Toilet Paper

Shortages of food staples and basic goods we routinely need for everyday life were not uncommon in East Germany. Toilet paper and paper products in general (e.g., facial tissues, feminine hygiene products, disposable diapers, paper towels, wallpaper, and the list goes on) were always in short supply. East German toilet paper was gray and hard, but people would stand in line to buy it whenever it was available in drugstores; people in the GDR often had to rely on newspaper as a substitute. A friend of mine who grew up in East Germany recalls crumbling and massaging the newspaper to make it a little softer. I remember an instance, quite amusing in retrospect, when an extreme shortage of toilet paper in East Berlin and elsewhere in the GDR became a source of great concern to my writer-friend, Ulrich (Uli) Plenzdorf.

In the spring of 1978, I had returned to East Berlin in order to continue working on the project that would eventually culminate in a three-volume book on GDR literature in the 1970s. During this one-month visit, from mid-May to mid-June, I stayed in a Humboldt University of Berlin studio apartment. The apartment was located a short distance from the Alexanderplatz, right in the heart of Berlin and within walking distance of the Plenzdorfs’ (Uli and his wife, Helga) place in the artsy Prenzlauer Berg district. Helga Plenzdorf had kindly given me a standing invitation to join their family for the main meal of the day, which always began at 1:30 p.m., so I visited and dined with them frequently.

The Plenzdorfs also had a countryside cottage in Altrosenthal, a village in Brandenburg located about 36 miles east of Berlin. Their house was part of a farmstead consisting of several old buildings that had been abandoned. Uli Plenzdorf and some of his friends had leased the rundown buildings and were in the process of restoring and transforming them into weekend/vacation retreats, which were commonly called Datsche in the GDR. City dwellers who could afford a year-round second home were eager to acquire these obvious status symbols. On weekends during my stays in Berlin, I often would drive out to Altrosenthal and visit with the Plenzdorfs, usually spending Saturday night at their place. They frequently had visitors from West Berlin, friends who would arrive in time for a midday meal, stay until nighttime, and then drive back to the border crossing point to re-enter West Berlin before midnight when their one-day visas would expire. Since East Germans were prohibited from travelling to West Berlin or any Western countries, all such visits involved persons from the West coming to see East Germans in the GDR.

One day in June 1978, while I was having dinner with the Plenzdorf family in their Berlin apartment, Uli told me they were going to host some VIP visitors from West Berlin at their country house on the weekend. Coming for a visit on Saturday were the prominent German filmmaker, Volker Schlöndorff, and two of his colleagues. At that time, Schlöndorff was making the film version of Günter Grass’s famous novel, The Tin Drum. Plenzdorf, who was also a filmmaker as well as a screenplay writer, was very excited by the prospect of this particular visit. There would be a festive midday meal in the Plenzdorfs’ cottage, to which their Altrosenthal neighbors and I were invited. But, there was a big problem and the Plenzdorfs needed my help to solve it.

The problem was that the Plenzdorfs were almost out of toilet paper, both in their Berlin apartment and in the Altrosenthal cottage. Due to the toilet paper shortage in East Berlin and throughout the GDR, their efforts to find and purchase more of this essential product had proved futile. And now, in just a few days, they would have special guests from West Berlin and a group of friends to entertain. Uli asked me for a favor: Could I drive over to West Berlin that afternoon and buy a huge supply of toilet paper, as much as would fit into my Volkswagen Beetle? I was eager to help out, of course, and told the Plenzdorfs that there was a nearby supermarket on the western side of Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin.

The Plenzdorfs’ teenaged son, Morten, was dining with us that afternoon and had been following our conversation closely. When we finished eating and I was about to leave for Checkpoint Charlie, Morten  said with frustration and anger in his voice: “I’d like to drive over to West Berlin once, even if it’s just to buy toilet paper!” But Morten would have to wait for more than eleven years, until November 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed, for an opportunity to visit West Berlin.

At the supermarket in West Berlin, I filled my shopping cart with toilet paper several times. I continued shopping until the front passenger side of the VW and the space behind the front seats were completely filled with packages of toilet paper. Then I drove back to Checkpoint Charlie, where East German border guards checked my passport and asked me with apparent amusement about the unusual cargo I had on board: “What are you going to do with all this toilet paper?” I told them the truth: “East German friends of mine are having a big party this coming weekend and are almost out of toilet paper. I’m invited to the party and want to help out.” The border guards were well aware of the toilet paper shortage, of course, and kindly told me to be on my way.

This snapshot has a happy ending. The Plenzdorfs’ dinner party was a great success! They shared the supply of toilet paper with their neighbors and friends in Altrosenthal, all of whom were grateful and thanked me as well as the Plenzdorfs for this unusual gift. And best of all, I got to meet and chat with the famous film director, Volker Schlöndorff!