Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hohenschonhausen Memorial - Berlin

Visiting Hohenschonhausen - a former prison and detention center - was iiiiiiiintense. Definitely one of my favorite parts of our week in Berlin... but not in a good way. (A bit of a warning - some parts of my descriptions below might bother some people... read somewhat carefully...)

Hohenschonhausen was run by the secret police in Berlin... but it did not exist on maps. A green area was shown where really, a tall brick wall surrounded the awful things that went on inside the two buildings. One of the most shocking parts to me is that this was in use until 1989.

Also - many of the guards and interrogators still live right in the neighborhood. One is, apparently, even a practicing lawyer.

Water torture and psychological torture were used on people that the Stasi determined to be political prisoners.

As soon as we walked down the stairs and into this basement level of a prison... I wanted to grab the arm of the teacher in the group with me. I was creeped out... scared... and felt - ugh. I don't even know. The feelings are still there and I am currently sitting safely in my warm, cozy apartment.

Inside a solitary confinement cell at Hohenschonhausen:

Water torture was used in this building. Also other sorts of torture (mostly psychological) such as ripping the one button off the prisoner's pants so that their pants could not stay up - humiliating the prisoners and showing, even more so, who has the power in the situation.

Our guide was really good. She was good with the students and really knew her stuff - she had a story and/or answer to each question asked.

A hallway of solitary confinement cells:

Across the way, in another building, was where the psychological torture took place. There were solitary confinement cells again but this time there were also red lights at the end of each hallway. Once you were a prisoner here, you only ever saw your guard or your interrogator again. As the guard walked you to the interrogator's office, if the red light went on, it meant that another prisoner was coming down the other (perpendicular) hallway. The prisoner would be made to face the wall, then sent into an open cell at the end of the hallway, left free for this occasion... once the other prisoner passed, then this one would be led out and continue on.

Prisoners were tortured psychologically by not being allowed to sleep. The guards looked into each room every 2 to 3 minutes (one man was apparently able to hang himself during that short amount of time)... if they saw a prisoner not sleeping in the mandatory position (one that is extremely uncomfortable and nearly impossible to sleep in), the guards would bang on the door and yell - also keeping others in the hallway awake. Prisoners were required to sit in a specific position as well... with legs spread as wide as they could go and their hands under each thigh... a position that makes a person feel vulnerable as well as uncomfortable after some time.

Below are photos from this building... I didn't take many... the entire visit was uncomfortable, scary, and chilling...

The most powerful part of this visit, however, happened for our entire group as the very end of the visit...

We were all standing in an office where interrogations took place and the tour guide was finishing up the tour. She then asked if we had any questions (which she had done throughout the tour as well). Thankfully, one of our students spoke up and said something along the lines of -- "You have told us stories about some of your colleagues here that were prisoners themselves or had connections to the prison. Do you have a personal connection to this detention center?"

Our guide would not have told us if this student had not asked... her father was a prisoner at Hohenschonhausen. She then went on, quite (surprisingly) comfortably to tell us that her father was a prisoner here for a few years but lived through it. He then married and had both her and her sister. She said that just by looking at her father, a person is able to sense that something horrific happened to him in his life. He says that he has never been the same (understandably so) and he only takes about the prison now and then in a joking manner. Wow.

Asked how her father feels about her working in this prison now and walking through the cells each day, she said that he is actually supportive of it. He wants people to know what happened here and have it never happen again.

It was pretty incredible to have our guide share this with us and made the entire experience even more real for all of us. The students and I were quite impacted. 

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