Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Somber Visit to Hohenschönhausen

East German Prison
I took a Facebook poll of what I should post about next (Like our page - pretty please. We need affirmation.) and people actually answered! Pleasantly surprised, I went with the vote of the people and finished this half-done post about Hohenschönhausen.

A truly thought-provoking spot, I was moved and intrigued by our visit. So why did this post sit half done? Berlin is beyond being "discovered" at this point, and almost everything I want to blog about has been done before, and better. (Check out Chasing Heartbeats beautiful coverage). But by that logic, why should we do anything that has been done before? Why'd I even come to Berlin (twice) if it had already been "done" by other expats? Therefore, post I shall.

Whew. Enough boring introspection and a little more about a place you should want to get to know better....

Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen

Genslerstr. 66  13055 Berlin, Germany 
Tel. 030 986082-30

Hohenschönhausen used to not even be marked on maps - it was that secret. Today you can take guided tours around the eerie buildings. Still and quiet except for the various groups, it all comes to chilling life when tales of it's history are recited. It is the background to the confession scenes in the film The Lives of Others. The idea of it alone is terrifying. And yet there we stood, on a fairly sunny day, listening to a young American woman tell us about the atrocities that occurred here.

The place is now a museum and memorial located in Berlin's north-eastern Lichtenberg district. It was opened in 1994 on the site of the main prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi. Basically intact, Wikipedia reports:

"Unlike many other government and military institutions in East Germany, Hohenschönhausen prison was not stormed by demonstrators after the fall of the Berlin Wall, allowing prison authorities to destroy evidence of the prison's functions and history. Because of this, today's knowledge of the functioning of the prison comes mainly from eye-witness accounts and documents sourced from other East German institutions."

East Berlin prison tour

I took an absurd amount of photos of doors, not only because the derelict conditions created that "oh-so-trendy abandoned look", but because doors like these make you think about the terrifying things that once happened within.


East German Berlin Prison 

German prison tour
rubber room prison
Rubber Room Hohenschönhausen
The memorial was founded in the early 1990s by former inmates. We heard that former prisoners occasionally give the tours.

An older area used by the soviets is known as the U-Boot (submarine). It is almost entirely underground and prisoners could choose whether they wanted a hot cell or a cold cell. Both were unpleasant. This wood bed is an exact replica and this small cell would house 12 prisoners at a time. People lost track of time, lost days....weeks....

The halls of the second building used by the Stasi was less barbarian but had just as terrifying of details.

alarms in prison

alarm cords

The red lights were alarms. People were kept totally separate and a red light meant the hallway was in use, preventing two prisoners from seeing each other in the halls. You had no idea if a stranger was in the cell next to you or your mother. In the GDR for every 180 citizen there was one member of the Stasi keeping tabs. That equals a lot of informants.

In the cells,
Books weren't allowed.
Writing wasn't allowed.
Windows were covered.
Talking wasn't allowed.

Some people figured out ingenious systems of connecting with each other. They would use a towel to empty the water in the toilet and viola! A telephone of sorts. This could be foiled as all of the controls for the cell were on the outside. Lights, temp, and -yes- even the ability to flush the toilet.

Hohenschönhausen Berlin cell

Hohenschönhausen tour

Automobiles like this truck would pick you up at work/family events/home/anywhere and take you away. There were no windows, so you couldn't tell where you were. To make matters worse, the Stasi would drive for hours around the city to confuse you. In 3 hours you could be almost in Prague and no one would every find you. In reality, people were just on the outskirts of the city.

East German van

As we exited, I was left wondering....

East Berlin prison wall

East Berlin tour

What is the point of all this? What did they want? The simple answer is - confessions. Interrogations were intense. Hour after hour, hands under legs, psychological belittlement, severely sleep deprived, repeating their story over & over, days or weeks of isolation.... all to get someone to confess to sins as little as speaking out against the regime.

In a system which espouses that everyone is equal and reasonable, it is important to have logic and order. In theory, no one was punished without reason. They each had a crime. Maybe that is the scariest of all. They thought the means (torture) to an end (confessions) made it worthwhile. 

These visits to Berlin's historical sites are never exactly a "fun day", but I've never been sorry I visited. I think it's all about balance. With all the good memories we are making now, it was inevitable there has to be some bad.
On a cheerier note, upcoming posts include:

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We're Back in Berlin Ja!

We're Back in Berlin Ja!
ebe & ian at Yak-toberfest 2008