German reunification in 30 words : #5: Westpaket
To mark 30 years of German reunification, we're taking you on a linguistic journey through 30 key German words and phrases that charted Germany's Cold War division, reunification and what happened next. Today: Westpaket.
Berlin - The construction of the Berlin Wall didn't just mean people were cut off from their families and East Germans lost a key route for escaping to the West - it also meant East Berliners and those living around West Berlin could no longer shop for Western products. The solution was the Westpaket - a package of household products sent by West Germans to their friends and family on the other side of the Iron Curtain - and they took on new significance after the Wall was built in 1961.
As the narrator describes in this homemade film from 1958, the arrival of a Westpaket - and discovering its contents - was an exciting moment for the whole family:
"It was a happy surprise, and very convenient for us, because with a monthly income of just 600 Ostmark, we had to live very frugally. Miss Lutte, a colleague from our school, had given our address to a class in Bad Essen [Lower Saxony] who were keen to help families in need. We were overjoyed when unpacking the box - it was just amazing. Everything had been so lovingly packed and was so colourful - we didn't have that. For Roland, the youngest, the unpacking could never go fast enough and he always helped out. Wolfgang always beamed over the custard powder and other things like that."
The vast quantities of coffee, tea and cocoa powder sent to East Germany made a significant contribution to the economy. The deliveries of these three items from the West were the equivalent of 18, 21 and even 164 per cent respectively of amounts being sold in GDR shops. The most desirable items, like Western clothing, sometimes ended up being exchanged for other items on the GDR's internal black market.
Packages had to be labelled "gift shipment, not for sale" and contain a list of the products inside. Not all items were allowed though. Money, printed media and things like cassettes which couldn't be visually inspected were banned, and often seized by the Stasi if discovered. West Germans would sometimes also receive an Ostpaket with goods from the East, such as GDR spirits and beer, local crafts and festive products like Stollen cake from Dresden at Christmas time.