Of Scrapbooks and 1980s Pen Pals
Here is my old scrapbook from my high school and college days. The days before mounting squares and acid-free paper were easily found. I glued and Scotch-taped cards, letters, pictures, track ribbons, corsage ribbons, and ephemera to the gray, construction paper pages.
This is where I’ve kept Helga’s letters and pictures for more than 30 years. She was my German pen pal in the early 1980s, during the final years of a divided German before the Berlin Wall fell. We wrote to each other for about four years. All of the things on this scrapbook page are from Helga including that old piece of Juicy Fruit gum; the ticket stubs; the American Airlines postcard; the Heumann Bronchialtee Solubifix card; pictures of Helga and her family at her confirmation (she was Lutheran); a German lottery ticket (still don’t know if I won – ha!) and one of her letters.
Let’s Be Pen Pals: International Youth Service
I connected with Helga through International Youth Service thanks to my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Karen Skinner. She sent us home with IYS sign-up forms, and it was right up my alley! I loved to write letters and was completely enchanted with Europe thanks to movies like Heidi and The Sound of Music.
I filled out my IYS form and turned it in and then waited for months to receive a letter from a pen pal. Finally, a letter in a small beige envelope arrived from 13 Oberfellendorf D-8551 Wiesenttal. I was ecstatic!
20th April 1981
I’m a girl, my name is Helga and I’m 13 years old. I live in Germany in a small village. The IYS has sent me your address, and I hope you will become my pen friend. Now I want to tell you about my house. My parents are Christe and Heinriche Hosch (they’re 32 and 37 years old), a sister, her name is Gabi, she is 2 years old. I also have a Grandmother, Margarete, she’s 76 years old. We all live in Oberfellendorf, that’s a small village in Northern Bavaria, if you know maybe. It has approximately 200 people. Well, you can’t find it on any German map.”
She goes on to capture the interests of just about every 13-year-old girl in the early 1980s:
I go to the secondary school in Ebermannstadt…We are 34 girls, but (unfortunately) no boys. My favorite subjects are shorthand, biology and music. My best friends are Chrisel and Michaela (from Fe) and Angela (she lives in Oberfellendorf, too.) I also have a boyfriend, on time, he is 17 and his name is Helmut.
“My hobbies are swimming, cycling, roller-skating, cooking (sometimes), drawing, watching TV, listening to pop music (my favorite groups are Queen, Status Quo and ELO) needle-work, flirting, beauti-care, and observing the nature. Moreover I collect postcards, coins, journals, German pennies, souvenirs…admission tickets, beauty tips and autographs.
She also wrote about her confirmation in the Lutheran church. In another letter she sent pictures of the event:
Last Sunday, the 26th of April, I have had my confirmation. I got a lot of presents…that are about 2,200 dollars, I think.”
She ended that first letter with a post script:
And how shall I call you? Jennifer or Jenny?
I committed Helga’s address to memory long ago. Growing up, I lived in more than a dozen different houses across six different states. I was afraid I might lose her letters in the ongoing shuffle and never wanted to lose touch with her. I’ll never forget her address, but sadly, we did lose touch. Of course, I’ve searched for her on Facebook, but to no avail.
Pen Friends and The End of Letter Writing
International Youth Service was founded in Finland in 1952. It was a leading international pen pal organization that connected children and teens with pen friends. For a small fee — a dollar or two — they matched you with a pen pal based on your age, country, interests, language, etc. It was not uncommon for some people to have several pen pals all over the world thanks to the great work of IYS.
Unfortunately, the operation voluntarily shuttered its operation in 2008, and became another great industry and/or hobby killed off by the Internet. Here is the statement IYS posted on their website. It speaks to the end of the pen pal era.
IYS will be closing down this summer, by 30th June 2008. The International Youth Service (IYS) has been operating since 1952, over 56 years now. We have arranged foreign pen friends for school children and students aged 10 – 20 years in over 100 different countries.
The Internet has lead to a situation where sending ordinary letters is old-fashioned. Letter writing, once very popular, is now a hobby of a few.
“We have come to the end of a certain period. As we can not find enough young people interested in penfriendship any more, we have decided to close down this firm by 30th June 2008. We thank all our customers, both children and teachers, in past years and wish you happy times. Don’t stop learning different languages and cultures and keep up those penfriendships you have managed to build up.”
Bloggers Remember Penfrienship, IYS
Several bloggers have written about the impact IYS had on their lives, but none as eloquently as Julie of Tie-Dye Disciple.
Going to the mailbox has been my favourite part of the day since I started penpalling in the early 80s. But it was extra-exciting if I found a letter from an unassuming-sounding organization in Finland, called IYS: International Youth Service.
“Their mailouts contained delectable possibilities of international cross-cultural friendship and armchair travel. I would stretch out on the living room carpet, world atlas open nearby, and pour over their forms for hours, trying to limit my pen pal applications to a reasonable number…
“The form you see here particularly interests me because it dates from 1986, during the Cold War, before the Eastern Bloc countries were open to outsiders. What a great day it was, when I received my first IYS form listing Russia and other formerly closed nations!
“Meanwhile, one of my German pen pals, from Berlin, recounted her participation in an elated, all-night street party when the Berlin Wall fell. World events took on a personal significance.
“I read and dreamed over IYS forms so much…I’m grateful for the role of IYS in my life – I wouldn’t be who I am today, without their influence.”
Pen Pals During the Cold War
Every time I received one of Helga’s letters covered in stamps and cancellation marks, I moved another step beyond the flat, folded maps of my world. The letters came from afar during a frightening Cold War and although I couldn’t find her village on a map, she became part of the cartography of my life. It was as if for the first time, I belonged to someone other than my family, and with each letter I was nudged into a world of my own possibility. I was filled with hope, but perhaps not as much as I should have had.
Like Helga, I was 13 when we became pen friends. When I wrote letters to her, I did so from my own harmonious cosmos that included characters like Anne Frank and Margaret Simon. Although one was real and the other fiction, they both inspired me to become a writer. Anne with her diary and Margaret with her prayers became part of history. I believed my letters to Helga were historic, and certainly hers were for me. For today, they represent so much of what children and teenagers have lost, and now all the world is a village, or say they say.
Helga’s letters arrived several weeks after she mailed them. It was the same with mine. They were all sent air mail, which cost about $2.00. It doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time, it only cost 13 cents to mail a letter to someone in the United States.
Accompanied by my father, I carried my precious letters to the post office and released them into the hands of postal clerks. I was inebriated with the smell of ink and glue and the sound of the gold postal door banks opening and closing. With great alacrity, my words flew in a plane across the ocean, over Europe and into Oberfellendorf.
In a letter dated July 18, 1981, Helga effused such sweet affection for America. It was six years before President Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and more than eight before portions of the Berlin Wall wall tumbled to the ground.
Jeniffer — you can’t know the feeling which has taken me, when I heard that the flight will go to Amerika. You can’t feel this feeling and I can’t describe the feeling: Here in front of you is a plane which will fly into another country, thousands of miles to the United States. Please don’t laugh! There are many people in Germany, for who the Untied States are THE country. I know you can’t believe it, can you?”
I could not believe it. And, a decade later, I was astonished when the Cold War thawed.
Like Anne Frank and Margaret Simon, Helga and I wrote letters filled with anecdotes about boys and God. In the following letter she made note of the verse to the left of the cross:
Do you want to know the saying to the right of the cross?” she wrote. “All ends of the world see our God’s relief.”
And, to this day that is both my praise and my prayer — for Helga, for all of us.