When GDR Citizens Go on Vacation
Kept short of foreign currency
Klaus-Peter from Halle returned to his home in the GDR from a vacation on the Bulgarian coast with a golden tan. But when customs officers at Berlin-Schönefeld airport wanted to check his suitcase, it was empty. The young man stood sheepishly in front of the officers in nothing but his shirt, pants, and felt slippers. But he had by no means been the victim of thieves in faraway lands. He had sold all his possessions in Bulgaria. Had needed to sell them because he had met a young girl down there and wanted to woo her. But because his vacation allowance was limited by law, clever Klaus-Peter from Halle supplemented his travel funds by trading goods.
At first glance this story might sound strange or even funny. But it demonstrates the problematic situation faced by GDR tourists in other socialist countries. After all many of Klaus-Peter’s compatriots do what he did. People from the GDR haul truckloads of objects for trade-in to their vacation spots in order to sell them to their Eastern brothers. Since the selection of goods available in the GDR is still better than it is in Bulgaria or the Soviet Union for example. Not all that popular in the socialist brother countries, on the other hand, is the East German “phony mark.” The governments there are more interested in foreign exchange earnings from the West.
Also when traveling to Poland, GDR citizens now have to exchange, at minimum, 200 zlotys worth of East marks per day. In accordance with regulation, all zlotys bought in excess of this minimum can be changed back into East marks without restriction. In Czechoslovakia the minimum is 40 crowns per day; in Bulgaria it is 109 marks for an eight-day stay, and 309 marks for a 22-day stay. Similar regulations apply for Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. GDR citizens have been prohibited from travelling to Yugoslavia for a while now, unless they are of retirement age. If travelers from the GDR possess Western currency, they may not take it out of the country under any circumstance; it is supposed to be spent in their own country. But those who are thus constrained are inventive. Some tourists have three weeks’ worth of foreign exchange entered into their “accordion” – an addendum to their passports – and then they stay only a short time. Western currency is smuggled in in tinfoil so as not to be discovered during the mandatory x-ray. Dollar bills are more popular than West German banknotes, which are more easily noticed during x-rays on account of the silver threads woven into them.
And it is not only money problems that can ruin a vacation for GDR citizens. When abroad they constantly feel discriminated against, overlooked as compared to Westerners. Someone put it aptly upon his return: “In friendly foreign countries, we’re the niggers.” This is because socialist tourism officials are quick to forget their ethics when it comes to improving their foreign exchange balance. People from the GDR are removed from their lodgings, sent to worse campgrounds, and treated like second-class citizens in restaurants.