When I set out for Berlin, I had no idea I would have the chance to visit the Stasi’s infamous Hohenschönhausen prison. Not realising and not planning for it was a grave oversight.
Anyone with an interest in a divided Germany, the Stasi or totalitarian history should have this memorial on their radar. In the months (okay, years) leading up to my museum weekend in Berlin, I’d lived and breathed this stuff. So I should’ve known.
Fortunately, I figured it out in time, with a quick search on my phone outside the Stasimuseum. As quickly as I could, I started checking opening hours, bus routes and entry prices. My best option was an Uber ride in order to make it before the memorial closed. Never was anyone in such a hurry to make it to Hohenschönhausen.
Getting to Hohenschönhausen Memorial
Though I can’t remember the exact country, I recall that my Uber driver hailed from the Middle East. We spoke of poetry and government secrets, both muddling through a relatively challenging conversation in German with our own respective and twisted accents. And I was mildly comforted by the fact that he hadn’t even known Hohenschönhausen prison existed, after living in Berlin for decades.
As we pulled up to the ever-ominous building, I jumped out and ran inside the gift shop and reception area.
Here, I was told that memorial visits were strictly by tour with museum.
I must’ve flinched. Perhaps I swore in English. Maybe it was just obvious that I wasn’t German.
Because the very next line was, “there aren’t any more tours in English today”.
“Gibt es wieder ‘was auf Deutsch?” (I don’t think I need to translate my response, do I?)
From there I was told that the last tour (German or otherwise) had already started, but they were watching a short film, which I’d missed the beginning of it, but I could join the group. I hustled to pay and tried to run without looking like I was running through a memorial site off to the screening room.
Everyone’s head swivelled as I opened the door and took as seat at the very back. Self-conscious, and not for the last time during my visit to the Stasi prison, I settled into the uneasiness of the film. There wasn’t much left of it, and we were invited out to the courtyard by our guide.
A moment of truth... in German
My day had already been awash with life in the DDR for ordinary Germans and a view of life and work for the upper echelons of the Stasi.
Now, I was listening to our guide, a former inmate of Hohenschönhausen during the 1980s relate his history with the prison, and the history of the prison itself.
He also wanted to know our interest in visiting the memorial. One-by-one, each person in the group spoke. Each one was German. Each one was with their spouse or a family member. Each one shared a snippet of their life in the divided country.
I trembled waiting for my turn. For some reason, I was terrified to say that I was an American, living in South Africa, who’d come to Mannheim to study German, was just in Berlin for the weekend (without any family or friends in the area), and that my interest in Stasi history runs deep, but I hadn’t lived through it. Finding the words in German wasn’t terribly difficult. It was the public speaking in front of a dozen German strangers – and the hope that I wouldn’t pique any interest.
Mercifully, everyone appeared to understand my German – and no one felt the need to revert to English in the few intra group interactions we had thereafter.
The cells underneath Hohenschönhausen
And then we headed to an older wing of the Hohenschönhausen prison – in the cellar.
We were warned of the smell, clinging in the oxygen-deficient air. We were told that we could head out to the courtyard and wait if breathing underground became problematic. And, I thought our guard was kidding.
You’ve been told (presumably, or maybe it’s just the vegan stuff I watch) that animals can smell fear. And, if you have a pet, you’ve experienced this first-hand when you take them off to the vet. It doesn’t matter how overly-sanitised the reception smells, the quality of the treats on the reception desk or the friendly pats of the staff. The most docile cats and dogs would rather claw off their loving owner’s face than go into that building, or worse, the examination rooms.
I can only assume it’s because the whole place smells of pain, deprivation, torture, terror. That’s exactly what it’s like walking through the corridors underneath Hohenschönhausen. I don’t even know if it’s a matter of oxygen-deficient air as much as it is a nondescript and overpowering heaviness that pushes on your chest, your soul. It’s powerful, and it lasts. There’s no way this place ever left the prisoners detained here. I was downstairs for half an hour, max, and it’s not left my consciousness in peace.
I wanted to escape upstairs – and for more than one reason.
The first I can’t describe any further. It’s an altogether painful space to be in, even without the detention and torture stories related to us while we were down there. When our guide singled me out with questions, I felt hollow somehow.
It’s worth mentioning that question were thrown my way because they were related to how outsiders might perceive situations, not because he was picking on my accent or the trouble I had finding complex German words.
Secondly, the underground cells were older, used as detention facilities shortly after World War II. They had relatively little to do with the psychological torture techniques employed by the Stasi – as you’d see in Das Leben dere Anderen (The Lives of Others) which was partly filmed on the premises.
Life in the infamous Stasi prison
With some relief, we ascended the stairwell into the courtyard and headed towards the Stasi’s detention block.
It was already dark, and definitely eerie. Someone came to inform our guide that we were running out of time before the memorial would close for the day – just at the moment the tour became fascinating.
Our guide began explaining daily life as a Stasi political (ideological) prisoner in Hohenschönhausen. It was hellishly isolating to live in a single cell block, not knowing who else was housed alongside you. That was part of the terror.
But he also recounted stories I truly never would have imagined – and haven’t really stumbled on since.
In the mornings, our guide would wake in a room much like the one below. The guards would bring breakfast and deliver whatever small luxuries they were entitled to before taking a shopping list away.
Yes, guards would accept the shopping lists of (probably select group of) prisoners and deliver the items later in the day. Obviously, inmates weren’t getting caviar and top-shelf vodka (no matter how close Stasi ties were to their Russian counterparts), but you could assume that sodas and writing papers would make it through the system. Moreover, there were cigarette deliveries included in the daily shopping.
Our guide explained that when someone was detained by the Stasi, family members would take up collections in their communities and churches. This was the money the Stasi used to procure luxuries for inmates. It’s rather unthinkable today. Can you imagine a collection plate in a country church service handed round to ensure a prisoner (no matter the circumstances) got his daily pack of smokes?
This story, like the smell underground and the maddening linoleum pattern in the hallways, makes me wonder at the details I just don’t know.
Then again, I nearly missed Hohenschönhausen entirely – a lesson in checking your interests to see what’s available (not checking availability to see what interests you).
I wanted more stories, to stay through the night, asking questions and exploring the buildings. But we were hurried out into the dark, almost as quickly as I had sprinted in.
Perhaps that’s the way it was supposed to be – furtively in and out of a hidden space. That’s certainly the way Hohenschönhausen was. But, unlike most residents, I’m eager to return.
What you need to know about Hohenschönhausen Memorial
Genslerstraße 66 | 13055 Berlin
- 256 | Große-Leege-Straße / Freienwalder Straße
- M5 | Freienwalder Straße
- M6, 16 | Genslerstraße
Daily | 9h00 to 18h00
Visitation by guided tour only
- German | daily, every hour from 10h00 to 16h00
- English | Saturdays and Sundays, 14h15 and 15h45 only
- Adults | € 6.00
- Concessions | € 3.00
- School students | € 1.00
Concessions include university students, trainees, visitors with severe disabilities, visitors in possession of the berlinpass, recipients of unemployment benefits, unemployed visitors, federal volunteers, and members of victim committees of political persecution in the GDR.