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One Family's Berlin

The Kriegs describe the year that their daughter was addicted as the lowest point of their married life.

When Heinz and Gisela Krieg of Berlin discovered that one of their five children was a drug addict, it was like living through a natural disaster, they say. When the addict came off drugs, they looked around to see what they could do to help other parents still struggling through the same experience. With others, they pioneered a network of parents' support groups which now stretches all over West Germany.

The Kriegs describe the year that their daughter was addicted as the lowest point of their married life. 'She was the easiest of our children when she was a child - but when she got to know people who were taking drugs, she did what she thought was fashionable.'

Their family crisis coincided with the late Sixties student revolt in Berlin. Heinz Krieg was teaching art at the Paulsenschule, one of three schools in Berlin targeted by the activists, for whose views, if not methods, he had some sympathy. The strain was intense and put one colleague in hospital. Today - to his amusement - one of the ringleaders of the trouble in the school lives next door to him in bourgeois case.

'In those days the parents of addicts felt isolated,' says Mrs Krieg. 'The professionals tended to feel addiction was the parents' fault.' The Kriegs heard of a couple in Bonn who were setting up a parents' support group and, with the help of a doctor, got in touch with parents in Berlin who wanted to do the same thing.

As the other parents were shy about giving their names, it was the Kriegs' phone number which went out on press and TV and was pasted up in compartments on the Berlin underground. 'For years the soup burnt while I was on the telephone talking to parents,' says Mrs Krieg. Her favourite incident was the caller who said, 'I've written down your number, can you tell me why?'

The Elternkreise (parents' groups) concentrate on the parents, not the drug-user. They help parents to admit that they have an addicted child - an important step, she says and to get information about addiction and therapy, as well as providing a chance to compare notes. Asked on TV what effect the group had had on his mother, one ex-addict replied, 'She doesn't believe my lies any more.'

The groups stress the need for family life to have a focus beyond the addict's problems. What the addict has to do, only he can do,' says Mrs Krieg. Meanwhile if parents keep their horizons open, they will be able to be more relaxed and clear-sighted about the path towards cure - and to accept that the person who emerges from therapy may be different from what they imagine.

The network has just produced a booklet on prevention - on the grounds that although parents can do little about the fact that drugs are available, they can nurture the attitudes which will help their children to say 'No'. It suggests that parents take a hard look at their own attitudes to consumption, success and conflict. For instance, do they use medicines or alcohol as a means of escape from life's difficulties?

The Kriegs' experience gave them a deeper unity in their marriage, they say. 'We have been spared the self-righteousness of being "successful" parents.' They had to face up to things which had gone deeply wrong in their family life. As a result they have found that people feel able to talk to them about their problems.

Now the Elternkreise are established, with the wife of the Federal President as their patron. Gisela Krieg and two of her colleagues have been awarded Germany's Order of Merit. And so, she reckons, it is time to move on. 'I prefer the pioneering phase.'

The Kriegs' story runs parallel to the story of their island city, some 100 miles across East Germany from the West German mainland. Together Berlin's two halves are larger than the entire industrial area of the Ruhr. The Wall runs between them like the dead end in a maze, its western face daubed with Berliner wit, obscenities and some real art, its eastern face grey and clinical. Crosses commemorate those who have died trying to escape. The Wall cuts off West Berliners from the buildings and streets which were once the city's glory and have now been restored, after decades of neglect, in honour of Berlin's 750th anniversary last year.

Heinz grew up on the banks of the Spree in the Twenties, when Berlin was Europe's largest industrial centre. He sketched ships on their way to Berlin's thriving port, learned to paint on holidays with his artist uncle and staged puppet plays with his sister on wet Sundays.

He was 11 when Hitler came to power. Less than a third of Berlin's population had voted for the National Socialists. As Krieg stands today in the courtyard of the restored palace of Charlottenburg, he ruefully remembers taking part in a Hitler Youth rally there. After the war he returned to the city to find a fifth of its buildings in ruins. 'This is no time to leave Berlin,' he decided.

The Kriegs were married in December 1948 during the Soviet blockade of Berlin. Along with everyone else in the city, they depended on the supplies flown in by the Allies in the largest airlift in history. 'When the skies were quiet, we began to worry,' they say. Gisela used to get up at night to do the ironing during their two-hour ration of power.

They have lived in the same house, five minutes' walk from his school, for 34 years and brought up five children and a foster daughter on its four two-room-deep floors. Their eldest son, Ivo, was born as the two German nations were established. Their youngest, Lukas, now paints graffiti on the Wall.

Lukas left home at Christmas to train as a teacher for disturbed children. Ivo is an engineer, who has worked in several parts of the world, inspired by Schumacher's 'small is beautiful' intermediate technology. Hanno has qualified as a cabinet maker and is now concentrating on photography. The two daughters run a puppet theatre in Hamburg. With a courage characteristic of their family, their latest production tackles the thorny issue of child abuse.

There are 20 years between Ivo and Lukas. What has this wealth of experience taught the Kriegs about parenthood? 'There are some essentials on which you have to fight,' says Mrs Krieg. 'But if you're wise, there aren't too many of them. We've learnt that some things, like fashion, are just a matter of time. And that the things other people get upset about are usually the ones that aren't really important.'

She laughs about the night she crept into a teenage son's room and affectionately stroked his head - only to discover that it had been shaved completely bald. '"Steady on, old girl," I said to myself. "Remember how worried you used to get when it was too long!"'

A key to their family life has been their readiness to talk with their children - particularly about the past. They believe that one root of the Baader Meinhof terrorism of the Seventies was the failure of the older generation to be frank with their families about what happened during the war.

'It's not easy,' says Mrs Krieg. 'Young people are judging. Then they complain that older people won't talk.' She remembers as a child rushing home after a lesson on the injustices of the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I and demanding of her mother, 'How could you have signed that treaty?'

She traces some of the silence to the 'denazification' inquests after the war, when people had to reveal their past affiliations. One of her relatives, for example, had worked full-time for the Hitler Youth and kept quiet about her past because she had a husband in prison in England and a small baby. 'That's when the whole dishonesty began.'

Heinz was 18 when the war started. In the summer of 1942 he was sent to Russia and was wounded at the siege of Stalingrad. His left arm was all but destroyed. He spent months in hospital in Kiev, fighting for his life, and was then transferred to Prague, where he began his studies in fine arts. 'No Czechs were allowed to study there, only Germans,' he says. He got an extra food ration because of his health, his sister Hannelore had come to look after him and he was able to join a students' group which staged plays for the wounded. 'I had no conscience about the fact that my flat had belonged to Jewish people whom the Nazis had probably put into concentration camps.'

Then, in the winter of 1944, as the Russians advanced, refugees began to pour into Prague. Krieg volunteered to run a refugee camp and made such a success of it that he was asked to reorganize all the refugee camps in the area.

In May 1945, the Czechs rose against the Germans. Heinz and Hannelore were caught in the street fighting, but miraculously survived and were able to leave Prague by convoy. They were taken prisoner by the Americans. Back in Prague, Czechs were taking a terrible revenge on the Germans.

When they were released, they went to relations in the Harz Mountains. Krieg earned his living by doing pastel portraits of children. He was bitterly disillusioned about the outcome of the war - and fiercely opposed the efforts of political parties to convert the citizenry to democracy. 'I'd been enthusiastic about an ideology once and I felt my idealism had been misused.'

One day he got talking to one of his clients, who had also been an officer. 'I poured out all my bitterness. Suddenly the man put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a New Testament. "If I hadn't had this little book I would be as bitter as you," he said. He turned out to be a Church minister. He didn't try to convince me, but he invited me to come to a service that Sunday and I went.'

Over Whitsun 1946, this new friend invited Krieg to a meeting near Hannover, arranged by the Oxford Group (Moral Re-Armament), which had gone underground during the Nazi time. It took place in a school hall, with straw on the floor and soup cooking over an open fire in the yard. Krieg made friends with a young lawyer who encouraged him to examine his life against moral absolutes of honesty, purity, love and unselfishness.

'All that came to my mind then family, sister, girls, some events in the war - made me very ashamed,' says Krieg. He found the courage to tell everything to this friend, to give his life to God and to pray for forgiveness and a new beginning.

He went home with a list of stolen property to return and relationships to put right including an apology to his sister whom, he says, he had treated like a servant. Hannelore was ill at the time and accepted his apology with scepticism. 'If you want to lead a new life, you'll have prove it to me.' Krieg nursed her for a fortnight. Later she told him that she'd been better after a few days, but had been enjoying herself too much to give the game away.

It was Hannelore who introduced Heinz to Gisela, 18 months later. By then he was back in Berlin studying at the Academy of Art. The two young women were acting in a theatre company based in Braunschweig, in the part of Germany then controlled by the British.

Their first meeting had its surrealistic side. After a difficult journey from Berlin, Krieg arrived at Braunschweig's ruined station late on Christmas Eve, 1947. Instead of the rapturous reception he had expected, he found his sister in tears, accompanied by a strange young man. 'We walked home along the icy streets to a dark house, up the stairs, through a room full of sleeping refugees, into a room where there was coffee and cake - and Gisela.' It transpired that the young man's previous girlfriend, jealous of Hannelore, had just taken an overdose and was in hospital fighting for her life. 'As Hannelore and the young man were sitting on the bed holding hands, the only option left was to sit at the table and talk to Gisela.' They fell in love.

Three days later he travelled on to spend New Year with his parents, only to be summoned back by a telegram from Hannelore. Krieg thought the girl must have died, so he set out at once, promising his parents he would return if all was well. This time his reception was ecstatic: 'Now we can celebrate the last day of the year together!' The would-be suicide had survived.

They adjourned to a restaurant, where Heinz explained that he had made a promise to his parents. He suggested that they should all be quiet and ask God whether he should go or stay. 'I had never met a person who didn't simply do what he wanted,' says Gisela. 'I was a complete heathen. But I thought that as far as I knew his God, he would probably want him to go back.' So Heinz set off, armed with ingredients for New Year's Eve buns provided by Gisela. Meanwhile she reduced her landlord to fits of laughter by asking if she could borrow a Bible. A year later, they were married.

In the summer of 1949, Heinz was one of 1,300 Germans to visit the Moral Re-Armament centre at Caux, Switzerland. There he had a decisive encounter. One of the speakers he heard was a young Czech of Jewish origin who had served in the US army and lost a leg. 'He asked all the Germans in the meeting to stand up and then he apologized for his hatred. It was too much for me. For the first time I saw that it was not only the Germans who had suffered in Prague at the end of the war. I wanted to run away.' Instead the two men met and talked. 'He listened to everything I said about the revenge the Czechs had taken on the Germans. We both got rid of our hatred.'

'Our generation has been part of the evil and we must try to make restitution,' Krieg says today. He describes an evening with Jewish friends in Berlin. 'They assumed we had been anti-fascist. I felt I had to tell them the truth - it was very difficult. They were absolutely silent when I said how sorry I was for all the suffering they had gone through because of the indifference and blindness of people like me. I had no idea how they would react. Then one of them said, "This lays the basis for our friendship." '

He is grateful for the healing of relationships within Western Europe since the last war. The next step, he says, is to build bridges with the countries and peoples of the East. The Kriegs visited Kracow two years ago. Recently they offered their home to young people from Poland, West Germany and France for a weekend's dialogue. The Poles wrote in the visitors book, 'Very fruitful for our reflection on European reconciliation... Before problems can be resolved on the political level, personal contacts must prepare the way.'

They have friends too in East Germany and often make the trip to see them, armed with things which are unavailable in the East. They have few illusions about the difficulties their neighbours face, nor about the fact that the people of the two Germanys, after 40 years' separation, have evolved in different directions. 'Those who come out often can't cope with freedom,' says Gisela. 'They're used to a society where there is no unemployment and almost everything is planned for them.'

They have taken up the themes of repentance and reconciliation in two plays-Zum Beispiel, Deutschland (Take Germany, for instance) and Der Zug (The Train). The first was inspired by a conversation in 1976 with a young German who told them that, because of the past, he would rather be called a European than a German. They decided to write a play which would help young Germans confront their national identity. It satirized the familiar German stereotypes - from the obsessive housewife to the militarist -- and dramatized incidents from history where the flip-side of these characteristics triumphed.

In the programme they wrote, 'This is our attempt to come to terms with what others think about us, with what we think about ourselves and with what we want. We invite you to do the same.' After all, Germany is not the only nation with skeletons in its historical cupboard. The challenge to the audience was to create the examples in the present of which future generations could be proud.

The idea for the play was Heinz's the initial work of writing, Gisela's. She got up in the small hours to work while the family was still asleep and before the phone started ringing with enquiries from addicts' parents. They drew together a cast of young amateurs from all over Germany and presented the play in Switzerland, France and Germany in 1977 and 1978.

Their second play, Der Zug, takes the issue a step further - from coming to terms with oneself to reconciliation with others. This time Heinz, by now retired, did the writing in tandem with Hannelore. The action takes place on a train travelling from Paris to Istanbul, carrying passengers from all over Europe. A breakdown gives them a chance to reflect on their lives.

A key moment comes when the German guard tells a Russian passenger about wartime experiences in Russia of which he is deeply ashamed. Krieg admits he was describing events in his own life. 'To put it on paper was painful - I had to walk out of rehearsals one day - but it was deliverance.'

Others in the cast also found the experience redemptive. A retired British teacher who took part found that the play touched a nerve of unhealed suffering in him. 'For the first time in my life I came into a deep personal experience of Jesus Christ,' he says.

The Kriegs' latest project focuses on the deprived inner city area of Kreuzberg. Over a quarter of its inhabitants are 'New-Berliners' from Turkey or the Mediterranean. Unemployment is high. Many of its houses - originally tenements built around factories - have been occupied by squatters, among them the anarchist 'autonomous groups' who broke into violence on May 1, 1987. The police were worried enough by the situation to seal off the area completely when Reagan visited Berlin in June 1987 - not a difficult job, as this part of Kreuzberg is bounded on three sides by the Wall and the river.

The Kriegs decided to get to know people in the area and began to look for a church, through which they could become part of the community. Eventually Heinz found the Thomaskirche, a small congregation meeting in a grey building in the shadow of its vast church, disused because of crumbling asbestos and declining numbers. He was impressed by the work being done there for the unemployed and above all by the welcome he received.

The Kriegs' parish church in Steglitz boasts a mural painted by the children of the congregation under Heinz's direction. He has now embarked on a similar enterprise in Kreuzberg. Traditionally, many German churches hang a cloth over the altar during Lent - and nowadays this cloth comes from a different part of the world each year. Colombia and Ethiopia have been recent sources. 'Why not Kreuzberg?' Krieg wondered - and is now hard at work collecting ideas and drafting designs.

This Christmas the Kriegs celebrate their Ruby Wedding. Their marriage, Heinz quips, is a union of order and chaos - she getting things out and he putting them away. In those first days of romance in Braunschweig, Hannelore took him aside and opened one of Gisela's drawers, to reveal a havoc repugnant to his tidy spirit. 'Do you still love her?' she asked.

A crisis came when he retired, seven years ago. He had been running the school's art and drama departments and had become something of an institution. For 30 years, in rotation with another art teacher, he had produced a cartoon for each member of staff on their birthdays. Now, says Gisela, he started reorganizing the household. 'I told him, "I'm having to replace the five classes that you used to boss around." But in the end I adapted. He is the better organizer - and he doesn't leave all the work to me.'

The meeting of the two extremes has left them with a home where people come before housework and the walls appear to be made of rubber - but where wash-ups are always done before they go to bed. Their kitchen table, surrounded by photos of their friends, could tell countless stories of people who have come to them for help and found it. We are confronted with so many problems we can't solve,' says Heinz. 'What we can do is help a few people to find a new direction.'

Article language

English

Article type
Feature type
Article year
1988