A Personal Account About Life Under the Dictatorship of the GDR
I am a daughter of a West-Berlin woman and an East-Berlin man who tried to free himself but was caught. This is a story about life under the GDR-Dictatorship.
The other day I picked up my father to go for a walk. While he was getting ready, I was looking at a book laying on the living room table: Freigekauft, Der DDR-Menschenhandel by Kai Diekmann (Ed.) (“Paying for Release, The Human-Traficking of the GDR”). He looked over my shoulder and said: “Look! Here you can see how my outside cell looked like”, and turned the page. A 1x3 meter roofless cage with a concrete floor, surrounded by a wall of bricks. On the side you could see the wooden footbridge where an armed guard would patrol back and forth. “Five minutes per day. I calculated it: 30 hours in the first year I could feel the sun on my face! Can you imagine?!”, my father said. No, I couldn’t.
I have asked my father many times about his time in prison, about his life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), about school, what was different, why he wanted to flee, how it felt to stay two years in prison and how that had changed him. I tried to do an interview, tried to ask and write him questions, I tried to record his answers, but I always lost track. However, this article shall serve as a first written record about my father and his personal fight against a dictatorship. It shall show my respect I have for him as a person and the things he went through. It shall also serve as one more component in the row of incidences we must always remember and mustn’t ever forget.
My father wasn’t a revolutionary, he wasn’t an activist, he wasn’t part of any rebellious group trying to fight the government. My father was simply a young man who wanted to live his life, to have the possibility to go where he wanted to and choose the education he liked most. However, in the GDR nothing of this was possible.
The Erection of the Berlin Wall
On August 13, 1961 barriers of barbed wire were erected at many places in and around Berlin. The blocking of the borders of the sectors in West-Berlin was taking place. Two days later the first pieces of the Berlin wall were put up around East-Berlin. On August 23, five of the 12 border crossing-points were closed. People from East-Berlin were prohibited to enter West-Berlin. One day later the first refugee was killed at the Berlin-Wall.
Growing up in the GDR
One year later my father was born. He didn’t get to know Berlin without a wall, but neither was it a problem to accept that nor was it a problem to get integrated. It was the system, and the system was reality. However, this feeling changed at the age of around 13 or 14, when my father grew older. At school they were taught that socialism was the only true political and social form of government — that was fine until my father received more information about the “capitalist evil unbearable world” on the other side of the wall. Friends and family reported very normal things or even talked of better living conditions. Besides the growing understanding of being a prisoner in his own country, it became more and more difficult to believe what was taught in school. The fact that he asked questions concerning his doubts and didn’t receive any satisfying answers led to the point where he didn’t believe anything he had learned. He himself wanted to find out about “the other side”. With around 16, my father was through with the system and wanted to leave as soon as possible. He started to understand that it was a system full of lies, contradictories, hypocrisy, and surveillance.
The Urge to Escape
Before the ideas of an escape became more concrete, my father protested through small actions expressing his anger and dissatisfaction. Whenever he talked about the government he made sure that someone heard him. Whenever he turned 17 and started his apprenticeship as a carpenter he left the FDJ (Free German Youth). A big step during a time where only few would leave the movement and where not being a member in the FDJ or the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) could mean to lose one’s job or to never even get one, including a high school diploma or any kind of apprenticeship. Many of my father’s friends admired him for his courage, but didn’t have the nerve to do the same.
Getting forward in his apprenticeship and moving out from home with the age of 17, the idea to escape became more and more an urging desire, forming itself to something definite. Conversations with friends became outspoken plans about possibilities to get away. The only problem was that they didn’t have a good idea — there wasn’t anybody to ask, because the ones who made it were in West-Berlin and the ones who hadn’t made it in prison. However, there was someone who knew someone who had helped a couple of friends to cross the border through hiding them in the trunk. This was a very dangerous method and the reason why the one had stopped to do so. Nevertheless, the one who had made it send plans and pictures of a spot of the wall he thought was fitting to cross; through telephone they arranged a date.
Three days before the combined day the Stasi (the state security service of the GDR) captured my father. My father remembers having been away for a couple of days, so whenever he came back he needed to do some groceries. Going to the bakery and the grocery store he was on his way home with two full bags when a guy in civilian clothes stopped him to confirm who he was. My father approved the question, but whenever he started to have doubts about the guy it was already too late, he was cornered by two other men. They put on handcuffs, entered the waiting Fiat LADA and drove to the police station at the Alexanderplatz. The two grocery bags were left behind.
At the police station my father was kept for one day and one night. After admission and taking photographs he was brought to the room of interrogation. There was a man, a desk, and a chair he had to sit on, an audio recorder, and time, too much time that didn’t pass. After the interrogation my father had to sign the protocol although it included many things he hadn’t said. Step by step, moment by moment, my father realized that he wasn’t leaving this place at no time soon. Whenever he asked the officer behind the desk what was going to happen and the man answered that he would get at least six years, my father started to cry. He was 18 at the time.
The dominating reason why he and his friends wanted to flee from the GDR wasn’t political. They just wanted to be free. A desire that is a normal consequence of an inhibited life. My father was stopped by the police two to three times a day to show his documents, just because he was wearing jeans and had long hair. He didn’t fit the raster of the GDR. Being treated like this on a daily basis he became weary, developed hatred. Wishful thinking became an idea, which became a necessity, a compulsion with the need to become realized no matter the sacrifices. He preferred the risk to get shot than to stay there. Looking at this feeling from today’s perspective, my father admits having been naïve. However, without the naïve and rebellious intuition, my father would have never had the courage to flee. Nevertheless, nobody knows what would have happened if the Stasi wouldn’t have picked him up three days before the combined day. Maybe they saved his life without knowing it.
Life in Prison
The next morning, my father was brought to the pre-trial detention in Pankow, where he spent his first year in prison. There, he not only had to change his clothes to a blue overall and grey felt slippers, they also cut off his shoulder-length hair — a humiliating moment.
The food was extremely bad and they could take a shower only once a week. A few days later another prisoner joined him in his cell who was imprisoned because of selling watches. After half a year he shared a cell with a man who was a member of the Zentralbüro Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany). This was the moment where my father didn’t understand anything anymore, because he thought communists wouldn’t arrest each other. However, his cellmate was even more left than the GDR, calling them a fascist monopoly state. At this point my father started to get interested in politics.
During this time in prison my father was interrogated daily, being asked the same questions over and over again in the same manner, having to sign a protocol each time. At some point he had stopped to read it, knowing that only half of it was what he really had said. During this period, my father could only see his mother two times and the lawyer Mr. Schnur from the Vogel office once. Later he found out that Schnur had committed suicide after the collapse of the GDR having been revealed to be a Stasi spy.
After 10 months in prison the trial began in the court house near the Alexanderplatz. Some officers from the Stasi listened to the hearing in the courtroom. Before entering the courtroom, each time my father had to get completely undressed to undergo a body search and change clothes. In the waiting room he was joined by his lawyer to have a short talk and then entered the courtroom. The officials had already prepared everything. My father didn’t say anything. The decision of the court was §213 StGB/DDR two years and five months because of preparation of illegal crossing of the border and treason espionage §100 in combination with 63,64 StGB. After that, back to the small waiting room, getting undressed, body search, changing clothes and back to the pre-trial detention in Pankow. After a couple of days he was transferred to the prison in Cottbus, with a two weeks stay in the penal institution Rummelsburg.
Penal Institution Rummelsburg
In a grey small Barkas Bus, the VW of the East, which was renovated for prisoner transport for four people, in a very small and cramped cell, my father was brought to the prison in Rummelsburg. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the ride as it was the first time after a long time having the possibility to talk to other people. The prison in Rummelsburg was a kind of a “crossing-prison” for people like my father, but also a pre-trial detention for criminals. There, the people were able to move more or less in an uninhibited manner on their floor. They had the possibility to buy some things in a small shop and to talk to other imprisoned. Instead of the blue uniform with soft slippers from the pre-trial detention, they now were dressed in old uniforms from different labour unions, blue and green uniforms from the army, the police, the railroad. There were two different types of prisoners: the so called Vergeher, minor offence, who got less than one year and four months, and the Verbrecher, the criminals, who became more than one year and four months in prison — my father was classified to the second group. The uniform of the second group was marked with stripes on arms and legs. The former could also move quite freely within their corridor of their floor during day and night, whereas the latter was locked away during the night. During the day there was one hour to walk on a concrete courtyard within small groups. For the first time after one year, my father could buy something extra, a sausage or a piece of cake, at the small shop in prison.
After two weeks, my father was brought to the prison in Cottbus with the so called Grotewohlexpress (GSTW), the train that collected prisoners and brought them from one prison to another, called after Otto Grotewohl, the first minister-president of the GDR (1949–1964). For my father, this train meant above all: waiting. Waiting for whatever reason. Waiting for other trains to pass, waiting to keep on going, and waiting again. The windows were blacked out and only through the slit of the upper tilted window they could catch a glimpse of the outside world.
Having arrived in Cottbus, an especially strict policeman explained how to fold up their clothes and shave their beards. Every single day, the imprisoned men had to shave. This strict officer came with a wad of cotton wool to stroke their chins. If a little bit of the cotton wool was left behind on the man’s chin, the officer would scream and shout and humiliate his victim.
Work in Cottbus
In Cottbus, my father shared his cell with nine other men. The cell had three three-bunk beds, a desk in the middle and four chairs, not enough for everyone. They worked in a three-times shift for the company called Pentacon, which made cameras for the GDR — a profitable business as the prisoners were cheap labor. There were different workshops of this company, each one responsible for a certain task. My father was allocated to the sector of metalworking, where he had to do different piece-works, for example boring holes in small metal plates or milling small metal pieces for the cameras. In the end of the day, the pieces that had been worked on were counted, a number was noted beside the person’s name and off to the cell. Next day. Each week their was a different task to fulfill. After a few months, my father was allocated to do the job of the installer, being responsible for the machines, to adjust the right angle and to see that the result had always the same quality. There were three shifts per day and all the cell members went off to work and off of work at the same time, so nobody would ever be alone in the cell.
Filling Free Time in Cottbus
During his free time, my father read a lot, played cards with his cell mates, and started to tattoo, which happened as follows: Especially the criminals were often times tattooed from head to toe, as my father remembers. They dealt with the civilian employees from the workshops in order to get ink for tattooing. At first, some became aware of my father’s drawings he made out of boredom (paper and pencil were allowed to have). Soon, they asked him to draw images that served as patterns for the tattooer, mostly faces of girls. He would sell them for something like 15 Mark. As the majority of the imprisoned didn’t stay longer than half a year, my father was soon the one who had stayed in prison the longest and the ones who knew how to tattoo were gone. That was the point where my father started to tattoo. The oldest of the cell, the Stubenältester, had an unfinished snake, which started at his foot, winding around his leg and his hip and stopped on his chest. This guy wanted my father to finish his snake. As my father knew to draw quite well, he did finish the snake and even gave the drawing a 3D effect. The guy loved it and quickly my father’s skills circulated on their floor. Some nights he let himself be locked up in another man’s cell to finish a tattoo during the night, where another guy would replace his position in his cell saying his name. Through tattooing, my father could earn some extra money, being able to buy another snack and some more cigarettes.
Playing Cards and Reading bad Books
Another occupation was playing cards, in German Bierlachs or Bierlatz. This is a type of Skat where the loser must pay a round of beer for everyone. Well, as there wasn’t any beer around in prison, they played Tortenlachs, where the loser had to pay a round of cake for everyone. A third distraction was reading the many “shitty books” of their politically influenced library, as my father recollects. In Cottbus, the library seemed to have been bigger than in Pankow, but unfortunately not better. However, it didn’t really matter what to read, the main thing was to get the time to pass. There were a very few classics, Goethe’s Faust for example — my father read it at least three times and knew parts from memory.
My father was imprisoned for two years and five months, about one year in Pankow and one and a half in Cottbus. The only hope he had was to hold on to the belief of being bought from the West as it happened to almost everyone. Very few people were released back to East-Berlin. However, the days passed and passed and nothing happened, until the day my father realized he would be released back to East-Berlin. He sat in prison until the very last day of his sentence. He could never find out why they didn’t buy him free like all the others.
In 1984, from 2236 people being in custody, my father was one of the 101 who was not bought free from the Federal Republic of Germany (Wölbern 542). On January 1, 1984 my father left the prison in Cottbus with the jeans and the shirt he had worn two and a half years ago on his way from the grocery store back to his apartment, where he never had arrived. Having been arrested in summer, at his release his clothes were too thin for the time of the year, and he recalls being cold. Other than his clothes, he received his savings he had earned, something around 800 Mark. His prison mates had told him not to look back at the prison building: “When you turn around, you come back!”. For a long time, my father did not, but then he did turn around and looked at the building, nonsense, he thought, I will never come back to this shit-place, this Scheißladen. And he was right, he never returned. Being a little late, finally my grandmother and my aunt arrived with the car from Berlin to pick up my father. They had remembered which radio channel he used to listen to and on the ride back they turned it on. For the first time after two years, my father could listen to music again. Overwhelmed, he started to cry.
Back in East-Berlin
Within two or three days, my father had to show the document of dismissal he had received in prison to the People’s Police, the Volkspolizei, in order to get a normal identity card. Usually, in the GDR the people who returned from prison didn’t get a normal I.D., instead, they had to fulfill certain conditions, for example, having to move to a specific town where they couldn’t leave without asking for permission. Furthermore, they were allocated a certain job, they couldn’t choose. Against all expectations, my father did get a normal I.D. and was wished good luck on his search for employment. My father was astonished, because he knew that in the GDR you didn’t search for employment. However, he also knew that it wouldn’t be easy to get a new job, because nobody wanted a former political prisoner. Which was what happened. My father went back to the state opera where he had worked before, but they didn’t want him anymore. In the end, he found work at the CVJM, the Christlicher Verein Junger Menschen, (the christian association of young people), which helped people like my father. Within this association, my father helped to build and convert apartment buildings, apartments, and half-timbered houses.
Finally Leaving East-Berlin
After one year living without any future prospects, my father got back in contact with the friend he had planned to flee together with, who had also been imprisoned for around two years, but who had been released to West-Berlin. However, he had a friend who was willing to marry my father in order to get him out of East-Berlin: She came over, they got married in East-Berlin, then my father filed a petition for organized family reunion, which surprisingly was granted, and in 1984 he left East-Berlin at the border crossing-point at Friedrichstraße with two bags, one in each hand.
When I ask my father about his life in East-Berlin and his time in prison, he freely answers. He doesn’t have a problem to talk about it and doesn’t seem to mind talking about it. To me, it will always remain as something unbelievable. I was born in 1990 in Berlin. The wall had just come down and I had the luck to grow up in a free country. But this very same country, this very same city, just a couple of years ago, had imprisoned my father for the simple reason of wanting to leave the state!
Of course my father went through a difficult time and two years of his young life were taken away. He went into prison as a teenager and came out as an adult. Fortunately, he neither suffered nor was left traumatized from this experience. On the contrary, he was just more convinced that the GDR was an illegitimate state that couldn’t be accepted. My father would have never stopped to try to get away: “Either you had to get away or you had to fight against it, but never accept it!”, he says.
Today my father is a successful self-employed production manager and runs his own company. He produces various musicals and shows for different customers worldwide. He never had any problems to travel or leave the country ever again.
This article was written in a constant exchange and correspondence with my father. With this I want to sincerely thank him for sharing his story with us.