Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
With a social scene and population in persistent flux, Berlin always offers something different. But, however rapid its evolution, elephants remain in the room – the Wall perhaps the most obtrusive.
As an expat idiot living in Berlin, I was assigned plenty of recommended reading on the city’s fractured history. Of particular interest was Stasiland: Anna Funder’s brilliant and heart-wrenching excavation of stories from the former East Germany (GDR). That led me to take a tour of Hohenschönhausen – the most notorious Stasi prison – now a memorial and museum in Berlin’s north-east.
One of the guides there, Cliewe Juritza, spent his youth planning an escape to the West.
How often do you run tours of Hohenschönhausen?
This depends on the schedule and the number of bookings. Some days I do 3-4 tours, some days none. I am a single operator tour guide and I do a lot of tours in Berlin.
I was told that former Stasi officers sometimes join the tours and heckle or dispute the information being provided by the tour guides. Have you experienced this?
I have not experienced this in Hohenschönhausen but on my other guided tours. It is not my guests that are disputing, but other people hearing me talking on the streets to my group. With one man I started to discuss the changes after the end of the GDR. He was convinced that things were better before. During the discussion he got so furious that he shouted to me, “They have forgotten to shoot you.”
Another woman said, “The GDR was an internationally accepted state!” And another “I have never heard such rubbish.”
Why are those people convinced that things were better in the GDR? Whatever their views back then, surely they can appreciate Germany’s progress since reunification. Is there an element of residual brainwashing at play?
As always, there are people who benefit from certain situations. So there are those who were indeed better off in the GDR because they had privileges – even if they did not believe in the GDR system but collaborated with it for whatever reason (having an easier life, or seeing no alternatives). I don’t really think people were brainwashed.
The GDR was not North Korea. You could watch Western television; you had Western travellers, so the country was not encapsulated. Even when travelling to Poland (before Solidarność) or Czechoslovakia, you could see/feel a more open lifestyle. I once bought a pennant of the West-German soccer club Bayern München, in Poland, which was not available in the GDR. So everybody was able to look beyond one’s own nose.
Other people were better off in the GDR because the GDR did not know unemployment. Everybody had the right to have a job (read: everybody was obliged to work!). Even if there were no jobs, you could have one. Maybe not the job you wanted, but a job. So even if the salary was low, people were at work. After the fall of the Wall and German reunification, many jobs in the east disappeared because industries were highly inefficient.
In a democracy, it is required that people are self-reliant, that they stand up for their rights, that they participate in elections, that you make choices. In the GDR everything was predestined and choice was limited – people were immature in a way. That obviously created a feeling of security. The changes after 1989/90 were so drastic that some people have had difficulty coping with that.
Many people who were not actively involved in the system are in shock and have a kind of defensive attitude against the system of today. They feel they have to defend what they did in 40 years living in the GDR.
So did anyone genuinely believe the state propaganda or was compliance mostly borne out of fear of arrest?
Most people didn’t believe in the propaganda. It was not only fear of arrest, but also fear of losing their career, fear of losing privileges, better housing, money, permission to travel to Cuba or Soviet Union. My elder brother, for example, did not believe in DDR propaganda either but he took the chance to study medicine in the Soviet Union.
What compelled you to escape at such a young age? I imagine many children would accept the conditions of their world simply because they don’t know any different.
My frustration grew during my youth. I had the first Stasi encounter when I was 13. I wanted to buy a skateboard, which was impossible at that time in the GDR. In order to get a photo of a person on a skateboard, I entered the US embassy in East-Berlin (yes, back in the 70s you could enter an embassy without problems). Of course I did not get a skateboard in the embassy. When I left the building, a Stasi man came and took me for an interrogation.
When I was 14 years old I wanted to join the GDR merchant fleet. I wanted to see the world, which I could only see on (west) television. I was denied, because of the fact that my grandmother lived in West-Germany. Apparently that was regarded as too risky.
At the age of 15 I had to write an essay in school about the “antifashistic protection barrier” [sic] and I wrote everything I had learned about it: because of ‘Western sabotage’. But in the end I made the conclusion that the Wall was not necessary because I never had experienced Western sabotage. Days later, I had to line up in the headmaster’s office and explain my socialist way of thinking. I also had to withdraw my essay in front of my classmates.
You need to know that my family lived near the Berlin Wall, so I could see/encounter the Wall daily. We were able to watch western television and see the western world, watch American and West-German movies and feel the longing, maybe nostalgia, for the world outside.
At the age of 16 I went to the Australian embassy and asked for possibilities to migrate to Australia. The person at the embassy told me that I needed an education, professional forms, and that my home country would have to let me emigrate. After that, I had a map of Australia hanging in my bedroom and I started an education as a plumber.
I know you tried to escape to the West multiple times. Can you describe your escape attempts and how you were eventually caught?
[After being denied the chance to join the merchant fleet], I was really angry with the GDR and decided to try to leave the country as soon as I was 18. I stopped school at 16 years (even though my grades were good). I knew that if I ever came to West-Germany, the start over there would be easier if I already had a profession. That’s what the man in the Australian embassy had told me and it seemed logical.
The training days in the plumber firm were dull, so I thought about going to school again and remaining in the GDR to study art history. When I inquired about school and study, I was told that I had to go to the army (NVA) for at least three years first. That was absolutely too much for me.
I finished my education as a plumber. A few weeks after my 18th birthday, I wrote a note for my mother (“I have still some holiday days left, I will be back in 2 weeks”) and stepped on a train to Prague and from there to Budapest. My idea was that the iron curtain between Hungary and Austria might not be as thick as the Berlin Wall, which I regarded as absolutely impassable. This was in 1984.
In Budapest I bought a one way ticket to Sopron. A mistake. The police were obviously informed by the ticket seller because I was the only one whose passport and documents were checked by the police on the train. I had all my school and training diplomas and a compass with me; I slightly panicked and threw it all out the window.
Arriving in Sopron, the police stood ready with an interpreter and took me to an interrogation. I told them I was in Hungary for vacation and told them what I knew about the medieval Sopron. I am a tour guide in Berlin today, but I could have been a tour guide in Sopron back then because they let me go.
Together with the interpreter I went to a restaurant. After a glass of wine, the interpreter asked me to tell him why I really was in Sopron. I was alert, I had the feeling that the invitation of the interpreter was a continuation of the interrogation. I left him and strolled around the city, trying to find the right direction to the border (without my compass). But, everywhere I went, the police were visible and stopped me. In the end, they put me on a train back to the GDR.
Frustrated, I arrived back in the GDR and decided to try to cross the border between Thuringia and Bavaria. It was impossible to get close to the border without permission, so I waited in a forest until it was dark and tried to find the border fence. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anything – I let my bag dangle before me, so I wouldn’t run into anything. Finally I gave up and sat down and slept a little bit in the forest.
At dawn I got up and finally found the border fence. I was not at all prepared to cross a fence like this. I tried to climb up but as I touched the fence I got an electric shock. I tried to dig under the fence – impossible without tools, because of the concrete below. Then I saw a woodpile with long logs. I took one of the logs and leaned it against the fence. With that I triggered an alarm (a visible alarm lamp).
I knew I had alerted the guards and ran away through the forest and came to a small town. I flagged down a motorcyclist, who took me with him out of the town. We drove out of the place as the police drove into the town. My escape was successful.
What next? I would have to find a place to cross the border where no electricity was – a river was my idea. I went to a train station and took a train to Eisenach, which was near the river Werra. And again I was the only one who checked on the train. I was asked “do you want to escape?” I thought about the past days. I was hungry, exhausted, I had run out of money, sold all possessions I had with me. I saw no chance to cross the border except one: to be bought free/redeemed from prison by the Federal Republic of Germany as a political prisoner. That is why I answered, “yes”. The police took me with them, I was brought to prison.
What facilities were you imprisoned in, and what were the conditions like?
For the first 3 months I was in the remand prison of Berlin Rummelsburg. That was the hardest time – a tiny cell, totally cramped with 6 men. I was the only ‘political’ one. Nothing to do the whole day. The toilet in the room without any screen. Food was awful and you had to eat fast to get enough. I was not fast and always hungry.
After 3 months I was sentenced to one year in prison – a mixture of “he was young” and “he tried very hard to escape”. I came to the youth prison of Halle. The days there went by a little better because those who were already sentenced had to work in prison. And even dull work is better than being bored the whole day. You can leave the cell and live in bigger rooms. But in Halle I had to learn other prison rules: who is the boss and whom to avoid.
When my mother and sister visited me in Halle at the beginning of 1985, my sister told me the office of Wolfgang Vogel (the East-German lawyer who handled the redeem business) had told them I was not on the list of being ‘sold’ to West-Germany. I lost my temper and shouted that I would be demonstrating for my release from the GDR on Alexanderplatz. For that I was imprisoned in solitary confinement. Because I had defamed the GDR in public – ‘public’ meaning in prison in front of my mother, sister and the guards – and because I had threatened to commit a criminal act (demonstrating on Alexanderplatz).
During the days in single confinement I had heavy doubts if this was all worth it. Being alone and not able to talk to someone was as bad as being together with criminals in a small space. I was really happy when I could go back to ‘normal’ prison life after only five days of the confinement.
One day, I was just at my work (making fittings for light bulbs) when a guard came to pick me up. That was unusual so I knew something special was happening. I was brought to the prison of Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz). [At that point] I knew I would be released to West-Germany. I had already told my sister that if I ever wrote her a postcard from Karl-Marx-Stadt she would know that I was free. And I was. After 10 months in prison I was released to West-Germany.
After two days in the refugee camp in Gießen, after interrogations from the Western Allies, I went to live with my grandmother, went to school again, got my exam and started to study political science in West-Berlin in the spring of 1989.
Only since 2006/7 have I begun talking about my experiences in the GDR and begun to do research. I am still trying to find out why it was decided, and by whom, that I was redeemed – presumably because the GDR thought that I would be unteachable.
I have read documents about my prison time at the BStU (Stasi Records Agency). I found out that the small town where I tried to climb the fence must have been Mödlareuth (also called Little-Berlin, because there also was a wall).
[Here is a copy of my translated application for release from GDR citizenship that I wrote wrote in prison, and the Stasi was so nice to keep archived for me.]
When you accessed your Stasi file, was there anything surprising in there?
It took 20 years for me to think about these things and my wife urged me to request access to the file. I was surprised about the information in the file. As I was not politically active, there were no names in my file.
I was surprised to find extended information of my escape attempt and of my behaviour in prison and my personality (baaaad) and my supposed behaviour in the future (worse). Just an example about a medical check: “the prisoner is free of vermin”.
I also had the possibility to access the Stasi file of my grandmother, who was arrested in 1953 because she was a Jehovah’s Witness. That is a file full of names of people that she provided information on after hours and hours of interrogation. Really sad.
What is your opinion of Berlin today? It’s often been described as ‘not proper Germany’ – kind of an island within the rest of the country.
The artistic era in the centre of Berlin has long gone. Investors from all over the world are attracted by Berlin. Still, there are many memorials and I feel Berlin (and the city and German government) know their responsibility for preserving historical places. Compared to other cities like Moscow, London, New York or Paris, Berlin is a small town with a rural surrounding. In that way, Berlin is still an island.
What are your favourite places to spend time in Berlin?
At home in Weissensee – near Prenzlauerberg where I grew up. And I like to travel by bus through Berlin, just to relax.