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This story is part of our #D18 series. You can find other stories from the series here.


Once again, we're in the car, this time on the way back. Sigmund Jähn picked me up from the Strausberg train station when I arrived, and now he's driving me back so I can return to Berlin – because that's just what you do, as he says. And this after sitting and talking with me for two hours in his living room.

No, there were no pictures of him as a cosmonaut hanging on the wall. It was the completely normal living room of an elderly couple – with overstuffed armchairs and plenty of dark wood. Every now and then, the 81-year-old would stand up and walk over to the kitchen to make coffee. I would lean against the doorframe and watch as he somewhat laboriously placed the cups and saucers next to the coffee maker, as he dipped his finger into the salt tin to check if it was sugar. I watched as he spooned sugar into the small cups before apologizing for not having any cake.

While in the kitchen, Jähn told me about the green dumplings he had heated up for his lunch, and it reminded me of the green dumplings my mother used to make for Christmas. The ones from my mother were from Thuringia while his were the kind made in neighboring Vogtland. There is a difference, but he couldn't tell me just then what it was. We both laughed, and since we were talking about it, I fell into my Saxon dialect and told him that I used to go to holiday camp in Vogtland when I was a child and that we would always hike to his birthplace, the village of Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz, and go to the Sigmund Jähn museum there. He then launched into a Vogtland hiking song. I couldn't understand the lyrics – after all, it's basically impossible to understand the lyrics of such songs – but the melody reminded me of times past. A kind of faraway, indistinct past. A past that you can feel, but you can't really see.

Sigmund Jähn, taken in August 1978 after his flight with a Soyuz 31 spacecraft © DPA

When he laughed, Jähn would rock gently back and forth and I could see how agile and athletic this man still is. Exactly 40 years ago, on Aug. 26, 1978, he was launched into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. He was the first, and the last, East German to fly into space, but he was also the first German, period. Together with the Soviet commander Valery Bykovsky, he orbited the Earth 125 times in seven days, 20 hours and 49 minutes. It is said that national boundaries are invisible from up there.

The former cosmonaut now has a slight hunch when he walks, but when he can, he still goes for a short swim each morning in the lake that borders his property. He used to do so in winter too. On the way to the car after our conversation, he asked me if I wanted to see the lake. In response, I asked him if he wanted to go to the lake. No, he responded, but if you want, we'll go.

But I didn't want to take up any more of his time. Jähn has so many letters on his desk that still haven't been answered. Grandparents who want an autograph for their grandchildren, for example, even though, as Jähn suspects, they aren't interested in him at all. But he wants to answer all of them. Because that's just what you do, as he says again. Because people will be happy to get a letter from him, even if some of them have already been waiting two years for a response. On the way back to the train station, we talk once again about the conference at a high school in western Berlin where I first met him a few weeks ago.

It was a conference organized in his honor to mark the approaching 40th anniversary of his spaceflight. Jähn took the commuter train to the event, though "conference" isn't really the right word for it. It was more like a meet-up of a group of retired – or, more accurately, discarded – East German scientists. The old men were all wearing beige suits and light-colored shoes – the Honecker look, as one of them murmured to me as I entered, an obviously self-effacing reference to Erich Honecker, the longtime leader of communist East Germany. And the meeting itself also didn't seem to have anything to do with science. It was more of a reunion. The principal of the Sigmund Jähn Elementary School in Fürstenwalde, a town some 60 kilometers east of Berlin, was also there. She had brought along a teddy bear in a cosmonaut suit, which she pushed into Jähn's arms because she wanted a picture of them together. She then invited him to come to her school, saying he really should drop by. She repeated the invitation several times.

In the car back to the Strausberg train station, I ask him if he has taken her up on the offer, adding that the invitation had sounded so nice. No, he responds. He already watched once in his life as signs bearing his name were taken down overnight, he says. Now, at the end of his life, he has no interest in watching as they are put back up. He then looks over at me from the driver's seat, following his thoughts. He doesn't sound like he says such things very often.

When Countries Cease to Exist, Their Heroes Disappear First

Sigmund Jähn with East German journalists in 1978 (from Gerhard Kowalski's Archive) © Lena Mucha für ZEIT ONLINE

There is a scene toward the end of the film "Good Bye Lenin!" in which the huge Lenin statue flies through the air dangling from a helicopter as it is taken off somewhere. Probably to the great trash heap of history. That's apparently what it feels like for Sigmund Jähn as well. When countries cease to exist, it is often their heroes that disappear first. The good ones and the bad ones. And when East Germany began to dissolve in the fall of 1989, he had to go as well. Jähn was 52 years old at the time.

All Former East Germans Know Who Sigmund Jähn Is

Even today, many in western Germany aren't familiar with the first German to have traveled into space. West Germans are important for East Germans, but the reverse isn't necessarily true. "Sigmund Jähn disappeared along with the marginalized history of East Germany," says sociologist Raj Kollmorgen. Many in the West remember Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space. Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, is even more famous. Still, every former East German citizen knows who Sigmund Jähn is. Really every one of them.

There was no greater hero in the walled-in country, in part because he managed to do something that no West German had done before him. "The First German in Space a Citizen of the GDR," was the headline on Aug. 27, 1978, in a special edition of the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland. It was printed in large, red letters – even though the word "German" was generally frowned upon. In East German newspapers, West Germany only ever appeared as an abbreviation and Germans were referred to either as BRD citizens or GDR citizens. But on the day after Jähn's launch, it didn't matter; the socialist country wanted to write history. It was probably the greatest history the country ever had.

The front page of Neues Deutschland on the day after Sigmund Jähn flew into space © Lena Mucha für ZEIT ONLINE

For two years, Commander Bykovsky and Jähn had prepared for their journey in countless tests undertaken at Star City near Moscow. One of the greatest challenges was the test in the centrifuge, which simulated launch acceleration. During launch, a Soyuz rocket would accelerate from 0 to 28,000 kilometers per hour in just under 10 minutes, meaning the human body would have to withstand eight times its own weight. In a centrifuge, where a test subject in a compartment is fastened into a chair and spun around at high speeds, a g-force of up to 25 can be simulated. Under such pressure, simply keeping your eyes open and breathing normally requires almost superhuman strength. Or, to put it differently, it requires the kind of strength only very few people possess.

A pilot in East Germany's National People's Army (NVA) who had studied at the Military Air Academy in Moscow, Jähn possessed that strength. He also had sufficient flight experience and spoke good Russian. That's why the 41-year-old was allowed to become a cosmonaut – and also because he believed in socialism and had joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), East Germany's ruling party, early on. Even long after East Germany ceased to exist, long after people stopped saying such things, Jähn would say that he owed a lot to the country. "I could never have become a cosmonaut in the West," he believes. "My parents were simple people." Jähn's father had worked in a sawmill and his mother was a housewife.

Gerhard Kowalski was the one who dug the special edition of Neues Deutschland out of a box for me. The newspaper is huge; it feels like you're unfolding a tablecloth when you open it. Kowalski's basement is full of boxes and file folders with information about space travel under communism. Kowalski refers to himself as a space travel journalist and writes a blog – and he would love to give all his stuff to a place that would archive it, but nobody wants it. We are sitting on his balcony in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood, not far from Majakowskiring, an oval-shaped road named after the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. More to the point, however, it is where much of the East German leadership lived in the 1950s, including Lotte and Walter Ulbricht, Wilhelm Pieck and Johannes R. Becher. Even today, it is something of an exclusive place to live, with rents having skyrocketed in recent years. Now 76 years old, Kowalski once worked for the East German news agency (ADN) and early in his career, he was one of the first to learn that the Soviets planned to send an East German citizen into space, a privilege the Poles and Czechs had already enjoyed. That's how it was done back then among socialist partners, not least for financial reasons.

Lyrical Prose about Baikonur

Kowalski wasn't allowed to tell anybody about the decision. For weeks, he prepared meticulously for the event, collecting as much information as he could about Sigmund Jähn – information that almost certainly found its way into the hands of the Stasi, East Germany's notorious state security apparatus. He even wrote a feature about the launch, even though he had to submit it weeks in advance, long before he had had a chance to visit Baikonur. He tried to imagine how it was, and then described the scene in the lyrical tones that Karl May once used to depict the Rocky Mountains – another writer who hadn't traveled to the subject of his prose. "The evening sun bathes the cosmodrome in soft light. A pleasant breeze, carrying the fragrance of the steppe, gently nudges the flags of the USSR and the GDR. Surrounded by the service platforms and cable towers, the rocket stretches 50 meters into the cloudless, Kazakh heavens. Casting a long shadow, the Soyuz 31 awaits its crew." That, at least, is what it said on Page 2 of Neues Deutschland on the morning after Jähn's launch.

Gerhard Kowalski near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 1978 © Lena Mucha für ZEIT ONLINE

Kowalski was allowed to travel to Baikonur for the launch – and for the landing on Sept. 3, 1978. A heavy smoker, Valery Bykovsky was welcomed back to Earth with an already-lit cigarette. Sigmund Jähn, meanwhile, was immediately shown a picture of his grandson, who had been born shortly before launch. Jähn is said to have had tears in his eyes. But Kowalski, of course, wasn't allowed to write about all that. Neither a smoker nor a grandpa made for the kind of heroic headlines that were called for at the time. The crushing of the Prague Spring a decade before had brutally demolished all hopes of improvements being made to the socialism practiced in the Soviet bloc. After that event, no subsequent generation would ever believe that the GDR represented the better German nation. Jähn's spaceflight came right in the middle of a series of dark years: Just two years prior, in 1976, the popular and rebellious East German folk singer Wolf Biermann had been stripped of his East German citizenship and thrown out of the country. People were starved for good news, something that would help lift their spirits.

Germany Should Learn Who Jähn Is

Today, in 2018, Kowalski has got it into his head that the reunified country should also finally recognize who Sigmund Jähn was. Perhaps because eastern Germany is once again in the middle of what some might view as dark years, making it more important than ever since reunification to remember the good heroes from long ago. Whatever the case, Kowalski wants all Germans to know about Jähn's spaceflight. But can someone like him actually promote such a thing? A former journalist who was loyal to the system? And does someone like Jähn actually have a right to be remembered today?

Why Doesn't the Chancellor Honor Him?

Gerhard Kowalski © Lena Mucha für ZEIT ONLINE

After the Berlin Wall came down, Kowalski got a job with the German news agency ddp, one of the few former ADN journalists to be taken on. He even worked in the newswire's Munich office, where for years he only worked the night shift because he couldn't stand his West German bosses. Kowalski says of himself that he was difficult to work with right up until retirement, but in our interview, he is amiable, even charming. During his career as a journalist, he worked as a correspondent in Algiers, Warsaw, Moscow and Budapest. Yet even though he would never admit it, his fight for Jähn's legacy is also, in a way, a fight for his own.

No Letter of Congratulations from the Chancellor

Back in the spring, Kowalski wrote a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "When the first German in outer space, Sigmund Jähn, turned 80 last year, I waited in vain for message of congratulations or even a greeting for him from the government. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of his spaceflight. Thus far, it looks as though he will once again be forgotten," he wrote Merkel in a rather severe tone. "I sincerely hope that the oversight of this man's historical achievement is not due to the fact that he is from the GDR," he continued. "I remain respectfully yours, Gerhard Kowalski." It's true, he says, that he was long an admirer of Angela Merkel.

An employee of the Chancellery, from the department for issues pertaining to the former East Germany, answered his letter a few days later. "I would like to assure you that the origins of Mr. Sigmund Jähn in the GDR are not the criteria for the decision to refrain from sending him a letter of congratulations from the chancellor last year. I wish you all the best for your future." A nice letter, to be sure, but it does leave one wondering what the real reason was. Kowalski also shrugs his shoulders.

Not Worthy

He then turned to the Defense Ministry. On Oct. 2, 1990, Sigmund Jähn was relieved of his duties as a major general in the NVA, the fifth-highest rank that existed in East Germany, thus making German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen nominally responsible for his case. But the "Traditional Regulations" of the German military, the Bundeswehr, were updated this spring to include the NVA. It reads: "The NVA as an institution, including its associations and entities, in no way represents the tradition of the Bundeswehr. The NVA saw itself as the primary bearer of arms for a socialist dictatorship." The Traditional Regulations may not see the NVA as being on the same historical plane as the Wehrmacht, as the military was known under the Nazis, but still, today's Bundeswehr doesn't want to be connected to either of them.

But the Traditional Regulations also note that exceptions can be allowed for both former Wehrmacht soldiers and for ex-NVA soldiers following careful review. Those who resisted the Nazis or the communist regime, or those who performed exceptional services on behalf of German unity, can still be honored. Couldn't one also imagine an exception for Jähn, whose services as a cosmonaut are indisputable? Or was he too much a part of the system?

A Question of Respect

Gerhard Kowalski also received a quick reply from the Defense Ministry. This time, it wasn't just a few lines, but a two-page letter containing a polite yet rather bureaucratic explanation of what was already stated in the Traditional Regulations. With the following addition: "In the case of the former NVA major general, Dr. Sigmund Jähn, the question of whether he should be bestowed with a special honor would only arise if he were to be nominated by members of the Bundeswehr at a specific location. ... In that event, a historical review would be undertaken according to scholarly criteria to determine whether that person is worthy of a special honor in the sense of the Bundeswehr's understanding of tradition. ... I thank you for your interest in the Bundeswehr and wish you all the best." Although it didn't really get him anywhere, Kowalski was satisfied with the answer. It at least gave the impression that his query had been given the attention it deserved. Kowalski isn't the kind of man to tilt at windmills. He just wants respect.

As for Sigmund Jähn, the whole show that Kowalski is staging on his behalf has been a bit of a bother. It would be wrong to see him as a bitter old man. On the contrary, Jähn frequently warned me against exaggeration in my article, not wanting to be overrun with visitors on the anniversary of his spaceflight. "When people leave me alone, then I can enjoy my peace," he says with a grin.

A GDR Hero

It's also possible he's trying to protect himself from disappointment. When the 20th anniversary of his flight was approaching back in 1998, he canceled almost all interviews. Initially, he didn't want to meet with me either. I had to write him a second, extensive email, to which he replied: Sure, you can come over, but I have no idea what we are going to talk about. It sounded rather standoffish.

After his spaceflight in 1978, Jähn was officially awarded the title "Hero of the GDR." He was paraded around like a trophy at public events and also dispatched to appear at companies where he was told to interact with people wherever he went. And he went along with everything because that's just what you did. Wherever possible, he says, he tried to avoid the canned speeches that had been written for him, all the socialist catchphrases. "That's also not how I was brought up. I always tried to talk normally to normal people."

"I Don't Think About It So Much Anymore"

Sigmund Jähn with ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst © Jörg Carstensen/dpa

Sigmund Jähn has led a mostly private life since German reunification. And he has repeatedly met with fellow space travelers, who have extended him a helping hand and stood up for him. People like Alexander Gerst, the astronaut who is currently the first German and just the second Western European to lead an International Space Station mission. Gerst calls Jähn his friend. When he made his first spaceflight in 2014, Gerst brought along a badge he had found somewhere in a dusty souvenir shop in Siberia featuring Valery Bykovsky and Sigmund Jähn. It was a kind of talisman that he placed in one of the space station's windows and took a photo of it, later sending the image to the older cosmonaut. At Christmas, he wrote to Jähn: "It was a great honor and joy to fly into space on your shoulders! Your friend Alex." Gerst deliberately appears to be drawing a line connecting Jähn's legacy with his own, a tradition that isn't officially recognized, making the gesture all the more significant. Jähn proudly shows me the photo from Gerst and his note. I can see how happy the younger man's gestures make him. Gerst, who was born in the Franconia region of Bavaria, was two years old when Jähn took his historic flight. He was 13 when the Berlin Wall fell.

One shouldn't, of course, forget Ulf Merbold. The first West German to fly into outer space was also from the Vogtland region, having been born in Greiz, located just 40 kilometers from Jähn's hometown of Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz. In 1960, Merbold emigrated from the GDR to West Germany at the age of 19 after he had been denied permission to pursue university studies. After the Wall fell, he campaigned for Jähn to be given a consultant contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Jähn went on to work in Russia for almost 15 years where he, as he told me several times, earned just as much as his counterparts in West Germany.   

The two men's backgrounds could hardly be any different: Merbold, who fled the GDR, and Jähn, an icon of socialism. Merbold sums it up like this: "Sigmund would say that the GDR made mistakes, but that it was good at its core. I, on the other hand, would say that although not everything was bad, the GDR was in its essence an unjust state." But by a twist of fate, these two men spent the evening of the fall of the Berlin Wall together in a hotel room in Saudi Arabia, where they were attending a conference. Again, Merbold's description of the event is trenchant: "We both had tears in our eyes that night – probably for different reasons." The fact that someone like him would help Jähn find a new job, a second life, in reunified Germany is one of those anecdotes that underscores how difficult it can be to typecast normal life into narrow ideological templates. Because when in doubt, life outwits ideology.

When I ask him about his childhood at the table in his living room, Jähn repeatedly closes his eyes. I can almost see him entering the hallway of his parents' apartment, trying to hear what his father said to him as a child. At such moments, he's no longer really there, having sunk deep into the 1940s.

A Childhood Full of Nazis

One of the earliest childhood memories he shares is when his father brought him along to the sawmill where he worked when he was six years old, it must have been 1943. Soviet prisoners of war were housed in a barrack there, and as he describes it, they had to carry the same boards as his father. They sometimes whittled toys for the child and on one occasion, when he entered the barrack around lunchtime, he saw a piece of sugar lying on the table and wanted to grab it and stick it into his mouth. His father saw him and gave him a lecture: Stop it, leave it there, the poor guys have nothing.

Another memory is that of how his first teacher – a man Jähn describes as having been a real Nazi, a true sadist – beat the boy so badly, apparently because of his sloppy handwriting, that he got a bloody nose. What a relief it was for him when the first new teachers arrived at school after the war. He says these teachers, all of whom believed in socialism, truly inspired him and they gave him books to read. He describes the period as having been a new dawn. And it was indeed during the first years after the war, the first years of the GDR, that the young man's political consciousness awoke and he began to believe in socialism, seeing it as the correct answer to the crimes of the war and of National Socialism. The new teachers were also the ones who wanted to send him to high school, but his father didn't think much of the idea. He wanted his son to learn a real vocation first. That's why Jähn became a printer. He would later complete his high school degree, become a leader in a local chapter of East Germany's communist youth movement and join the SED – the beginning of a storybook communist career. One that would take him a long way, much farther than any other East German citizen. One that would ultimately take him into space. 

Sigmund Jähn was one of the best-known people in East Germany. And although he may not have been sitting in the front row, those who were knew they could rely on him. That's why it is unlikely that Angela Merkel will send him flowers on the 40th anniversary of his spaceflight or that the Bundeswehr will ever name a barracks after him. It's a painful insight for many former East Germans. It may well be that Gerhard Kowalski is simply misguided in his wish for recognition of Jähn's life's work and that his wish won't be fulfilled for the simple reason that it can't be fulfilled. Because it just isn't possible yet for a hero of the GDR to get recognition in the West. That could change one day, but who knows?

But it is fair to ask why that is every now and then. And it's also OK every now and then to remember that a person like Sigmund Jähn would also make western Germany look good, given his background as one of the exemplary German figures of the 20th century. And at least every few years, it may help to admit to eastern Germans that our culture of remembrance is perhaps a little too West German-centric.

"I'm nearing the end of my life, so I don't think about it so much anymore," Jähn told me. But as I gazed into his alert eyes, I also knew that he wasn't telling the truth. A man like Sigmund Jähn has been thinking his whole life. And someone like him won't ever stop thinking, even at the end of it.

Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey

This article was published in German a few days ago. Since then chancellor Angela Merkel and vice chancellor Olaf Scholz send their congratulations to Sigmund Jähn via Twitter.