Berlin hotel cashes in on cold war nostalgia


Berlin : Above the beds in a recently opened 33-room hotel near the Ostbahnhof (East Station) in Berlin hang framed pictures of the late Erich Honecker, East Germany's once powerful communist leader.

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Guests booking into the hotel are invited to "travel back with us to the former communist East Germany" and enjoy the "countless clever and amusing touches of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)!"

The six-storey "Ostel" is located at the corner of Wriezener Karree 5 in the city's eastern Friedrichshain district.

Most of its rooms are decked out with "GDR-made" radios, commodes, thick glass lamps, floral-designed wallpaper and dressing tables with folding mirrors – items all prized in socialist worker family homes in the 1960s and '70s, right down to plastic egg cups.

On tables and sideboards stand "Sandman" dolls, recalling the time when millions of East German children would sit in awe to watch the antics of their bearded TV bedtime hero, attired in his comic blue pointed hat, jacket and boots; magic bag of sand slung over his shoulder.

East Germany has come back into fashion – at least since the wickedly funny film "Goodbye, Lenin!" won Europe's best movie of the year award a few years back, tickling more than six million cinema-goers.

Although fewer and fewer people in the east wish to remember East Germany as it was in the post-war years, it is different for the new generation of youngsters who know of the GDR only from hearsay.

Some among them find it cool to go to a disco in a blue Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) blouse, spend the summer wearing T-shirts with red stars, or go to school attired in the GDR's army sporting association tracksuit.

Still today, the Trabant, the infamous, no-longer-in production, East German two-stroke "stinker" car, enjoys cult status in the east.

The Ostel represents one in a flood of lodging houses, pensions and hostels, all of which have sprouted in Berlin in the past decade, many of them in the city's eastern districts. They offer alternative style accommodation in Berlin at prices way below those of the city's swanky hotels.

"Don't worry! So far no one's been arrested at the border crossing (check in)," blares the Ostel's internet site, when saying tourists can choose from various types of rooms with different themes at varying prices: from the "holiday camp" room to the pre-fabricated apartment of the "Stasi" (East German Secret Service) suite.

Guido Sand, 33, and Daniel Helbig, 35, the proprietors of the Ostel, say they got the idea of giving the premises an authentic GDR "feel" after visiting a "pioneer camp" in Brandenburg, the eastern state surrounding Berlin.

"That brought back a flood of memories," say the two men, triggering their interest in designing the Ostel – "East German style."

Helbig and Sand hunted for original GDR furniture, curtains and radios at city flea markets when gearing up for the opening of their hostel on May 1 – the traditional "Tag der Arbeiterklasse" (GDR May Day).

The Berlin Wall may have been dismantled in 1989-90 when communism was expiring in Eastern Europe and Berliners were celebrating their city's reunification, but at the Ostel it seems like nothing has changed.

Apart from Honecker photos, you find a framed portrait of Horst Sindermann, a once prominent GDR Politburo member and close "Honni" aide, peering benevolently at guests from a wall in the lobby entrance.

What makes the GDR so desirable? The answer: the fact that it no longer exists, joke German comedians, who like to add, "So grey as the GDR was so colourful are the memories."

The phenomenon of "Ostalgie" – nostalgia for the former (communist) East Germany, still grips some eastern regions of the country.

In the 1980s Sand and Helbig were variety artists in the east. Now Helbig is a film cutter by profession, and Sand a doctor. "I am no Ostalgiker," states Helbig, insisting that neither seeks to justify the role of the GDR, or glorify its communist past.

"The Ostel is just a few minutes away from the centre of Berlin and from bars, restaurants, clubs and shops," claim the proprietors, adding "Our own 'Konsum' store offers you a selection of GDR products."

Single rooms at the Ostel cost 38 euros (52 dollars), and double rooms between 51 and 59 euros.

Hanns Peter Nerger, Berlin's Tourist Office chief, talks of Berlin being a "very young city, with 40 per cent of its visitors under 35 years of age." "With more than 80 trendy, scenic lodging places across the city catering for the young, we rarely face a problem finding guests accommodation," he says.