Heidi Bohley

* 1950

  • "I've always said that what we did, the events and everything in general, was nothing special. The remarkable thing was that we did it in the GDR. Therefore, it is now somewhat hard to explain what we did there. We were swimming against the current and we basically - at some point we knew then how to call it - tried to live in truth."

  • "We lived in parallel societies. So, I think Germany was not only divided into East and West, but the East was even subdivided still further. Internally? Internally. And you very quickly developed a sensorium, whether you can trust someone. It made you recognize if the person sitting opposite to you was your brain child or not. And then these people came together, especially the young people. There were entire groups of friends, in Jena and in Weimar and Berlin, and they knew each other. [What kind of issues did you debate back then?] Well, that was in the period of the suppression of the Prague Spring. We debated the prospects of socialism and how it could go on, how it should develop, and uh, we compared, so to speak, the theory with the practice of socialism. We also aimed to develop a critical analysis of the events and the goal was actually to not just criticize and whine and to say 'everything sucks', but to name concrete things worthy of improvement, also with an eye a little bit to our own protection. So that we would not be perceives as to be against socialism, but to have concrete demands and ideas. And that is often being misunderstood by historians, when they look at the period documents and when they read there "well, we are for socialism", then they say 'Yes, you all were indeed for socialism'. But this sentence was always also a cover up - you did not want to be in the anti-government corner."

  • "It is also a personal decision what kind of friends you make. You can indeed make friends that are more courageous than yourself and you can then at least support them. So, this sentence 'one cannot do anything', I think that's nonsense. You can always do something. And even if one is really anxious, you can at least back up those who dare a bit more than yourself. Yes, and then came Bärbel and said we had to do something because if nothing had been done at that time, if there was no protest, then they could do whatever they liked next. And even though it was very obvious, it was clear that we could do nothing against this law, yet, still the lack of any protest would have encouraged them to take the next step. We then filed written submissions because you had in the GDR the formal right to complain to the highest places, if you disliked something. The law said that you had to get a response in a given period. Usually, people would complain because they got no flat or because the gutter was dripping ... and then it was most often passed down again by the State Council to the authority through which one had complained in the first place and they answered your complaint. Yeah, it was such a sham democracy. And so we wrote to the State, we protested against this military-service law, and we made it clear that we did not agree with the mustering of women and we sent the complaint. And I was really terribly scared, also because of my experience with a friend, subversive elements... so I thought, because when I'm writing a letter, I mean, we will not be able to change the law, it is basically equal to knocking at the door of the national security and saying 'hello, I'm back again'. But it was, indeed, it's actually always been like this in my whole life. I've always thought 'yeah, that's important and someone has to do it'. And although it would have been dearer to me if somebody else had done it, there was simply nobody else there, so you had to do it yourself. And so I wrote this complaint and underneath it - there's now this exhibition on this story with the women and the complaints, and there this sentence was quoted. At that time, I didn't think that it would ever appear publicly, but I was very satisfied with the sentence. Underneath it, I wrote 'Gentlemen, your army will have to do without me'."

  • "I’ll tell you a story. I once visited Václav Havel, it was in 1985. It was, uh ... well, how should I say it. I have to say that I was always kind of scared, I didn't know anybody, I mean I always knew my Czech relatives, but I didn't know anyone from the people around the Charter and I didn't dare to just walk in there by myself. And then in 1985, there was this kind of situation when I was somehow fed up with all of it and actually was thinking about applying for a permission to leave the country and go away. And then I got the address of Havel from a man who was close to the Chartists. I was still undecided at that point; it was somehow hard to make that decision. And in the summer, I went to Prague, visited my relatives and then I went there. Unfortunately, I don't remember anymore the name of that man. I went to visit him but he wasn’t at home. Only his wife was home. She spoke very bad English, no German at all, I didn't speak any Czech, so we had a hard time talking to each other. I would speak about Havel, how he was great, about his books and that he was very important for us. She asked me why I hadn't visited him, yet. I said that it was not possible but she was of a different opinion. She said that she'd speak to her husband who'd then call me. My in-laws had a phone at home and the next day, I got a call and the man on the other side said: 'Well, Frau Heidi, Václav awaits you tomorrow at three'. Oh, I almost fainted of excitement. Well, so I went there - he had just moved in this new apartment, in a house which at that time belonged to his family, in Prague on the Vltava River. And Mrs. Olga Havlová opened the door for me. It was a strange feeling since I only knew these people through their writing. And Havel's English was about the same level as mine, which was very bad, so there was not a big opportunity to have a really good conversation together. Furthermore, I felt that he was also very, he was very cautious and somehow he seemed shy in a way. I felt somehow as an intruder. I remember a man who was sitting on the sofa in Havel's apartment. He was just visiting him, Havel then told me that he was from a village and that they knew each other somehow from the prison. That man had been confined to his village for a long time since he was prohibited to leave it. That prohibition had just been cancelled and thus he went to Prague to visit Havel. He spoke no German, neither English, he would just sit there and look at me with his shining eyes, thinking: ‘Oh, from all over the world they come to Václav’. He had this loving look for Havel, he was a small peasant and he'd always look at Havel so lovingly and Havel looked a bit down in his shyness. Then we had a bit of a conversation before the bell rang and Anna Šabatová came into the apartment. She had to leave again soon because the children were home alone and she had to make the food and then I sat there and I thought: 'what the heck do you want to do in the west, you stupid thing? Those here are your people'. How would I feel if I came from the West to visit him? Well, that would be really embarrassing. And that was the end of my leave application."

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    Dresden, 24.06.2014

    duration: 01:45:45
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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The most important thing is empathy towards other people.

Heidi Bohley
Heidi Bohley
photo: Ladislav Lindner-Kylar

Heidi Bohley was born in 1950 in Görlitz. Her parents arrived in Görlitz three years before her birth, after they had been displaced from a village in Lower Silesia located only 50 kilometers away. As a child, she always felt the pain of her parents dreaming about the unattainable home that was so close but yet so distant at the same time. Therefore, Görlitz never really became her hometown. Her earliest childhood memories revolve around 17 June, 1953, when her father was arrested in the wake of the uprising. However, after a few days, he was released again. The family tried not to fit too much into the structures of the GDR and thus Bohley was not even a member of the Communist youth organization “The Pioneers”. Therefore, she was only able to pass the school-leaving exam with the intercession of a teacher. In 1969, she began her university studies of industrial design in Burg Giebichenstein. The atmosphere there was freer than in Görlitz and Bohley began to meet schoolmates for discussions and the exchange of ideas. An important issue at this time was the suppression of the Prague Spring the year before, the brutality of which had shocked many of the students, and the resulting questions about the future of socialism. The regular meetings were held in the so-called demolition houses in Halle that became a cheap home for many students living in Halle in that period. Bohley and her fellow students were always concerned to name specific problems and not just to lament and complain in general, as they also wanted to avoid being accused of being against socialism. The meetings abruptly ended in September 1973, when a friend was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. Two years earlier, in 1971, Bohley had met her first husband, the Czech Ladislav Vyroubal. In January 1973, their daughter Marie was born. However, in May of the same year, her husband died of an asthma attack. Bohley has ever since maintained a strong connection to Czechoslovakia and has even kept up the contact to her Czech parents in law. The seventies were a rather apolitical time for Bohley. The circle of Bohley’s friends grew smaller because of arrests and exiles. In 1982, Bohley’s political phase began: The GDR had adopted a new military service law which allowed for the drafting of women for military service. Prompted by her sister in law, Bärbel Bohley, (her second husband’s sister), Heidi Bohley filed a protest note as well. However, she received no response to her note, whereupon the disgruntled women formulated a joint protest petition and gathered 150 signatures. This initiative became the foundation for the GDR-wide women’s movement “Women for Peace”. The Protestant Church served as the public platform for the work of the movement. The Women for Peace were also in touch with the West-German peace movement, which served as a model. At the same time, however, the very same peace movement would also reject the Women for Peace. Bohley herself does not see her commitment of that time as something special, but rather as something she had to do because there was simply no one else who would do it. The women’s movement became a great source of support for Heidi Bohley in the eighties. Also important was the inspiration by Václav Havel, whom she was able to meet in Prague in 1985. As a consequence, she was forbidden to enter Czechoslovakia until 1990. After 1989, Bohley served for 10 years as a member of the city council in Halle representing the New Forum. In 1995, she founded the association “Zeitgeschichte - Association for Experienced History”, which strives to tell history from the perspective of the people and has published numerous publications. Today, Bohley lives in Dresden and works for the Zeitgeschichte Association.