by Guest Blogger
Living in a city that has seen such dramatic change within my lifetime has turned me into a bit of a history nerd. I read (and loved) Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, which describes the role the Stasi secret police played in the lives of East German citizens. One of the women interviewed in Stasiland had been arrested and taken to Hohenschönhausen Prison, which immediately leapt to the top of my list of places to see here in Berlin.
Hohenschönhausen Prison is located in Lichtenberg, in the far east of the city, smack dab in the middle of a neighbourhood. From the tram stop, there are no signs leading to the prison, no tourists, and without knowing where you are going, you might not find it. During the years in which the prison was in use, the streets were blocked off to create a restricted area, and residents most likely did not know what lay behind the walls.
The woman interviewed in Stasiland had no idea that the prison in which she was imprisoned was inside of Berlin. When prisoners were captured, they were driven around in a windowless truck (disguised as a delivery truck) for hours to distort their sense of direction, so that only after they were released did they realise they were still within the city of East Berlin. Prisoners were kept in complete isolation with absolutely no personal belongings and had no contact with anyone other than the prison guards; I cannot even begin to imagine how horrible that must have been.
The guided tours of the prison are given by people who were once prisoners at Hohenschönhausen, and our guide’s story completely blew me away. He had tried to escape East Germany by traveling to Prague and crossing the border into Bavaria, which at the time was in West Germany. He was caught and sent to numerous prisons, including Hohenschönhausen. Years after his release he discovered that his father was an informer for the Stasi and had been the one who alerted the secret police about his plan to escape. My mother-in-law asked him, “why don’t you leave East Berlin? Isn’t it painful to stay here and relive your experience?” His response was that he stayed and worked to make sure people do not forget the past, which must surely be therapeutic as well.
Certainly I am no expert, but the tour really ignited my interest in German history and specifically that of the DDR. I really want to go back to take the tour in English so I can understand 100% of the information given – understanding everything from the German tour was….. difficult (afterwards I had to discuss everything with my husband in English to make sure I understood it all). For more (and much better) images, check out the work of Philipp Lohöfener who was granted special access to photograph the prison, and created a wonderful series of images.
Ashley Ludaescher is a California girl living the expat life in Berlin. She is a photographer, proud mother of Olive’s BFF – the beautiful Hazel Blue – and she blogs at Chasing Heartbeats, where this article originally appeared. All words and images her own.