Each day the college arranges a cultural outing, tours through areas of the city with one or other of our teachers, visits to museums or nights out.  On Friday, a big group of us headed off to see the Hohenschoenhausen Stasi-Gefängnis, the prison where the Stasi held people on “remand” for years at a time. The actual building is reminiscent of prisons world-wide, dreary functional grey or brick buildings with little to lift the spirits.  A large group of us were split into two, and our guide gave us an introductory talk. This woman was a few years older than me, blonde, well-spoken, with a rather world-weary appearance.  I had been to the Art Museum the day before, and had found the guide’s lecture there too dense and complicated to follow or enjoy.  Hence, I listened to this lecture imagining it would be somewhat similar, facts, statistics, history.   The building was in the Soviet zone after WW2, so was turned into a remand prison for Germany, “Special Camp no.3” which served as a remand and transit camp for 20,000 prisoners (spies, subversives, ex-Nazis, suspects) held in appalling conditions. The majority were transported to other camps, and the prison was reconstructed as a maze of subterranean solitary confinement cells, with no windows, no heating and no air. The prison population were both ex-Nazis and Political opponents of the DDR regime, along with Soviet traitors.

Shortly into the talk, all of us realised that she was talking about her own personal history; how she had worked as a journalist, and had disagreed with the way the regime was run in the DDR.  She heard the bedroom door open one morning and thought one of the children was coming in, but instead 11 Stasi (secret) Policemen and one Stasi Policewoman came in and arrested her.  She was taken to Hohenschoenhausen and kept on remand, not knowing where her two children were, who was looking after them, whether they knew where she was.  She said interrogation could go on for 24 hours, with interrogators changing shift.  But even though there was plenty of violence, she said the psychological damage inflicted by isolation, by being treated as less than human, by having nobody to talk to except during interrogation, was immeasurable.  These sort of conditions, solitary confinement, 24-hour lighting, having a guard watch your every move, sleep deprivation, and then interrogations or being made to stand for hours on end in the middle of the night, is enough to break anyone.  The Stasi sent men to college in Pankow, to learn psychology to utilise in controlling the human spirit.  This was all related to us as we viewed the warren of bunker-cells, the interrogation office, the water cell.  At one point, I asked how she could do this, walk through here with us and talk about this. She said she was older then than most of the inmates (at 29) so was less easy to break  (though I think her ironic asides and world-weary attitude are giveaways).  But plenty of others didn’t recover sufficiently to return to real life.

She spent almost 5 years there, and managed to get the West to buy her freedom (the DDR needed money), moving to Munich to work again as a journalist.  As it happened, she was in prison when I worked in the Black Forest.  I knew nothing at all about the DDR except that they couldn’t come over to the West.  I felt a huge empathy for this woman, who could have been my sister, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The prison was kept entirely secret – it did not appear on city maps, the inmates were completely broken by their experience, and when the Wall came down, the prison wasn’t stormed the way other places were, because nobody knew what went on there.  It didn’t close until a year after the Wall came down, giving the Stasi time to destroy all evidence.  Former prisoners pressed for the prison to become a historical monument, since they are the only ones who can give direct evidence of what happened.  Plenty of people want to see it closed and forgotten. She said it’s impossible to forgive people who haven’t admitted anything.  The people in charge of the Stasi Prison are still free in the reunited Germany, some in Government positions of power.  She warned us to be watchful of our own governments, and though nobody mentioned Guantanamo Bay, all of us were thinking of it, or of the unfortunates for “rendition” who stop over in Shannon, making us all complicit.