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Heidi's Story

The Leipzig Workers strike

The 17th of June 1953 is an important day in German history. On this day the citizens of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) rebelled against their government. A general strike was declared and many people in my home town of Leipzig demonstrated because of their discontent with the economic situation, the slow rate of post-war recovery and the lack of personal freedom. Yet I worked very hard on this day of strikes, because I did not know what was happening in Leipzig.

As an apprentice bookseller I worked in a large firm owned by the Socialist Union Party. I was training to become a second-hand bookseller and attended the German School for Booksellers in Leipzig twice a week. Four days work in the bookshop, - two days in the trade school.

 

Early in June our class teacher said, "On the 17th of June all lessons are cancelled. We will show our solidarity to our brothers on the land and assemble at the Plagwitz Collective Farm to thin out sugar beets. All students are expected to attend. The roll will be marked at regular intervals."
Thinning out sugar beets! For me even working in the home garden was a form of slavery. My Mum was unsympathetic and just said "Do what you are told and don't ruin your career, child, save your rebellion for more important causes." There was no way out.

 

The 17th of June was a beautiful sunny summer's day. I left home early, and took the tram to Plagwitz with many other bookselling students, and there was our teacher with the roll book in his hand. No escape! Each of us was assigned to two long rows of sugar beets which we had to thin out. The plants were so small and so hard to reach. I bent down, I knelt down, I crawled along the ground. Soon all my muscles ached and my head hurt and I wanted to run away. But supervisors watched us carefully. Finally someone called, "Lunch!" and we sat in the shade of a tree, eating the lunch we had brought along. Then we had to go back to work.

 

After a couple of hours I looked up and noticed that all the supervisors had left. I signalled to my girl friend in the row next to me and whispered, "Shall we run away?" "Yes, let's", she answered . We looked around, no-one seemed to be in charge, so off we ran to the tram stop, only to find that there were no trams. Fortunately we got a lift from a friendly truck-driver who said "There is no room in the front, but if you don't mind sitting on crates of empty beer bottles in the dark you can sit in the back." So we climbed up and sat down on the upturned beer bottles. The canvas flaps were fastened, and we sat in the dark. We couldn't work out what the driver was doing. For a while he would drive towards Leipzig, but then the truck was stopped and we heard voices. This happened many times - and again and again he was turned back. What was going on?

 

At last we were allowed through, the canvas flap was pulled back and our driver said, "Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main railway station), jump out!" I grabbed his outstretched hand and jurnped. I blinked in the bright sunlight to focus my eyes after the long time in the dark, - and I saw a huge Soviet tank. I thought that the long time in the sun had affected my brain, - and focused harder. The tank was still there. And it was not the only one. There were more tanks and many soldiers in the centre of Leipzig. I saw people standing around in groups. One lonely couple was holding up a banner, "We want freedom."

 

The trams were running again and I travelled home safely. My mother told me about the revolt, that had come to a quick end. We later heard that the Soviet Military Commander had proclaimed a state of siege, sealed off all access roads to the major cities and sent in tanks and troops.


That is why 17th of June is an important date in Germany's recent history. The East Germans staged the first working class rebellion against a communist regime. They learnt that they could not overthrow their government as long as the Soviet Union was prepared to stop it by ruthless suppression.
For me it is also the day on which I had to slave in the hot sun thinning out sugar beets, while the rest of the people in Leipzig were on strike.

 

Heidi Kirsch, nee Herrmann
then of Wiederitzsch, Leipzig

Heidi is now an active member of U3A Australia
You can click here to write to her

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