Survived World War II before beginning career

Veteran East German actor Erwin Geschonnek, and father of director Matti Geschonnek, died March 13 of natural causes in Berlin. He was 101.

Born in Bartenstein, East Prussia, his family moved to Berlin’s notorious Ackerstrasse working class neighborhood. One year later his mother died, and only two of five siblings survived their childhood.

He joined Germany’s communist party KPD in 1919, and in 1934 emigrated into the Soviet Union, from where he was expelled by the Russian militia in 1938. Hardly back, he was arrested by the Nazis’ secret police, and in the years to follow survived three concentration camps as well as the bombarding of refugee ship Cap Arcona, which cost over 3,000 lives.

In 1932 he had had his first celluloid appearance as an extra in classic social drama “Kuhle Wampe.” But really started only in 1949 when author Bertold Brecht hired him for his Berliner Ensemble.

The many pics Geschonnek did in the following decades for East Germany’s Defa Film include local classic “The Cold Heart,” “Naked Among Wolves,” “Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein,” and especially “Jakob the Liar,” the only Defa film that in was nominated for an Oscar (and later remade by Hollywood with Robin Williams).

Following the German reunification in 1990, Geschonnek appeared only one more time, on TV, in “Matulla und Busch,” helmed by his son Matti.

He is survived by his fifth wife Heike, and by his children Matti, Fina, and Alexander.

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