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Home Uncategorized Back in the GDR

Back in the GDR

Fergal Lenehan

Wie ich nach Berlin Kam – Eine Irin in der geteilten Stadt, by Elizabeth Shaw, Wolfgang de Bruyn (transl), Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, 224 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-3942476577

The early 1990s were marked by a proliferation of newly created nation states upon the European geopolitical landscape, as communism disintegrated in Central and Eastern Europe. Various nations gained or regained statehood, from Latvia on the Baltic Sea to Croatia on the Adriatic. A different fate awaited the German Democratic Republic. It unified with the Federal Republic of Germany to become the neue Bundesländer; the “new federal states” of a united German nation state. Rather than a national identity being “released” into full statehood, a distinct national state identity became a quasi-regional identity, based now largely upon the idea of a shared, collective East German past.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s this new East German identity was often talked about in terms of an ‑ often ironic ‑ Ostalgie or GDR nostalgia; seen for example in GDR-themed parties, shops selling former GDR products and films such as Goodbye Lenin! While the Ostalgie wave that turned some lighter aspects of a communist dictatorship into capitalist kitsch has receded, cultural traces of a distinct East German identity remain. This is to be seen, for example, in children’s literature, as East German parents share the stories they read and loved as children in the GDR with their own families. Thus, for example the bestselling and much-loved GDR children’s classic Der kleine Angsthase, translated as The Timid Rabbit, has been published in seven editions since 1994 and remains highly popular in eastern Germany (but not in western Germany). The astonishing thing about this book, at least from an Irish perspective, is that its author and illustrator was a Belfast woman and long-term GDR resident, Elizabeth Shaw.

The island of Ireland did not have a great deal of contact with the GDR. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland was the last European country to formally recognise the East German state, in November 1980. This is not to say there was no contact between Ireland and the German Democratic Republic. Derek Scally has recently highlighted links (largely of the “begging bowl” variety) between the Communist Party of Ireland, the Workers Party and the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED). Irish historian of the GDR Damian Mac Con Uladh, now a journalist based in Greece who often reports for The Irish Times, has written about the small number of Irish academics and writers who visited East Germany for periods of research and holidays, as well as GDR perceptions of Ireland and Irish-GDR friendship societies. Mac Con Uladh calls Elizabeth Shaw the “GDR’s most prominent resident from Northern Ireland”. This she undoubtedly was.

Shaw perceived her identity as predominantly Irish, as her recently rereleased autobiography, Wie ich nach Berlin kam – Eine Irin in der geteilten Stadt (How I Came to Berlin – An Irishwoman in the Divided City) makes clear. Originally published shortly before the demise of the GDR in 1990, the book has been republished to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Shaw’s Der kleine Angsthase. Its recent reception also reveals the still existent east-west cultural divide in Germany; while the book was well received in follow-on former GDR publications, such as Neues DeutschlandDas Magazin (Shaw regularly worked for both during her lifetime), the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung and the Berliner Zeitung, it was ignored by the mainstream national, western-based German media. Shaw is indeed unusual; a Northern Irish author and illustrator who has been translated into various languages and read worldwide, yet who remains largely unknown in Ireland. While she generally wrote her children’s books in German (with editing help from friends), her autobiography was written in English and then translated into German for publication.

Elizabeth Shaw was born in Belfast in 1920 to a bank manager father from Sligo, a member of the Church of Ireland who had earlier been a Home Rule supporter, and a Presbyterian mother from rural Armagh, who disrupted her studies at Trinity College Dublin to marry Shaw’s father. When Elizabeth was thirteen, and upon her father’s retirement, the Shaws moved to an affordable house in Bedford, England, having considered a move to Dublin (the centrality of the Irish language to education in the Free State, and the fact that the Shaw children had not learned Irish in Belfast, is given as the main reason for not moving south). Elizabeth discovered her talent for drawing and went to art school in London, where she concentrated on book illustration. At the Chelsea School of Art she became involved in Communist circles and later, during the Second World War, began a relationship with the Geneva-born German émigré artist René Graetz. In 1946, Shaw and Graetz, who was also a convinced Communist, married and decided to move to the Soviet Zone in Germany to idealistically help in the rebuilding of German statehood. Shaw became a freelance artist, working as an illustrator in the mainstream GDR press and as a portraitist. Eventually she wrote and illustrated her own children’s books, becoming a member of the GDR artistic establishment and winning numerous prizes for her work.

Shaw’s autobiography tells this story in a selection of vignettes. The book is principally, however, a meditation upon identity. Her sense of self-identification, as she depicts it, was inherently hybrid and contained elements of Irishness, but also aspects gleaned specifically from Northern Ireland, Protestantism, Britishness and Berlin, as well as a strong sense of class solidarity.

Shaw portrays herself as a constant outsider throughout her life. In Belfast this was for reasons of class, geography and political orientation. She was not allowed to play with the poor, lice-infected children from the surrounding streets (whether Catholic or Protestant), while her Sligo-born father never took to Belfast and gladly left when he retired from the Ulster Bank (he had earlier been a bank manager in Ballina). The family, although practising members of the Church of Ireland, existed largely outside of popular Ulster Protestant culture. They did not recognise the Twelfth in any way, but proudly wore shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. The children were sent to school at the Belfast Royal Academy, which had, under principal Alec Foster, with whom Shaw’s parents were friendly, a left-liberal ethos open to Irish patriotism (she describes her class singing the nationalist ballad O’Donnell Abú; the irony of this in a Protestant area of Belfast is not lost on Shaw).

When she moved to southern England with her family as a teenager, she became conscious that she spoke differently from her classmates and began to secretly write sentimental Irish nationalist poetry (she later came to love the city of London, however, and revisited it often and enthusiastically). Although she lived solely in Berlin from 1946 onwards, until indeed her death in 1992, she tells the reader she never really felt comfortable speaking German – this although from the mid-1960s onwards she was very much a part of the GDR culture-creating elite. When reading publicly at a school in Schwerin in the north of the GDR, Shaw relates how the children began to giggle when they heard her speaking in heavily accented German and had to be forced to stop by their teacher. After this experience she very seldom gave public readings.

The moments of happiness she recounts are often linked to Ireland. When, in an extended passage, she enthusiastically depicts a short visit to 1980s Leipzig (as a jury member for a GDR book prize), she finishes by telling the readers that she also fell in love with the city because of its links to Kuno Meyer. Meyer was an early twentieth century German Gaelic scholar who had studied in Leipzig, later became a Professor in Berlin and was highly influential in relation to the study of the Irish language at universities in Ireland. His translations of Irish-language poetry into English are the best she knows (she starts the book with Meyer’s translation of “Pangur Bán”).

The most vividly rendered and effective vignette portrays a day Shaw spent walking in Co Sligo in 1971. She ambles through the fields from Rosses Point to Drumcliff churchyard, talking to various people along the way. She enjoys taking off her shoes and letting the mud, on a showery day, cover her toes. The surrounding landscape is permeated with familial meaning: her father learned to swim at Rosses Point, while the names of some of what she calls her Cromwellian ancestors are carved upon the gravestones at Drumcliff. Yet, she still sees herself as something of an outsider and, when meeting a man on the road, asks provocatively why the Catholic Irish Republic celebrates the Protestant WB Yeats so fervently. That evening, over a cheese sandwich and a glass of Guinness, she feels a great sense of tranquillity. She is reminded of this feeling when later during a holiday in Bulgaria she overhears soft Irish accents.

An autobiography is, of course, a narrative that arises from a conscious process of self-creation and self-depiction. Uncomfortable or unpleasant aspects are often omitted. For Elizabeth Shaw this relates to her level of accommodation with the oppressive machinery of a Communist dictatorship. There is an undoubted anti-Stalinist orientation in the text, and she does view her postwar idealism and blind obedience to the party line as naive. She writes of knowing some GDR dissident figures and expresses support for the younger GDR citizens’ desire for political change, seeing freedom of mobility as a key right. She is, indeed, conscious of her privileged position, as a British passport-holder, in relation to travel. Shaw used this advantage extensively and undertook a number of journeys that would have been impossible for the average GDR citizen. She does not however appear to have been particularly conscious of her privileged position as a member of the cultural elite, the membership of which also bestowed considerable advantages. Holding, and maintaining, such a privileged position involved a considerable degree of self-censorship.

Nor does the book fully explain why Shaw so passionately embraced communism in London. She writes of the extreme poverty she had earlier viewed on the streets of Belfast, telling the reader that Marx’s Communist Manifesto had helped her understand this situation as a problem with its origins in the class struggle. The romantic liaisons she mentions were also all with convinced Marxists. Shaw became involved with an artists’ grouping linked to the British Communist Party under the guidance of her then lover, an artist called Patrick Carpenter.

Shaw’s story is a fascinating one of a highly unusual Irish artistic life. She has been publicly commemorated as a much-loved children’s author, and artist, in the “new federal states” of eastern Germany; a primary school bears her name in Berlin-Pankow, while various exhibitions of her sketches, illustrations and portraits have been mounted over the past two decades. She is still largely unknown in Ireland, to which she obviously had a strong emotional attachment, requesting that her ashes be scattered in the Irish Sea. She has, however, had some presence upon the wider cultural landscape, north and south. The Belfast poet, essayist and art historian John Hewitt organized a Shaw exhibition for Belfast in 1979 (he had earlier written to Shaw, telling her that she was the only Belfast-born artist whose work he was unfamiliar with). O’Brien Press in Dublin has published The Timid Rabbit, (it is now out of print again), and another children’s book by Shaw, The Little Black Sheep. Shaw’s story of “how she came to Berlin” remains unpublished in English, the language of its original creation. This is indeed a pity, as her unique text undoubtedly deserves a place within the wider literary history of Irish autobiography.


Fergal Lenehan teaches at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany.



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