For 20th century history, I’m not sure any other city can compete with Berlin. I find myself constantly astounded and fascinated by this city, its scars, and its resilience.
Elaine’s mom came to visit, giving us the added push to recommence sightseeing.
We found ourselves at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Having now visited Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sachsenhausen, I can assure you that “seen one, see ’em all” does not apply. Every camp contains some unique horror. Here’s a few unique facts about Sachsenhausen:
-Towards the end of the war, 13,000 Soviet POW’s were brought here. 10,000 of them were summarily executed.
– Many prominent SS officers trained here in preparation for their work at other camps, including Auschwitz.
– The grounds include the “T building”. This is where SS administrators, or more appropriately, Desk Killers, worked. The murderous bureaucratic office. Men sat calmly at their desks typing up files, signing on orders and deciding what punishments could be meted out to prisoners, proper execution techniques, spreading the use of zyklon B, and generally dictating the policy of terror.
I find this to be the creepiest, most despicable and horrifying part of the whole thing.
After all that fun, we headed back into the city to cruise the MauerPark flea market, and gawk at the Bearpit Karaoke. Oh yeah, remember how Mauer means wall? And how that park is where the wall used to be? And how lots of people committed suicide, or were shot right there? Now, hundreds of Berliners gather round to hear people sing their guts out and act a fool.
We capped the day with a bbq. PC the grillmaster was loving the balmy evening.
Having explored a great deal of the WWII era history, I’ve been itching to get into Cold War stuff. I read Stasiland a month ago, so I’ve been oddly eager to visit Hohenshönhausen Prison.
From 1945-1989 this place was a place of terror and mystery. Existing on no map, when the wall fell demonstrators were not there to break down its doors, and storm the building. Stasi agents were able to destroy many of their files, and evidence regarding the prison’s functioning. However, the building, the cells, the interrogation rooms have all been left largely in tact.
For a bit more background…
Following WWII, the soviets used Hohenschönhausen for “de-nazification” purposes. However, as communist East Germany (the GDR/DDR) began to take form as a nation, so did its ministry for state security-the stasi. Arguing that the GDR was such a weak, young nation that it needed protection from the evil, corrupting forces of the West, the stasi identified “dangerous” elements in the population who might do harm to the fledgling state. Using informers, cameras, microphones, spies, etc. the stasi might identify these enemies of the state, grab them off the street, and transport them to Hohenschönhausen. Here, prisoners could be held for any length of time enduring unimaginable psychological tortures until a trial and sentence was handed out.
Most of the information we have about Hohenshönhausen emerged from first hand accounts of former prisoners. In fact, some former prisoners currently give tours.
At its height, the Stasi employed nearly 100,00 full time staff which doesn’t include the thousands of unofficial informers. Offenses which might land you in prison could be anything from distributing anti-communist literature, to listening to the Beatles. Former prisoners who have been able to find and read their own stasi files, found that many times the person who informed on them was a spouse, a parent or a friend.
Once a prisoner, you would endure extreme sleep deprivation, interminable interrogation and horrifying mind games. I can’t detail every story and example here, (much as I’d like) but I’ll give a few examples. Prisoners were normally not allowed to see anyone. The only human contact they might have would be with their interrogator. If a prisoner were to catch a glimpse of another person, it was likely a ploy by the Stasi. Someone who closely resembled a family member or friend might be led past a prisoner’s cell to cause emotional pain and anxiety.
During interrogations, prisoners were forced to sit on their hands. Besides causing discomfort, sitting on one’s hands led to sweating. Once a prisoner left the room, stasi agents removed the chair fabric, jarred it, and kept it on hand in case they might have to track down this person in the future. By saving the sweaty fabric, they hoped to save the person’s scent. Much easier for doggies to find you.
Lives were destroyed and spirits were broken here. Many East Germans still have ties, stories and nightmares from the Stasi’s involvement in their lives. Healing and progress continue to be made, however, a lack of awareness and willful forgetfulness threatens this process.
The prison left a disturbing impression on me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Touring Hohenschönhausen has been one of the best things I’ve experienced in Berlin.
Of course, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Thursday brought a trip to beautiful Potsdam. Despite gray weather, the lush palace grounds of Sansoucci were a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. We followed it up with another trip to the dome of the Reichstag, and a chance to marvel at how far this place has come in such a short time.
I promise, I’ll have a more uplifting post next 🙂