Samstag, 31. Dezember 2011

Visiting the STASI Prison

I don't talk too much about New Year' s Resolutions of any kind. Instead, I try to focus as much as possible on getting the best from each day and moment. Following this motto, last Friday morning, together with a group of friends, I decided to pay a visit at the STASI Prison situated in the former East side of the city. Tours, in German, were offered every hour, for one hour and a half. If you are too late or too early, you can buy a coffee or some pastry, or browse the shelves of a small bookstore offering thematic books mostly in German, but also in English and French (expensier). 

As we arrived late and needed to wait for 20 minutes for the next tour, I took the chance to buy two books I was interested in for a couple of weeks: Stasiland, short stories about living with the communist secret police, and Die Fluchttunnel von Berlin, about the secret tunnel across which many Berliners from the East succeeded - or not - to arrive in the free world. Both were included on my reading list for the next days.

There were also other advantages for being late: I watched a short movie English/German, about the history of the prison and admired the pictures from an exhibition dedicated to the Tunisian "revolution". As the English version of website proofs, the foundation managing the prison is monitoring the human rights all over the world, providing interesting information about individuals facing human rights abuses.

Memories of a "revolution" - the Tunisian version
Even though it was one day before the end of the year, visitors of all ages were present in a big number. The guide, a former inmate - as most part of the guides - , gave us a dynamic and interesting visit around this terrible place. 

A couple of "official information" about the location:
- The location was situated in the former Soviet Occupation Zone and was used for prison by the secret police - STASI - until 1990.
- Hohenschoenhausen was previously a canteen for the National Socialist People's Welfare Organisation. Under the Soviet occupation, it turned into a center of command for all the 17 prisons of the secret police of the GDR (at least, according to the official count). At the end of the war, almost 20,000 prisoners were transferred to other Soviet camps. The Soviet statistics mentioned in the presentation leaflet mentions that officially, 886 people died between July 1945 and October 1946, and unofficially, 3,000 detainees. The official STASI prison was created in 1951, but the Soviet presence continued till the end. Prisoners killed and hosted here were political dissidents, journalists, intellectuals, simple people who wanted to escape the country. 
- As in many other cases from former communist countries, the statistics should not be taken seriously. Many people disappeared from a day to another without never returning: many some escaped, others received a new identity, others were killed by the secret police. Unknown is also the percentage of "former" executives who were reintegrated by the new system, a situation occuring in both the East and the West.
- The last chief of the service, Erich Mielke, the NKVD-trained boss from 1957 to 1989, was never put on trial for the torture administered to the inmates and crimes. 
- At the end of the GDR, STASI counted on 91,000 full-time employees and 189,000 unofficial collaborators. In the official documents, STASI was considered "the shield and sword of the party".

The area used to be restricted to normal citizens of the DDR. On the road to the prison, I was fully transposed in the grey area of the communist cities.  In the last years, around the prison, nice, colorful and small villa were built.

A worried sky over the prison's yard.

The flowers are a reminded of the humanity that we are trying to forget sometimes.

The memorial stone in the courtyard.

The entrance in one of the building hosting cells and offices of communist employees.

One of the many doors that were closing the way to freedom for years.

The basement with the cells and terror rooms.

The small window from where the inmates were offered dirty food and insults.

The ambiance where people were used to spend dozen of years of humiliation. Many cells were repainted, deleting traces of authenticity. For some that never had direct contact with the communist way of being, many of those cells didn't say too much. Maybe more interraction and visual explanations were welcomed.

Another type of cell. Many inmates were kept in complete isolation for a long number of months.

Traces on the walls. I was curious to discover some original scratches or anything having to do with the life and memories of the former inmates (signs that I discovered, for example, in the Tempelhof bunker). Nothing like this here, unfortunately.

The long line of cells.

A torture room

Another torture room

The secret train. People were took and drove at unknown location. This was one of the phantom trains running the German rails. The explanation given is mentioning a "long" tradition of Germans transportting prisoners by train...Indeed...

The office of one of the mirriads of a STASI official. Deciding life and dead in a completely boring ambiance.

The green door used to annihilate the screams and cries of the inmates tortured in  otherwise boring -looking offices

The wallpapers were kept from the "old times". Lots of lights to push for asking various files, interrogations or any other evil-business.

The classical office furniture of the time. Many years after the fall of communist, this type of furniture was to be found in many governmental offices of post-communist institutions. Probably now are replaced by IKEA-style.

Officially, this Barkas car was used to transport food (scarce during communism). Unofficially, it transported prisoners to their prisons, many of them took off from the street. This was a well known Soviet style. Don't know if somebody escaped alive the various temptations to return to liberty.

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