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1980s Pen Pals Revisited: Helga’s Pictures and Letters from Germany, 1981

1980s scrapbook

Did you have pen pals growing up? My old scrapbook is filled with Hallmark date books, cards, pictures, elementary school track ribbons and letters from my pen friend Helga Hosch.

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.

Scrapbook from the 1980sThis 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.

Memories of Pen Pals during the 1980s via International Youth Service.

Helga's Confirmation in the Lutheran Church early 1980s Oberfellendorf Germany

Being Pen Pals with a young German girl was a highlight of my adolescent days.

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

Dear Jennifer

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.

International Youth Service Flyer

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.”

International Youth Service IYS in a pen pal letter from the 1980s

Helga’s first letter. It mentions International Youth Service (IYS), the pen friend organization that connected us.

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.

Page 2 of Helgas Letters 1981 German PenPal

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.

Penpal Letter from Germany expressing awe of 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?”

helgas confirmation

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.

Letter from Helga

Post Script

I highly recommend these books, no matter how old you are. All money earned through Amazon’s affiliate program is returned to the blog community. Thank you for supporting Are You There, God? It’s Me, Generation X. Also, if you are interested in finding a pen pal, check out this post from Womanitely.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Captain Nemo

    This article is amazing! Helga’s responses are also so interesting— they remind me of something I’d see in a book!!!

  2. Captain Nemo

    This article is amazing! Helga’s responses are also so interesting— they remind me of something I’d see in a book!!!

  3. Mayra BURNHAM

    I also had pen pals all over the world through international youth service. I had a friend in Germany whose best friend’s name was Helga. I still have her address and her pictures. These are fabulous memories I keep.

  4. Janet

    Hey thanks for linking to my blog post about pen pals! How I wish I still had all those letters and sweet surprises I received from pen pals far and wide. I kept them in my teenage years but they got lost after I moved out of home 🙁 .

    • Jennifer

      You’re welcome, Janet! I hope you’re having a beautiful holiday season. –jen

  5. Nicky

    I love your story. I had pen pals in the Netherlands as a teen. I think something is lost on digital correspondence. Those tangible letters have extra meaning.

    • Jennifer

      Hi Nicky — Thank you for stopping by. I agree. I really miss letter writing. It was an art form. So much has been lost despite all the wonderful gains in the digital world. I look forward to visiting your blog.

  6. Mari

    I love this story! I love the far-flung penpal you had and so wish you could connect again. I’m sure she thinks of you as fondly and as often as you do of her.

    • Jennifer

      I hope, Mari. She was so sweet. Her letters were rich with details of her young life. I bet my letters to her were completely ridiculous. =)

  7. John Lord

    Cool story. It’s nice to know that there’s at least one person in that part of the world who doesn’t see us as evil, racist, power-hungry hicks.


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