East German couple traveling to Cuba

East German Couple Cuba

In the planned economy, travel was organized and subsidized by the state. The largest travel providers in the GDR were the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), the youth organizations, and above all the companies. At the end of the 1980s, the latter arranged 3.3 million holiday trips, the FDGB 1.8 million, all in their own holiday resorts. There was hardly any private accommodation.

Those who wanted a less tightly organized holiday went camping. From the middle of the ’60s, individual tourism increased, as more and more people had their own cars. Behind the Trabi hung a Klappfix, a camping trailer from which a tent could be unfolded. According to the operating instructions, it offered space for four sleeping holidaymakers or, during the day, a table, two seats, and two propane gas plates. A fire extinguisher was supplied as standard. East German Couple Cuba

Only a few people traveled to socialist foreign countries. In 1988, 200,000 people went to the Soviet Union, Hungary, and the CSSR, each with around 100,000. Places for trips abroad were limited, also for political reasons. In the meantime, visa-free trips were made to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. But when the Solidarnosc movement found more and more supporters in Poland, travel was restricted again in 1980. Even to the Soviet Union, only a few trips were permitted, mostly group trips with the Stasi.

Those who traveled abroad individually also had a money problem. Foreign currencies were only available to a limited extent, so surviving required some creativity. Later, Inge Winterfeld worked in the Interflug travel agency and occasionally got free flights. The family traveled to Bulgaria. There, acquaintances of acquaintances left them two rooms in exchange for bras and nightdresses, salami, and canned meat from the GDR. The family also brought their own food with them in their suitcases. “We ate our cans in the evening,” Inge Winterfeld remembers. The family saved the scarce foreign exchange to buy things that did not exist in the GDR, once even an oil radiator. East German Couple Cuba

On the other hand, if you took an organized holiday, money was not a problem. The holidaymakers themselves paid only a third of the costs; the rest was donated by the state, trade union, or company. “You could always afford the holiday without saving the whole year on it,” says Erika Buch. Only 30 to 35 Marks cost the teacher two weeks of full board per person, who earned about 1000 Marks per month.

The fleet of GDR cruise ships, to which the historian Andreas Stirn dedicated his dissertation, was a curious outgrowth of the system-stabilizing holiday policy. A ship for the working class was to be the MS “International Friendship,” a reward for all who rendered outstanding services to socialism. The first of a total of three cruise ships, “Völkerfreundschaft,” went on a journey in 1960, accompanied by propagandistic music. East German Couple Cuba

This luxury cost: a two-week trip to the Baltic Sea 800 Marks per person, 3000 Marks a trip to Cuba. The journeys were to be subsidized for deserving workers, but from the company premium funds, which were never sufficient for smaller companies. Thus most of them were excluded from the cruise. Anyway, it was over with some particularly luxurious aspects of the voyage from the mid-1960s, after several passengers had fled the ship. A total of 225 people in the context of cruises

Traveling to Cuba was exceptional. Pensioners, like the couple in the passports, were allowed to go more easily. They did not have to give special reasons. This can probably be explained by the fact that, as pensioners, they received state social benefits and that their possible non-return did not mean a loss of labor but rather cost savings.

However, in October 1962, the ship “Völkerfreundschaft” set course for Cuba for the first time. But the expectations of the holidaymakers were not to be fulfilled. The Cuban crisis intervened, and the trip was canceled.

When the Ilyushin II-62 was put into service in 1970, INTERFLUG (the only East German airline) also flew to Vietnam and Cuba. The introduction of this type was overshadowed by the crash of the first aircraft delivered on 14 August 1972 in Königs Wusterhausen, during which all 156 people died on board. East German Couple Cuba

From 1976 onwards, a stopover in Gander/Newfoundland, Canada, was necessary for the holiday flights of the better-earning East Germans to socialist Cuba, which had been thoroughly examined by the Stasi. (There were also Cubans, Finns, or foreign exchange earning West Berliners onboard.) The IL 62 had to be refueled, and for safety reasons, all passengers had to leave the plane. When boarding for the onward flight one or the other did not manage to be on board in time, despite the omnipresent Stasi guards. Not only East Germans but also Cuban students used Gander to escape. The Canadian airport police were accommodating towards asylum seekers. In 1989, shortly before the fall of the GDR, the GDR Interflug had two Airbus A310s that could fly non-stop from Schoenefeld to Cuba.

East German couple traveling 1974 from Schoenefeld airport to Cuba
East German passport with a visa for Cuba – 1974

I have several GDR travel documents in my archive, but to find one with a Cuba visa is pretty rare. By the way: When Fidel Castro traveled to the GDR in June 1972, he donated the “Isla Ernesto Thälmann” (Ernst Thälmann) to it. A beach on the island was renamed “GDR beach”.


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FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...