I had been living in Berlin for well over a month and had seen most of the tourist hot spots. When two friends were coming to visit from Bonn, I struggled to think of what we could do that I hadn’t seen already. As I was contemplating how to fill a rainy afternoon in Berlin, my friend suggested a tour of Hohenschönhausen Museum and Memorial. I jumped at the chance to explore a part of history that is a bit eery and off the well-beaten tourist trail.
Hohenschönhausen is known as the “Stasi Prison” from 1951 to 1989. This is where political prisoners underwent interrogation and torture until after the Berlin Wall fell.
We packed our day packs and made the short ride north to Hohenschönhausen on a gray and dismal day. I’m not sure if it was the bleak concrete walls with watchtowers and barbed wire fences, or the storm looming in the distance that blanketed our moods with anxiety and anticipation. As we entered through the concrete barrier, the interior of the former political prison unveiled itself. It was odd to see the bright green grass and red brick buildings contrasting against the gray of the concrete walls.
After purchasing an English guided tour in the gift shop, we were shuttled into a modernized conference room to watch an introductory film on the prison. The short film started with the history then slowly moved towards interviews of previous prisoners. As the film continued, my mouth slowing began to gape. I was aware of some of the horrors that occurred in East Berlin under Soviet occupation, but I was surprised by the magnitude of what happened at Hohenschönhausen.
When the lights flickered on at the film’s conclusion, our guide greeted us at the door to take us inside the prison. He explained that most tour guides are former Hohenschönhausen prisoners who use the tours as a form of therapy to heal their emotional pain and spread awareness about the prison. I felt deeply moved.
Our group was led down a flight of stairs which took us to a chilling hallway with prison cells on either side. I visibly shivered as I imagined what it would feel like to be trapped in these tiny, cold rooms with no natural light or a comfortable bed. As we moved upstairs, the amount of light and conditions of the rooms seemed to improve, until we learned the details of the psychological torture that was inflicted on the prisoners.
The guide explained how prisoners were allowed no contact with each other. To avoid any interaction, the Stasi guards implemented a traffic light system in the hallways. If another guard and prisoner were approaching, you would have to face the wall at a designated spot to avoid any potential communication. The only time prisoners were in a cell together was when a spy was planted in the room.
As a prisoner, the only interaction you had was with the Stasi officials interviewing you about your friends, family, and crimes. I’m sure it didn’t take long for Stockholm Syndrome to set in. On top of a complete lack of social inactivity, you were malnourished and severely sleep deprived. You had to sleep on your back with your hands above the covers. As you can imagine that’s not very comfortable. The guards would walk by and check on you frequently with a loud knock on the door or flicking the lights on. This prevented the political prisoners from getting proper sleep, in hopes of deteriorating their resolve.
It amazed me how everything was on camera and all conversations were recorded, but the most archaic system was the alarms. There was only a thin wire connecting each prison cell. If anything were amiss, a guard would pull the wire to alert the rest of the prison. The alarm system seemed so simplistic compared to the complex psychological forms of torture that were occurring.
After the tour concluded, I stepped outside and took a deep inhale of fresh air. I closed my eyes and let a few sun rays wash over my face before the clouds and rain regained control of the sky. The quote by George Santayana echoed in my mind, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
My friends and I started the trek back to the bus stop and I tried to save the memories from the past few hours in a special file drawer of my mind. My friends explained how they felt moved by the past three hours. One of my friends eloquently said, “The past feels like it should be much farther away from the present.”
How to get to Hohenschönhausen:
- Tram M5 from S/U-Bhf Alexanderplatz or S-Bhf Landsberger Allee (Direction Hohenschönhausen/Zingster Straße) to Freienwalder Straße.
Download: Info of Public Transport
- Tram M6 from S/U-Bhf Alexanderplatz or S-Bhf Landsberger Allee (Direction Hellersdorf/Riesaer Straße) to Genslerstraße.
Tram 16 from S/U-Bhf Frankfurter Allee (Direction Ahrensfelde) to Genslerstraße.
Download: Info of Public Transport
- Bus 256 from S/U-Bhf Lichtenberg (Direction Wartenberg) to Große-Leege-Straße / Freienwalder Straße.
*Article written by Colleen Kinsey. Colleen is the CEO of Kinseyco and creator of Travel Meets Happy. She continues to inspire others to pursue solo travels around the world. Follow her adventure on Instagram – @TravelMeetsHappy and Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/travelmeetshappy/
For more Cold War related sights, check out our article about Berlin’s Best Cold War Sights.