'” As Jampol’s collection grew, people approached him with donations on their own. “They felt good that there was this place where it would be preserved and treated respectfully.” Many people also preferred that the items they donated were displayed outside their homelands, because they found it uncomfortable to be confronted with the relics of their complicated and sometimes painful past.

Although the Wende as a whole doesn’t focus on Jewish history, it does hold a few artifacts specifically pertaining to the Jewish experience. Moreover, many of the items in the general collection shed light on the lives of Jews living in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the period of 1917 – 1989.

The Wende is organized into three major parts: revolving temporary exhibitions on the top floor, where you enter, and then a permanent exhibition and an archive on the bottom floor. The top floor also houses a library. Additionally, the Wende stores items in a series of warehouses, both in California and in Europe.

While the museum is generally closed to new acquisitions right now, they will still accept donations of books and magazines published in the Eastern Bloc during the communist period.

Jewish Life Under Communism

The Jews living under communist rule during the Cold War lived under the shadow of the Holocaust. Many of them hid their Jewish identity out of fear (for example, only 400 Jews officially lived in the GDR, but Katja informs me that the actual number might have been ten times that). Not only had Hitler tried to murder the Jews of Europe, many Jews returned home only to suffer further attacks.

Surprisingly, communism brought hope to some of these people. Katja says, that according to the communists, “[t]he Nazi regime had been the culmination of imperialism and capitalism, [so the communists could say,] ‘We’re the good ones, so we can’t possibly be Anti-Semitic, right? Since we’re anti-fascist.'”

Early on, in particular, some survivors believed that a communist regime might protect them from further violence.

“There were people who were socialists or communists and Jewish,” Katja points out. “…They really came as idealists to the GDR thinking if we want to…prevent something like that from ever happening again, then the GDR is our best bet. To build socialism, and to build this utopia.” Holocaust survivors could apply for reparations, although those who were rounded up simply for being Jewish were offered less compensation than those “patriots” who actively resisted Hitler’s regime.

Other Jews longed to return to active Jewish practice. They found themselves targeted by the government. (Which behaviors attracted the notice of the Stasi is one of the subjects Katja is investigating in her own research.)

Eventually, Jews of both types found themselves suspect in the eyes of the authorities, particularly following Israel’s successes during the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Behind the Iron Curtain, governments interpreted those conflicts as imperialist incursions on the territories of Israel’s neighbors.

As I listened to an interview with actor Eugene Alper, who left the USSR in 1989, I found his description of life in the Communist Era particularly informative: Certain institutions were maintained for the enjoyment of the Party elite and Western visitors – museums, historic hotels – but this was not the experience of the average Soviet citizen.

The Soviet regime tried “to do everything,” due to the nationalization of all industries and the centralization of all public services, and they often failed, because, as Alper explained, “[t]he government cannot do everything well.

Awareness of the level of oppression and privation was gradual for the average Soviet citizen, he said. It was difficult to do basic things like find a place to live, food, and education, so they were too busy coping to notice right away. Desperate to survive, people became corrupt and tried to use bribery or proteksia as leverage, or turned against their neighbors.

Highlights of the Collection

One of the most compelling displays in the Wende’s collection relates to the methods used by Communist governments to spy on Jews and other suspect citizens. A bank of telephones in the foyer turns out to be examples of devices used to spy on conversations. In the upstairs gallery, I listened to an interview of a Polish-born Dutch national relating his first-hand experience using such phones. While he was initially appalled at being bugged during private phone calls, he quickly got used to it. Sometimes, he’d joke with his friends over the phone – knowing they would be overheard – about the spy’s poor quality German-made device which made echoing sounds on the line.

Busts of Communist leaders proliferated in public spaces in all the Eastern Bloc countries, and they cover several shelves in the Wende’s archive. Most show Lenin, while the visages of Ernst Thälmann (a German Communist leader murdered by the Nazis), Marx, and Engels are also common.

Relatively few Stalins appear on the Wende’s shelves. “The reason being,” says Katja, “that after Stalin died in ’53, there was an entire revision of Soviet policy and the official narrative surrounding him…Khrushchev gave a ‘secret speech’ that ended up not being so secret where he basically acknowledged that a lot of the things that Stalin had done were…[horrible].

“There was an entire revision of history. So in the Soviet Union, they got rid of a lot of the busts of Stalin by themselves in the ’50s.”

That inclination to rewrite history in order to support current policy appears elsewhere in the collection. The most striking example is a painting in which a ghostly image of Khrushchev himself – who originally stood among the patriots in the painting – remains behind after his figure was (mostly) scraped off the canvas when he eventually fell out of favor.

Jewish items in the collection include a small kiddush cup, the origins of which are unclear; ethnographic photos taken in Bukhara by anthropologists in order to preserve a way of life the government believed would soon be replaced with that of modern, civilized Russians; a booklet describing the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), the little-known “homeland” which was created for Jews in the far eastern segment of the USSR; a creepy 1920s anti-religion magazine called Godless with an Anti-Semitic cover; and an article about Yiddish theater in an English-language Russian magazine.

Other collection highlights include the personal library and papers of Erich Honecker, the last leader of the GDR, and reels and reels of films – some educational and some filled with propaganda. The bottom floor of the building also contains a permanent exhibit about the Berlin Wall and border crossing. An upcoming exhibit will display items curators have had trouble identifying accurately, with an eye to determine the provenance of each through crowdsourcing.

Visiting the Wende

You can visit Wende’s exhibition galleries any (non-holiday) Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. I recommend taking a guided tour, which allows you access to the archive, as well. Free tours are scheduled on Fridays at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you would like to schedule a week in advance, you can also schedule a guided visit for a Wednesday or a Thursday, and middle school, high school, and university classes may schedule special tours, also a week in advance. To do so, e-mail tours@wendemuseum.org.

The Wende’s Future

Currently, the Wende is housed at 5741 Buckingham Parkway, Suite E, Culver City, California. The Wende hopes to move to its more centrally-located new home in the Culver City Armory sometime next year.

At the new location, the Wende’s staff hopes to expand their educational programming. In particular, they would like to reach out to Jewish schools. Just as survivors of the Shoah are dwindling in number, those who remember the Communist period in Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Socialist Republics are passing on, or their memories are fading, and this period played an integral role in the history of Jews during the 20th century. The Wende staff mentioned to me the possibility of creating a curriculum for middle school and high school day school teachers who would like to teach a unit on the Cold War.

Members of the Jewish community are also invited to share memories of their lives behind the Iron Curtain by contacting research staff at HistoricalWitness@wendemuseum.org.