Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Wow, it feels good to type on a real keyboard again. Please excuse all my strange spelling, punctuation, capitalization and other writing errors from when I travel: I’m using my iPad only, and the touchscreen keyboard is not the easiest for writing prose.

I’m finally back in Brighton. My classmates seemed to be as relieved to head back as I was, although I’ve been on the road about twice as long. We hit Berlin pretty hard, and most of them certainly hit it harder than me. Some of them were almost going to sleep later than I was waking up. I guess the clubbing scene is pretty good in Berlin, and not everyone is as much of a history nut as I am. Generally, people returned the the hostel between 2 and 7 AM. One young man didn’t come home at all last night. No one knew where he was, and unfortunately he was the only person with the room key. This was primarily an issue when we were trying to check out and had no key to turn in. Fortunately, he turned up later that day. He’d woken up in the hospital with an IV and a heart monitor, but no memory of how he’d gotten there.

After the check-out fiasco was finished and all of our rooms were cleared, I set out alone again. I wanted to see the Stasi museum, which nearly everyone else had already seen on the first day. It had great reviews from everyone, but it was definitely going to be a bleak experience. The museum itself was actually pretty tame. It might have been more interesting if I had spoken German, as only a few of the signs were translated into English. What I thought were most interesting were the offices of the Stasi leaders, which had been preserved the way they were found, and the spy equipment. The offices were filled with awesome 70’s furniture and strangely had the same smell as my Dad’s office. The spy equipment was just crazy. There were cameras hidden in everything: ties, purses, briefcases, pens, watches, car doors, petrol canisters. I never really thought that was real life.

While I was there, I picked up a brochure for the Stasi Prison. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but it seemed fitting. It wasn’t affiliated with the museum and wasn’t exactly nearby, but I thought I would keep with the theme. It was closer than Museum Island and definitely more unique than Berlin. It was one of those places you’re only allowed to go through with a guided tour, and only one tour in the late afternoon was in English. I didn’t have time to wait for that, so I raced over in time for the 1:00 tour.

I wasn’t sure I was in the correct place at first. There was just an open courtyard with no visible ticket office and large groups of visitors standing around. I started trying to ask people questions, and soon met two English speakers. I unfortunately did not catch their names. One woman was in my boat and didn’t speak any German, but her friend was a native German and was going to translate for her. They had met in South Africa when they were both living there, but the German girl has since moved back. They assured me that I was in the right place and pointed me towards the ticket office.

With an inefficiency unusual in Germany, our tour started at about 1:20. I think they may have been a bit inundated with school groups. I love tours, and I really wish I had been able to understand this one. On one hand, it was kindof nice just to listen to someone speaking German. I’d been very well surrounded by British people in Germany. On the other hand, it seemed like a really really good tour. He talked for ages. Several other groups passed us along the way. He was also incredibly charismatic. He used dramatic pauses, and occasional deep and serious voice, hand gestures, and great eye contact. It was fun to watch, but I desperately wanted to know what he was saying. The German girl only told her friend and I about one sentence of what he said every ten minutes.

I found out from her a little later that he had told them that he was a Stasi prisoner himself. He had tried to escape East Germany via Bulgaria, and had almost made it when he had been caught in a stroke of bad luck. He spent a little time in prison and then a few years in labor camps. This made him the best tour guide x100, and made me even more sad to be missing what he was saying.

There were a few informational signs along the way in German and English, so I stopped at those when I could. We usually breezed right past them. There were a few places I knew a little about. Our first visit was paid to the section of the prison was called the “U-Boot” or the “submarine.” Its tiny cells each held about 45 people in dismal conditions. It was underground with very little air circulation and no heating or cooling. There were no windows, and the lights stayed on all the time so sleep and any sense of time were both impossible. Torture took place here and throughout the prison.

We got to see a van that they used to abduct/arrest people. Of course, most arrests were based on false hearsay. The people weren’t told that they would be arrested, and their friends and family were never notified. The police would dress in plainclothes and arrive at a victim’s house, work, or pluck them right off the street. Then, the person was put in a tiny windowless cell in the back of the van and driven in circles so they wouldn’t know where they were.

The other part of the prison I didn’t learn much about as we were going through. The German girl really didn’t translate much, I think because she didn’t want to talk while our guide was talking which I understand. We stood in one of the last rooms for quite a long time, at which point a man standing next to me leaned over and whispered, “Do you understand any of this?” I shook my head no, and he laughed and told me I looked really into it. I was really into it. This guide was awesome.

When we walked from there to a train used to transport prisoners, he caught me up on some other parts of the tour. Our guide had been sharing some personal stories about his own interrogation. When he had first arrived at the prison, a guard had run at him with a bat screaming bloody murder about how he had betrayed our country. A second guard intervened and “saved” our guide, and this second guard just happened to be the person to conduct the interrogation the next day. He was very sympathetic, they had a friendly conversation, and the guard pretended to tell him secrets.

Our guide said that later he was able to look at the transcripts, and he was completely shocked at what he had told them without even realizing it.

There was another incident where he went before a judge for some reason. They put him in the back of a van and drove him around for 15 minutes. Years later, he looked up where they had taken him. It was the same building. The Stasi were just constantly trying to create a sense of confusion and isolation. Prisoners in single cells were not allowed to look at the guards or ever come into contact with other prisoners. The guard walked behind the prisoner if they were being moved, and if another person needed to pass the prisoner first had to face the wall with their nose touching it.

There’s also a good amount of evidence that some prisoners were exposed to high levels of radiation when they were admitted to the prison.

Prisoners under 15 years of age were released after 3 years.

I could go on about this for a while, but I’m sure all the information is out there already. It was an incredible experience to be standing in this place, hearing about the things that had happened there from a person who had lived through it. The young German man and his friend told me that actually all the guides had been victims, and so they each have different stories to tell. I would love to go back some day and take an English tour.

I had to head back to the hostel after this. We had an evening flight, and I’m so thankful for the extra time I had today because of it. I ran into some other Brighton students on the tram platform so we traveled together, which is always nice. For being 30 people, we got to the airport pretty easily. Our plane was delayed due to snow, but not badly. We then had to sit inside while they de-iced it, but that was actually kindof cool. We landed by 11:00 and I caught an 11:30 train back to Brighton with one other student, James, who knows how to hustle.

It’s so nice to be in a familiar place. Brighton feels so warm after being in Berlin. I guess they had a “blizzard” (an inch or two of snow) earlier this week, but there’s none left on the ground. I just want to sleep now. I was hoping not to leave the house at all tomorrow, honestly, but I’m out of butter and jam so I’ll have nothing to eat for breakfast. I’m considering breaking my cardinal rule of never wearing sweatpants in public. I might walk to the store in my PJ’s tomorrow. We’ll see.

For those of you who haven’t seen Django: auf wiedersehen is German for “Goodbye” or “til we meet again.” But really, you should watch Django. It was excellent.

A final note: I have found out that my Nonnie is in the hospital again. Please take a moment to pray for her speedy recovery. I miss her very much and I wish I could visit her in the hospital, but for now I can only send prayers and love.

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2 thoughts on “Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

  1. I love your Nonnie. She’s a truly remarkable person.

    About then spy equipment, would you mind saying that again loudly into my lapel?

    Love your updates….rest up because you’ll be at it again!

  2. Wonderful stories (fascinating, well told, and just plain excellent). Love traveling with u vicariously. Much excitement on this side of the pond due to Kathleen’s immenent departure. I am so sorry to hear about Jeannie! I will send positive vibes her way for a full recovery. Sending lots of love!

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