Freital, Groß Leuthen, Wittenberg, Burg – these place names are tied to lasting memories for many people. But they aren’t memories of clean countryside air or sightseeing castles: These were the locations of “Jugendwerkhöfe” of the GDR’s youth welfare system, places intended to make those who were deemed in the language of the system to have “behavioural problems” more compliant with real socialist society. Sometimes simply refusing to become a member of the FDJ, the Free German Youth, was reason enough to be institutionalised.
Using disciplining methods imported from the Soviet Union, the spirit of collectivism was hammered into the young people. Physical and mental violence were daily occurrences, culminating in the feared “explosion method”.
Many of the people affected had already undergone an odyssey through other, equally humiliating kinds of institutions before they were sent to the Jugendwerkhof, spending nearly their entire childhood and youth in the system of forced education. Others were collected with no warning and sent on random trips of several days, with the ultimate destination kept secret until the end.
Under the disguising term of “work education”, inmates were trained as “unskilled labourers” for a pittance – which means that they were exploited as part of a system of forced labour. Among their products were components for self-assembly furniture for major Western corporations – which brought valuable foreign currency for the workers-and-farmers-state of the GDR and allowed the “free world” to enjoy their cosy living-atmosphere at a low cost.
Those who had enough courage defied the institution in small and larger ways – from secret parties which brought severe sanctions if discovered, all the way to escape attempts which were doomed to end up with a return to the institution sooner or later. And over all of this, one name hovered as a threat against repeated misdemeanour: Torgau. This was the location of the “Geschlossener Jugendwerkhof”, a closed institution, the final resort which no longer concealed the reality of what the entire system of homes was: a prison those who wouldn’t or couldn’t participate.
Regine Dura and Hans-Werner Kroesinger have worked together since the year 2000 and are among the eminent creators of contemporary documentary theatre. They integrate reports by contemporary witnesses and documents into concentrated and multi-layered texts. They have worked both internationally and at German-language theatres including Berlin’s HAU, Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin, Staatstheater Karlsruhe and Landestheater Linz. At Schauspiel Leipzig, they looked back on the history of brown coal mining in the region of Leipzig in their 2020 work “Brennende Erde