Stasi Prison

Trip Start Nov 07, 2009
Trip End Nov 10, 2009

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Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Saturday, November 7, 2009

(Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen)

The East German Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, was the most effective and ruthless of all the secret police organizations in the communist bloc.  The most infamous Stasi Remand Prison was located in a restricted zone (shown as blank space on East German maps) in the north western suburbs of Berlin.  You can now take tours of the facility, typically led by former inmates, but these are only in English twice a week.  The effort is worth it, however, because this is the best place to truly understand the sacrifice made by the East German population — they weren't just walled in, they were also ruthlessly repressed. 

On the long tram ride out to the prison, you see building after building of typical East German construction — lifeless, functional to the point of ugly, and now falling apart.  Approaching the prison, it doesn't look like much, just guards tower and barbed-wire.  I bought a ticket and waited in the courtyard with 50 or more people for the tour.

In 1984, at the age of 18, my guide, Cliewe Juritza, could not wait to try to escape from East Germany.  He had been planning it since he was 14.  First he went to Hungary, buying a one-way ticket to a town near the border.  This, he says, was his first mistake.  A Stasi agent intercepted him as he got off the train and questioned, but did not arrest him. He was obliged to go back to East Germany, however.  Everyone could see that Berlin Wall was impregnable, so he next went to the Inner-German Border, the fortified border between East and West Germany proper.  Once there, he tested the fortifications by putting a tree branch against the fence, but that set off alarms so he fled.  Several other near misses occurred until finally, standing on a train platform heading toward the border, a Stasi agent asked him, "Are you trying to escape?"  In frustration, he answered "Yes!". 

His plan was to be arrested and imprisoned because he had heard from West German radio that West Germany was paying for the release of political prisoners.  He was sentenced to one year in prison for expressing the desire to leave.  After ten months, he was released when the West German government paid what was effectively ransom for him.  This was just one of many ways that the East German government extorted desperately needed hard currency from the West. The going rate was 95,847DM per prisoner.

He went to live with his grandmother in a small village in West Germany.  Then, in August of 1989, he moved to West Berlin, not knowing how soon the wall would come down.  On the night of November 9th, he was in a bar drinking with some friends when someone came in and announced that the wall was open.  His reaction was, "Dream on!" and that the guy was drunk.

Cliewe is one year older than me which gets me thinking about what I was doing in 1984.  I was a senior in High School, applying to colleges, and doing all those things that seniors do.  How different our lives were.  But if he had been born just a few miles west, there might have been no real differences between us at all.  I am also stuck by how odd it is that a regime supposedly driven by the idea that they are making a workers paradise expended such vast resource to keep its citizens from fleeing.  And when they did try to leave, the government, after punishing them, would sell them to the West because, as a practical matter, the GDR was always desperate for hard currency.

This prison was for people who tried to escape or for political action that was perceived as against state interests.  One woman received an eight year sentence for making a sign that quoted the East German constitution section guaranteeing citizens the right to say and print what they wanted, obviously an ignored clause.  She didn't even get to show the sign in a parade as planned because an informer turned her in.  When she was interrogated, the Stasi knew an incredible number of details about her, even her favorite brand of tea.  It turned out that the informant was her husband.  Another woman was imprisoned for 25 years for telling a joke:  "Have you every had Stalin pork? Of course not!  The pig's not dead yet".

It is impossible to describe the prison and do it justice.  The tour was incredibly moving.  Cliewe says that most of the visitors are German school children, but only from the West.  He thinks that the parents and teachers in the East don't want to have to answer embarrassing questions that would be raised if their children came here.  That is the problem with such recent history, so many of the people who worked for the Stasi and this prison are still around.  The man who ran the prison still lives only two blocks away — you can run into him on the street or at the grocery store.

A week earlier Cliewe had talked in depth with his mother for the first time in twenty years.  When they talked about his attempted escape and arrest, his mother lapsed into official GDR-speak, catch phrases from a now dead regime.  Then she called his decision foolish.  "Foolish," he repeated, clearly emotional, then said, "And she wonders why I don't come to see her more often."  He had to blink back a tear.

At the end of the tour I bolted.  I couldn't wait to get away, though this wasn't a conscious decision.  I just started walking.  I skipped the bookstore, forgot to take a picture I had been planning, didn't even use the bathroom.  Walking back to the tram, I cut through a shopping mall built on the edge of the former restricted zone.  It was surreal passing by shops selling discount shoes, books and clothing so close to the horrors of the prison. But, of course, this blatant show of capitalism may be the best "in your face" shot at the old regime possible.

Follow up:
The day after I got back from Berlin, I was driving home from work when I heard an interview with Cliewe on All Things Considered.

Further follow up:
A year later I received the following email from Cliewe out of the blue:

Subject: your Hohenschönhausen entry on travel pod
Hello, I just read your entry about your visit in the former stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen one year ago. Thank you very much for your posting - I am sorry, I did not read it earlier. I hope you don't mind, that I linked it to my facebook page, because you really descirbed it very
Thanks and greetings from Berlin
Cliewe Juritza

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