‘I stayed here once,’ our red-haired guide shares matter of factly, as we follow her though the cold, lank corridors of Hohenschönhausen.
I stop and look again. Actually, I grab Ed and whisper sharply, ‘what, she was here – when?’ You can see the rest of group pause, re-gather. A ripple of disbelief runs through us.
We are on a tour through Hohenschönhausen, a large, wan-looking building in a quiet, suburban district of East Berlin. Once a Nazi prison, when the regime fell, it was taken over by the Red army, then when the Berlin wall went up, the Stasi, as a place to hold political prisoners. As far as buildings go, it should have been notorious. But actually, for many years after the wall fell, nobody knew it was there. ‘It was not on the map,’ our guide tells us, the Stasi did not want us to know it was there.
Our guide is here to tell her story. She got lucky. She was taken by the secret police in 1989; one of a group of students whose protest was so polite and well thought through you would have thought it the perfect thought-crime. All supporting a DDR rally, standing separately, holding banners stating lines from their government’s constitution: ‘freedom of speech’ ‘privacy at home’ and ‘equal rights’ like model East German citizens – and all picked up by white vans with black windows a few days later.
‘When they took you, you would be driven around the city for over an hour’. The prison was only a 15 minutes bike ride away but the idea was to make you feel completely lost.
The Stasi tactics are strangely fascinating. We stop outside a cell door, where our guide was imprisoned for only 3 months before the wall fell, and peer in. ‘You see the bed. It was tilted up at the head, because at night the guards would turn on a very bright light so it would shine in your face and you could not sleep. You would never see another prisoner. If we had to move, the guards would escort us and signal to the next guide to make sure no one else was in the corridors. One time, another prisoner was put into my cell. I later found out she was from the Stasi to see if I would confess.’
Our final stop is the torture room. Sterile with just a simple, wooden desk and chairs and bars across the windows it’s far less terrifying than I thought it would be. I glance at our guide to check her reaction. The constant questioning, the sleep deprivation, the un-human loneliness – of course she confessed, everyone did, our guide almost laughs at the very idea – but how did she handle it?
‘You know,’ our guide says smiling momentarily, as we wait expectantly, ‘the guards of this prison still live in this area.’
And I get the feeling that now she’s facing her past. And fighting it back.
We wander out of the prison doors shivering and elated in the cold Berlin sunshine. Freedom.