Intershop

Intershop was a chain of state-run retail stores in the GDR, in which only hard currencies like West German marks and US dollars could be used to purchase high-quality goods that had for the most part been imported from Western countries. The East German mark was not accepted as payment in these stores. Intershop was originally oriented toward visitors from Western countries; it later became an outlet where East Germans could purchase goods they could not otherwise obtain. The selection included food, alcohol, tobacco, brand-name clothing, blue jeans, toys, jewelry, cosmetics, watches, technical devices, musical recordings, appliances, and even Western-made automobiles, such as Volkswagen and Volvo. With the arrival of the first Interhotels, which were intended to house Western tourists, Intershops began appearing in these Western-oriented hotels, the most upscale of which also had fancy restaurants that accepted payment in hard currencies only. Many East Germans came to view the Intershops as a key driver of inequality in the GDR.

While staying in the GDR, I made a point of shopping infrequently in the Intershops, so as not to support the regime’s insatiable desire to secure hard currency by any means possible. Occasionally, East German friends would ask me to purchase an item or two for them in an Intershop. I usually complied, probably because I felt guilty about having plenty of hard currency and hence the ability to buy things in these state-run shops. When I bought something for someone, I paid for it with West German marks. I would then be reimbursed the amount of the purchase in East German marks. Although the black market exchange rate in East Germany ranged from 5 to 10 M (East) for I DM (West), I never charged a friend the black-market premium—probably because I felt guilty about the privileges I enjoyed as US citizen.

The oddest request I ever received to purchase something for someone in an Intershop came from a woman I met though the poet, Sarah Kirsch. Her name was Jutta W., and she worked as a Research Associate at the Academy of Arts in East Berlin. Jutta had a craving for cod liver filets, which—packaged in small tin containers like sardines and anchovies—were available in the Intershop in Hotel Metropol.

The two of us marched into the Intershop and there I purchased a few tins of the cod liver filets, along with a packet of German Vollkorn (fullgrain) bread, a dense rye bread that Jutta said complemented the cod liver perfectly. We then went to Jutta’s apartment, located just a short distance from Hotel Metropol, and proceeded to have lunch. This was the first time I had eaten cod liver, so I was quite curious and eager to taste it. After a few bites I understood why Jutta liked it so much. It was really delicious, especially on the hearty fullgrain bread. I bought more of the same combination for myself and began eating it for breakfast. To this day I remain a fan of this unusual delicacy!