Back in Time: Museumswohnung, Hellersdorf

Nestled away in a quiet corner of Hellersdorf – is there any other kind in Hellersdorf? - a rather unique place exists; a former GDR apartment that has been preserved as a museum while all of the surrounding buildings have been renovated.

A student had mentioned this place to me a few weeks ago, and as I grew up in Ireland, far from the GDR (German Democratic Republic), I was intrigued by the idea. However, as the museum is only open on Sundays between 2pm and 4pm, it had taken me a little while to actually get there.

The museum is a bit of a trek at the best of times, but last Sunday, with the S-Bahn out of commission between Ostbahnhof and Lichtenberg, it required a little more planning than usual. But, as this is Berlin, it wasn't long before I was sitting on the U5, headed east – I was pretty easy to spot as I was the only person without neck tattoos.

Alighting at Cottbusser Platz, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer number of blocks of flats – more than 42,000 flats were built here during the 80s, each apartment taking a mere 18 hours to put together. All of these former GDR high-rises were redeveloped between 2003 and 2006, but Stadt und Land, the residential building association, stepped in to preserve one of the flats, rightly assuming that it would be of interest to anyone who hadn't lived in the GDR.

I found the museum easily enough and rang the bell. A minute or so later, I was buzzed in and met by a jolly-looking man on the first floor. He ushered me into the apartment, his passion for the place immediately evident. Unfortunately, he didn't speak any English, but my German is now at the stage where I could make out most of what he was saying. Still, even if you don't understand German, it's definitely worth going just to have a nose around.

The apartment consists of a children's room, a living room, a master bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom and a balcony. Everything in it is original, except for the windows and the glass panelling around the balcony. Most of the furniture, fixtures and fittings were donated by neighbours. Books, records and photos fill the shelves, and an old typewriter and model train set invite you to tinker with them in the children's room.

A rather monstrous-looking, but very comfortable, velour green sofa takes pride of place in the living room, facing the predecessor to the flat-screen television. The kitchen and bathroom are stocked with items typical of the era. My super-keen tour guide led me around, delighting in pointing out various things to me, all the while making an effort to speak slowly enough for me to understand.

Families who lived in the GDR were pretty happy when they got one of these apartments. At the time, the rent cost just 109 Marks and the 61 square metre space seems perfectly adequate for a couple with one or two children. The downside was when you tried to make your house a home. The prehistoric television cost 4,200 Marks and the fridge, 1,525 Marks – the original receipt sits on top as proof.

I've been told that the DDR Museum at Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1 offers a similar experience, however, it is usually overcrowded and hard to actually see anything. I was at the Museumswohnung in Hellersdorf for close to an hour, and in that time, only three other people came along. Oh, and it's free.

As an interesting finish to the tour, the guide brings you across the hall to a fully renovated apartment, kitted out in everything IKEA has to offer. These days, the rent costs around €500. But, even though it's tastefully done, as I left, I felt an odd longing for the velour green sofa...

The Museumswohnung is located at Hellersdorfer Straße 179 (U5 – Cottbusser Platz), and is open to the public on Sundays, between 2pm and 4pm.  Admission is free. Private tours can be arranged at other times by calling 0151 16 11 44 47. 

By Linda O'Grady
Linda works as an English teacher, writer and editor, and has been living in Berlin since September 2014. She also shares some of her more irreverent thoughts on life as an Irishwoman living in Germany in her blog - Expat Eye on Germany.

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