wrong color, wrong place, wrong turn
by A. Schneider
Copyright © 2017 Hutberg Verlag
All rights reserved
I was so tired, and I was feeling sorry for myself when I heard the phone ring. For most of the night, I hadn’t been able to sleep—only tossing and turning. Maybe it was a sense of foreboding. When I finally fell asleep, my husband’s alarm woke me. I had hardly gone to sleep again when René tumbled recklessly down the stairs. He was going to help out with the cooperative, and it was a special day for him because he would be allowed to drive a tractor with two trailers for the first time. When I heard him close the front door, I was convinced there would be no more disturbance, and now the damn phone was ringing.
I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t stop. I knew I had to get up, so I teased my eyes open. Since the drawn curtains let no daylight into the room, I only saw the luminous hands of the alarm clock on the nightstand. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock. Dammit! I asked myself, what kind of person could that be? On a Sunday morning!
I waited another moment hoping the phone would stop ringing, but far from it. I counted down from ten, braced myself and got up. If someone was that persistent, it must be something important.
The bright daylight hit me when I opened the bedroom door. I waited until my eyes got used to the new conditions, walked over to the telephone and picked up. “This is Streichwitz three, seven, o!”
“This is the People’s Police headquarters Eisenhuettenstadt. Am I speaking with Mrs. Schneider?”
Hearing this, I was suddenly wide awake. So two trailers had been too many! “Yes?… Has my son been in an accident?” I said expecting terrible news.
“No, he broke out of prison.”
I had to swallow the lump in my throat before I was able to speak again. “What?”
“He’s one of a group that broke out of the holding center in Frankfurt this morning,” the voice said.
“But he… he doesn’t live here anymore. We haven’t had contact with him for weeks. If he’s done something, it’s none of our business.”
“It doesn’t matter. We need you to come to Frankfurt immediately,” the caller said. His voice was cold and demanding.
“I don’t have a car. My husband is en route with it,” I said.
“You’re husband’s not home?”
“As I said.”
There was a pause. The caller seemed to be thinking. “Alright,” he finally said. “Get ready. I’m sending someone to pick you up.”
I stood there paralyzed, the receiver still in my hand even though the line was dead. I was shocked and needed to digest what I had just heard: André, my oldest son, had broken out of the holding center. Three weeks earlier we were informed by the police that he had been arrest for attempted flight from the GDR. What the hell was wrong with this boy? Was I awake, or was this a nightmare?
I turned around slowly and looked through the living room window at the rural environment. Everything seemed real: the geese on the lawn across the street, the barking of a dog and the distant sound of a circular saw—a typical Sunday morning in Streichwitz. The blue, cloudless sky and the sun, whose warm rays flooded the living room, heralded a beautiful Indian summer day.
I came just out of the bathroom when the doorbell rang. I hadn’t even had 15 minutes. Looking through the living room window, I saw a blue Moskwich parked in front of the house. I answered the door. It was a young man.
“Good morning! Are you Mrs. Schneider? I’m here to pick you up.”
We drove in silence. After a while, I addressed him, “Can you tell me what happened exactly?”
“Please be quiet,” the young man said without taking his eyes off the road. “I don’t know anything. I’m just a driver.”
I tried to think of something else and concentrated on the surrounding. I had to think of René when I saw the harvest vehicles on the roads and fields. I remembered that I forgot to leave a message for Ralf, my youngest. He would be wondering why he was all alone in the house when he got up. Then my thoughts drifted to Andy. The last time I had seen him was about four weeks ago: I was shopping in Eisenhuettenstadt when he walked toward me with two of his buddies on Lenin Avenue. Our eyes met for a second when we passed each other without saying a word—like two strangers. There was nothing to say between us anymore, and I didn’t even feel sorry because I was still thinking about the phone call from my daughter–in–law a few days earlier. “I just want to let you know that I divorced your son. I tried everything to save our marriage but in the end I had to give up…” She told me how she had been treated by him lately, that he was drunk almost every day and that there was only one topic of conversation for him: How could he escape to the West. He didn’t give a damn about his family. He didn’t care that his daughter who was just a few months old would grow up without a father. When I heard this, I decided that the boy was dead to me.
We drove into Eisenhuettenstadt and left the F 112 that leads to Frankfurt. While we were waiting at a red light, I ignored the young man’s gag order: “I thought we were going to Frankfurt.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” he said without looking at me. “I have the order to bring you to Eisenhuettenstadt People’s Police headquarters.”
“Why are you doing this?” I said. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?” I felt a mixture of anger and powerlessness.
The young man turned his head and shot me an unapologetic glance. “You’ll learn soon enough what’s going on.” He took off like a shot when the light turned green.
After driving for a few more minutes through the deserted streets of Eisenhuettenstadt, we arrived at the police headquarters. A strange feeling crept up on me when we drove through the iron gate into the building complex. So many times I had been there either for ID matters or to apply for my mother’s annual visitor’s visa. But in all these cases, I walked in through the front entrance. Indeed, these long halls whose waxed floors shone in the neon light with these rows of folding seats beside the office doors always emitted a certain coldness. But never before had I had a strange feeling like this. Being in this yard, surrounded by high walls, seeing the many parked police cars, the barred windows on the rear of the building and the barking dogs in their cages, I felt as if I was at the mercy of an unknown power.
The young man led me past the security guards up the stairs to the third floor of the empty and lifeless building. He stopped at the end of the hall and opened a door. “Wait in there!”
Two people—a man and a woman—were waiting in there. Seating myself across from the two, I nodded a shy hello at them. They responded in the same reserved way. There was absolute silence over the next couple of minutes.
I cautiously eyed up the two and noticed them doing the same with me. I guessed the woman to be my age, maybe a little older, but the man was certainly in his sixties. Both of them had a healthy tan. When the woman squeezed the man’s hand and gave him an encouraging nod, I realized they were a couple. The man released a sigh. Then it was still again for a couple of minutes, so still one could have heard a pin drop.
At some point, the woman locked eyes with me and smiled at me shyly. Then she whispered something to the man. He thought for a moment and nodded. Finally, he also established eye contact with me. He cleared his throat and said: “Are you also here because of your son?”
I nodded. Now it was clear that we were fellows in misery.
“What exactly did they tell you?” the woman said. “They didn’t give us any information at all.”
“Same here,” I said.
Disappointment took hold of the woman’s expression.
“Pretty stuffy in here,” the man said after another spell of silence. He got up and walked over to the window to open it. Hardly any fresh air came in, though. The only effect was that we heard the barking of the dogs now.
“We’re just back from a vacation in Hungary,” the woman said. “We hardly slept. They got us out of bed at eight.”
“And if you ask what’s going on, you only get dumb answers,” the man said.
The woman nodded and took over again: “We didn’t even know that our son was in jail.” She glanced over to the door. Then she leaned in and lowered her voice: “But he spoke a lot of leaving the GDR lately… Yours too?”
“Um… no,” I lied. Everything was already bad enough as it was. I didn’t want to make it worse by making careless remarks.
Again nobody said anything for a while. From time to time, everybody looked at their watches, wondering. Nothing happened. I tried to start another conversation, “How was your vacation?”
“Fantastic,” the woman said. “We were at the Balaton. Every day thirty degrees.”
“I can tell that from the great tan you have,” I said.
“Hungary is such a beautiful country,” the woman said and told me all about their vacation there. It helped pass the time.
The door opened again after about an hour. A police officer led us down to the yard, where we were asked to get into a Lada. The couple was in the back and I in the front passenger seat.
“I have no idea!” was the driver’s brusque response when we asked him what was going on. Apart from that, there was an icy silence in the car until we arrived in Frankfurt. When we drove into the city, this icy silence turned into a silent horror because of what we saw: The city core was cordoned off by soldiers. There were vehicles of the riot police and hundreds of uniforms on the streets. On the balconies of the prefab buildings, there were countless onlookers.
They stopped us at a checkpoint. After our driver showed his ID, they let us pass. Now the view changed. Suddenly the streets were empty and lifeless. There were no more rubberneckers on the balconies. Instead, there were men in bulletproof vests with rifles, obviously marksmen. “They’re going to shoot our boy,” I heard the woman whisper.
I felt as if I was in a bad dream. I could hardly stop myself from crying. I have just a hazy memory of how we drove into a police station, got out of the car and walked into the building.
“Did your son also break out?… Hey!” Hearing this piercing voice was when my memory set in again.
“Yes,” I said trying to find my bearings. I was sitting on a folding seat in a hall, beside me this busty, heavily made–up broad.
“So we’re fellow sufferers,” she said. Then she pointed at the petite blonde woman who was sitting on her left–hand side. “Her son is in on it too.” Apparently, the two women had already become acquainted with the couple while I was disconnected from reality.
“What did they tell you?” the busty woman said.
“Nothing!” I didn’t feel like talking to her. First and foremost because I had the impression that she didn’t get the seriousness of the situation. This feeling was corroborated when a tall, gray–haired police officer, probably the chief of the precinct, approached us.
“Good morning!” he said with cold politeness. “I want to inform you officially that your sons broke out together from the holding center, just a few hundred meters away from here. One of our comrades from this precinct, who wanted to stop them, has been shot. He’s severely injured. Your sons have holed up with several hostages in an apartment. They threatened to kill the hostages if they don’t get a free passage to West Berlin.”
After a moment of awkward silence, the busty woman’s piercing voice sounded: “I hope you’re not going to hurt my son. I’m sure he’s been dragged into this. What’s the deal with all the soldiers out there? What are they gonna do? Shoot my son? What I don’t get is why I’m here in the first place. I have a pub.” Glancing at the expensive watch on her wrist, she added: “The morning get–together started an hour ago.”
“I’m so sorry for you, but I’m afraid today you’re not going to make it for your morning get–together,” the police officer said shaking his head. Then he walked away.
“I can’t believe it! No answers!” the busty woman said, looking at us, her fellow sufferers, to get our support. But we only looked shamefacedly at the floor.
I had a tight feeling in my throat when I heard what the police officer said. I couldn’t believe that my son, the boy I had bourne and raised to the best of my abilities, was able to take part in such a terrible crime. Was this still my boy?…
I got up if by remote–control when a plainclothesman asked me to come with him. He led me to a room on the first floor. There, he ordered me to sit while he seated himself behind the table. I averted my eyes when he gave me the once–over. “Your particulars!” I heard him say in a robotic voice.
I raised my eyes and without looking at him rattled off my date and place of birth and address.
He jotted everything down with a red fountain pen. Then he said, “Where exactly is Streichwitz?”
“Not far from Eisenhuettenstadt,” I said.
He nodded slightly and continued his interrogation: “Your profession?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Your husband’s profession?”
“He’s also a teacher.”
The man scrutinized me again, then put the fountain pen down and leaned back in his chair. “Your son’s the ringleader. He shot the police officer. Nobody knows if the man’s going to make it.”
If this piece of news was supposed to shock me, it did the job. I felt as if I was hit by a sledgehammer. I couldn’t take any more. I felt dizzy and almost fell off the chair. “What have I done to deserve this?” I kept asking myself while the man continued with his robotic voice:
“To put an end to this, we need you to address your son through a megaphone and talk some sense into him.”
He hardly finished his sentence when I shook my head vigorously. “My son and I have only been fighting lately. I’m sure I’m the last person that can get through to him. He wouldn’t listen to me. On the contrary, my intervention would make everything worse.”
“Hmm.” The man stared at me. “So you refuse to cooperate? Is that what you’re doing?”
I could tell from the way he talked to me that he didn’t have any empathy for me. My eyes welled up, and large tears ran down my cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry… I’m hoping the policeman will be alright again soon. I don’t know what’s gotten into my son. The only thing I know is that he’s not gonna listen to me.”
The man, entirely untouched by my emotional outburst, shot me a disparaging look. Then he went on: “Why is your husband not here?”
I got a handkerchief out and blew my nose before I answered. “He left early this morning. He’s on a school trip here in Frankfurt. He doesn’t know yet what has happened.” The crying brought me some relief and calmed me down.
“He has no clue about anything, eh?” the man murmured to himself. He took the fountain pen and jotted something down. “That’s a strange coincidence. Don’t you think?”
“What is?” I said having no idea what he meant.
“You can drop the act,” he said. “We’ll find out the truth… the whole truth!” His robotic voice had a threatening undertone now.
I tried to hold his stare but gave up. I didn’t have the strength to stand up against this man. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Maybe about your husband coming here today to help your son to break out?” he said. “Maybe about you guys planning the whole thing together, but it didn’t work out the way you expected it to?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “No!” I said. “You’re wrong!” I had to swallow before I could continue speaking: “My husband being here in Frankfurt is a total coincidence. You have to believe me.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” the man said glaring at me. He wrote something down before asking the next question: “Do you have family in the West?”
“My mother and distant relatives on my husband’s side,” I said relieved that he seemed to believe me regarding my husband’s stay in Frankfurt.
“How is the contact?”
“It’s close with my mother but sporadic with the rest.”
“Let’s talk about your mother,” the man said.
I thought and shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
“Her name for starters,” the man said. “If and how many times she visits; where she lives; what she does for a living.”
I groaned inwardly. I had a bad feeling about this. My mother would probably no longer get a visitor’s visa now. I told him her name and age and that she lived near Stuttgart until 1977 where she worked as a secretary. “Then she relocated to the GDR and lived here until she retired. Later she moved back to West Germany. Now…”
“Hold on!” the man, who eagerly took notes, interrupted. “Why did your mother relocate to the GDR and then go back to West Germany?” Chewing on his red fountain pen, he waited for my answer.
“I… wouldn’t know,” I said. Of course, I knew but thought it wouldn’t be wise to tell him. When she relocated in 1977, she expected something different from the GDR. She never had much time for socialism, but she wanted to be reunited with her family again. She wanted more than just the two weeks every year she was allowed to see her children and grandchildren. For this, she went out of her way and even accepted personal restrictions. Nevertheless, she realized late, too late, how much she denied herself. With her western habits, she simply couldn’t live in the GDR permanently. She couldn’t understand why you had to wait for a new car for more than a decade, something unheard–of in West Germany. She couldn’t understand why there weren’t any southern fruits in the shelves of the supermarkets. She couldn’t understand why so many buildings were decayed, and everything looked so gloomy. And she couldn’t understand why the socialist propaganda depicted life in West Germany so falsely and told so many lies. That’s why she went back. “She’s very fond of animals and loves nature,” I said. “She always wanted to live in the mountains. That’s why she went back I guess.”
“Hm.” The man knitted his brow. “There are beautiful corners here too… the Harz mountains or Thuringia. Why didn’t she move there?”
I shrugged. “She has a lot of friends there in the Black Forest. I… guess she missed them.”
The man made a note. He seemed to be content with this explanation.
“Has she ever influenced your son in a negative way?” he said. “I mean politically?”
“No way!” I shook my head. “My mother takes no interest in politics at all.”
The man jotted something down, then straightened himself. “Mrs. Schneider!” he said solemnly addressing me for the first time by my name. “Has your son ever spoken of leaving the German Democratic Republic illegally?” It was apparently the decisive question.
“No,” I lied without flinching. No matter how mad I was at Andy, he was and always would be my son. And I would never betray him.
“I suppose you’re familiar with section 213?” the man said glaring at me. “Maybe I should add that also collusion is punishable, actually the mere thought of it.”
“I didn’t know anything about it,” I said. “I can only repeat that we, my husband and I, haven’t had any contact with our oldest son for weeks.”
The man tried to intimidate me with his glare, but I was past my initial insecurity. The instinct to protect my family had prevailed. He inhaled sharply, then leaned back and said: “All right then. If we find out you’re involved, and we’re going to if it’s the case, there will be consequences for you, harsh consequences. You’re a teacher, and so is your husband. Under these circumstances, it’s even harder to understand how your son could turn out like this. Something or someone must have influenced him. We’ll find out what or who. Believe me!” After giving me the time to respond to his last remarks, which I didn’t, he got up. “Come on!” he said pointing at the door. “That’s it for the moment.”
I slumped into the folding chair beside the blonde woman, who was sitting alone in the hall now. After shooting me a few shy glances, she asked me what they wanted.
“He asked me a lot of questions,” I said. “But I guess what he wanted to find out was if I knew anything of this beforehand.”
“You mean of the prison break?” the woman said.
“And the attempted flight from the GDR they arrested him for in the first place,” I said.
“I visited my son two weeks ago,” the woman said. “He’s been in the holding center since August. Not in my wildest dreams I would have thought he could do such a thing.”
“Same here,” I said.
“Mine steals cars and drives around with them,” the woman said. “He was in a juvie before—for eight months. He just can’t help stealing cars. But he’s never been violent. That’s the part I don’t get.” She sighed and stared off. A wistful smile flashed over her face. “I always got along with him. But I think I’ve been too lenient on him.”
“I didn’t get along with mine at all lately,” I said feeling like sharing too. “There was no more getting through to him, at least for me.”
“How old is he?” she asked.
“Just twenty,” I said.
There was a long moment of silence again.
“I’m with the cooperative in our village,” the woman continued the conversation. “What do you do?”
I was about to answer when another plainclothesman approached us. “Come with me!” he said and motioned for the blonde woman to follow him.
I gave her an encouraging nod.
When the busty woman returned, she got going with her shrieking voice right away: “It keeps getting better. They accused me of having known that my son wanted to escape to West Germany.” She scoffed. “When I visited him the last time, he didn’t mention any of this. My boy is in because of auto theft, alleged. He has no time for the West. What would he want there? Them, with all their jobless and drug addicts. You can’t even walk along the streets at night without getting robbed. Socialism is much better. I’m convinced they talked him into all this. He shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. They only arrested him because of his prior convictions.” She looked at her watch. “I hope they’ll let us go soon. I’ve got better things to do than sitting here.”
I nodded to indicate that I had been listening. I had only known her for an hour or so, but I didn’t like her, fellow sufferer aside. Thank God I wasn’t alone with her for long. When the couple returned, her interest focussed immediately on them, “How was it?”
“We’re being treated like criminals here,” the man said after he seated himself. “There’s no other way to put it.” His voice trembled with disgust. “We arrived back last night from our vacation, and they accuse us of being part of the whole thing. And this cigarette smoke!” He gestured as if he was waving away cigarette smoke. “My wife and I are allergic to it. But this guy couldn’t care less. He smoked one after the other.”
The busty woman joined the man’s criticism telling him the same things she had told me before. Again she emphasized that her son was innocent and had been talked into taking part in the prison break by the others. That “the others” were our sons didn’t seem to bother her.
The blonde woman returned after twenty minutes. There was silence again. I couldn’t help thinking of my boy. Somehow there were no more hard feelings. He was my son after all, no matter what happened in the past. I prayed that the police officer’s injury wasn’t too bad. The mere thought of my son being a murderer was unbearable. But that he would be if the officer did not survive.
Suddenly there was hectic activity all over the place. Police officers walked up and down. We heard muffled voices from the offices but weren’t able to understand what they were saying. Shortly after, the chief of the precinct approached us again saying: “I’m informing you that a SWAT has ended the hostage–taking.”
“What about our sons? Are they hurt?” the blonde woman asked for all of us.
“They’re unharmed and in custody,” the officer said.
Hearing this took a load off my mind.
“I want to see my son!” the busty woman said.
The officer shook his head. “I don’t think this is going to happen anytime soon.”
“Then I’m leaving,” she said and got up shooting the police officer a cheeky glance.
“You leave when we tell you to,” he said. “You don’t seem to get what your son has done, do you? Sit!”
The busty woman hesitated and looked at us, her fellow sufferers, to see our reaction. Seeing no sign of rebellion on our side, she followed the order without further back talk.
We sat there quietly for the next hour, everybody in their own world of thoughts. Even the busty woman was no longer up for conversations after the dressing–down from the police officer.
From time to time, an officer walked past and disappeared behind one of the office doors. The situation in the precinct was much more relaxed now. One police officer even came down the hall whistling a tune. Watching him, I asked myself if I would ever be so lighthearted again. I envied the man.
At one point, the couple turned to one of the passing police officers. He was a young guy. “How much longer do we have to wait here?” the woman asked. “My husband needs to take his medicine regularly, and we don’t have it with us.”
“Why didn’t you bring it?” the officer said with a pointedly uninterested expression.
“Because we didn’t know we’d have to sit here for hours!” the woman said in a raised voice.
The man shot a contemptuous glance at the husband. “What do you have?”
The man wanted to answer, but his wife cut him off. “That’s none of your business,” she said to the officer. “What you need to know is that he has to take his medicine.”
“You better watch your tone, young lady!” the officer said. “You can blame your son for all this.”
“You’re a snotty brat!” the woman said glaring at him.
The man scoffed and preferred to discontinue the conversation. He walked away.
The busty woman asked the next police officer that passed where the bathroom was. Now we all took the opportunity to freshen up.
We talked again and speculated. Everybody expected to get interviewed once more. But time went by, and nothing happened.
Around 6 PM, the busty woman, who had been pretty quiet by her standards for the last hours, exploded with anger: “I’ve been here almost all day! I haven’t eaten, and I haven’t drunk. I’m a patient person, but enough is enough!” She shouted out loud what everybody was thinking.
A passing officer stopped and looked at her sternly. “I suggest you pull yourself together and watch your mouth!” Having said that, he continued on his way. A few minutes later the chief of the precinct approached us. “You won’t have to wait much longer,” he said. “As soon as we have the vehicles available we’re going to drive you home.”
“What does much longer mean—one hour, two hours?”
The man scowled at the busty woman who had asked the question.
“Just sit tight!” he said and started to walk off.
“Hey!” the busty woman shouted after him.
The officer stopped and turned around. “What?!”
“I’m hungry and thirsty,” she said.
“There’s a sandwich bar around the corner,” the man said and motioned for her to go, which she did promptly.
When she returned, I was astonished and admitted to myself that I had misjudged her. She might have been noisy and anxious to push herself to the fore, but she had brought a sandwich and a soft drink for each of us. She even refused to take money for it. Even though I hadn’t eaten all day, I didn’t feel hungry. Nevertheless, I accepted the snack. I didn’t want to insult her.
At 7 PM, the wait was over. Four police officers took us to their vehicles and drove us home.
My family was clueless. All they knew from a neighbor was that a man with a blue Moskwich had picked me up in the morning. They were genuinely shocked when I told them what happened. Strangely enough, my husband also got a visit from a Stasi agent in the afternoon. The man asked him where he had been all day, and if he knew where I was, which of course he didn’t. These questions had obviously something to do with their stupid idea that my husband and even I might have been accomplices in the prison break.
The next day, I had to go to our school alone, without my husband that is, because he was teaching at a different school on Mondays back then. I felt as if everybody was staring at me when I entered the school bus, but it was probably only in my head. That changed however after the morning break. When I left the teachers’ lounge to go to my classroom, I saw the principal in the company of a man in a suit. When our eyes met, she hesitated but walked on without greeting me. Now I knew that she knew.
When I entered the teachers’ lounge at lunch break, a colleague was reading out loud from a newspaper. Seeing me, she stopped immediately. A few minutes later, the principal entered. “I need to see all of you in the big staffroom after the sixth lesson,” she said shooting me a nasty glance. Then she walked out again.
While I pretended to do corrections, I counted the minutes until the end of the break. And this half hour dragged! There was a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere the whole time. Even though I didn’t look up, I could feel the secret glances of my colleagues. When lunch break was almost over, the PE teacher approached me before he left the staffroom. He said: “I’m so sorry about what has happened. You know I always liked Andy a lot.”
I smiled at him gratefully. He was a good friend, and he had been Andy’s favorite teacher in school. I looked at the newspaper on the table. I needed to know what was written there but didn’t dare take it because there were still a few colleagues in the room.
After the bell rang and the last one left, I took the paper and went through it. At first, I didn’t find anything, but when I went through it again, I saw it on page two—a short paragraph without ostentation. At a first glance, it looked as if it belonged to an article about the anti–sovietism in Poland. Under the headline “Escaped prisoners arrested,” it read: “In the morning hours of September 20, four criminal convicts broke violently out of the holding center in Frankfurt (Oder). The perpetrators were arrested by a SWAT team a few hours later.”
My last two lessons were an ordeal. I wasn’t able to teach anymore. My preparations and the lesson plans were passé. I had the students work independently, so I wouldn’t have to speak.
Except for the after–school care assistants, the whole teaching staff was there when I entered the staffroom after the sixth lesson. The murmur stopped immediately.
“Over here!” the PE teacher shouted to me and pointed at the empty chair beside him.
The principal was sitting at the head of the conference table. She glared at me. As soon as I was seated, she started to read the article from the newspaper out loud. When she was done, she set the paper down and said: “What’s not written here, but what I know on good authority is that a member of the People’s Police was gravely injured.”
The principal was also the school’s party secretary, and she fought by all available means against the emergence of capitalist tendencies at her school. And what made her so angry about the whole thing was that my son had sullied her school’s reputation. The man I saw her with in the morning had probably accused her beloved school of being a capitalist breeding ground.
“I think there is somebody here who can tell us more about it,” the principal said looking at me.
It took me a long moment to swallow the lump in my throat. However, the second I started to speak, the tears shot into my eyes.
“Just say it!” the principal said. “Your son was one of a group that broke out of the holding center in Frankfurt yesterday. He was in for an attempted flight from the German Democratic Republic.” She paused for a long moment looking at me scornfully. When she realized I wasn’t going to say anything, she continued: “Have you lost your voice? Please explain to us how it is possible that a former student of this school turned into a dangerous criminal. I guess you owe us that much.”
I blew my nose and tried to pull myself together and finally managed to say a few words: “I don’t know what to say. There’s no explanation for this. I don’t know what got into my son. I’m so sorry.”
My apologetic words didn’t have any effect on the principal, and she was far from letting up on me. “We teachers have an exemplary function in our socialist society,” she went on. “But how can we be trusted with the education of other people’s children when we’re not even able to raise our own in the socialist way. I really doubt—”
I think that’s enough!” the PE teacher interrupted. “Don’t you see the state she’s in? Give her a break!” He put his arm around my shoulder and tried to console me. I was so grateful to him.
The principal wanted to go on at first but then changed her mind. “There’s one more thing, though,” she said. “The schools inspector needs to see you and your husband today at 5:30 PM. It’s up to him to decide if it’s ethical to keep you on as a teacher.”
At exactly 5:30, my husband and I entered the schools inspector’s office. His secretary gave me a sad smile and waved us through.
The schools inspector was sitting behind his desk. He got up when he saw us enter and met us in the center of the room. I was surprised when he welcomed us with a friendly handshake because I had expected an entirely different reception. He motioned for us to sit at the conference table while he remained standing in the center of his office. I had been dealing with him since I took the job of a special adviser in Russian and English, and I had been in his office at least once a week over the last twelve years. In the early days, I used to bring Andy along, and I’d always been under the impression that the schools inspector was very fond of him.
After thinking for a moment, he started to speak: “First and foremost I need you to know that this meeting has been forced on me; secondly that I’m very sorry about what has happened to your son. I haven’t been told much, but what I heard is bad enough. I’ve known Andy a long time. I think since he was eight or nine. And he always behaved when you brought him along. He would be patiently sitting in a corner of my office until our meeting was over. ‘This boy has manners!’ I used to think to myself.” A smile flashed across his face at the memory. “And he was always so polite, which unfortunately is no longer a matter of course.”
What the schools inspector said was like a soothing balm for me. Even though no word had been said about our future yet, my tension relaxed.
“If I remember correctly, Andy had been rewarded for an excellent school and social performance and was sent with the friendship train to Moscow?”
“Well, this being the case, one can only say good things about your son. And I guess the same goes for you as colleagues.” He addressed my husband: “I don’t know you very well, but I haven’t been told anything negative about you. If there were something, it would have filtered down to me. The bush telegraph has been working so far.” Another smile flashed across his face. He turned to me again: “And what about you? I’m afraid I can only speak highly of you. You are a model colleague who delivers excellent work. That’s what I told the people who asked me to talk to you. Well…” He moved slightly to shift his weight, reflected for a few seconds and continued: “I understand that Andy is of age now. He also doesn’t live with you anymore. Isn’t he even married?”
I nodded. That Andy was divorced again was something he didn’t need to know.
“Well,” The schools inspector made a theatrical gesture, “I can’t help asking myself, what we’re talking about here! Why punish you people for something your son has done when he is of age and no longer lives with you? I’ve seen the times when there was still what they called ‘kin liability’ in Germany, and I think we’re all happy these times are over. You know your son best, and you might ask yourself a thousand questions now: What were his motives? Did we do something wrong?… I mean, we all know it wasn’t always easy for Andy. He’s different—not inwardly but his appearance, and some people take offense at this, unfortunately. It’s one thing to ban racist abuse; the other thing is what the citizen says when the state’s not listening. But that’s a complicated topic, and I don’t want to go into it now. Maybe what you did wasn’t always the best for him even though you thought it was, but…” He made a defensive gesture. “I’m not judging you, not at all. That’s your private matter, and you have to come to terms with it yourselves. I guess pressure from outside is the last thing you need at the moment.” He almost whispered now: “Let me tell you something. I know people who are in much higher positions than you are. And what happened to them—” He paused waving his hand. “We had better not talk about it because they don’t have clean records either. But those are precisely the ones who shout the loudest now.” He shook his head. “But not on my watch!… In short, I told you what needed to be said. What Andy did won’t have any consequences for you. Go to work tomorrow; try to handle the situation.” After these closing words, he gave us an encouraging nod.
“Thank you so much!” I said hardly able to hold back the tears when I shook his hand and said goodbye.
It’s true we didn’t lose our jobs over this. Nevertheless, the next months were terrible for me as a mother and us as a family especially since we didn’t know anything about what had really happened. The authorities remained silent, which of course inspired countless rumors. The worst of these claimed that my oldest son wasn’t even alive anymore.
Hands in the air, I stepped out of the apartment followed by Andreas, Burkhard and Joerg. Expecting to be shot any moment, I shivered with fear. But nothing happened. I looked around. The hallway was empty. I cautiously opened the door to the stairwell and shouted, “We surrender! We’re unarmed!”
“Walk slowly down the stairs with your hands up!” somebody replied.
I walked a few steps hesitantly and saw a man standing on the landing above. He was wearing a bullet–proof vest and had a submachine gun in his hand. He motioned for me to keep walking. On our way down, we met a guy like this on every landing.
Opening the front door on the ground floor, I could hardly believe my eyes: The parking lot in front of the high–rise which we hadn’t been able to see from upstairs was crowded with armed uniforms and plainclothesmen. Hundreds of residents stood on the balconies of the surrounding apartment blocks and watched the spectacle. “Don’t shoot! I repeat, do not shoot! They’re unarmed!” a bullhorn voice ordered when I stepped out.
A plainclothesman, who looked like the Incredible Hulk, approached us yelling: “Off the stairs and face down on the ground!” He searched us one by one and cuffed our hands behind our backs, closing the cuffs as tight as possible. Then he ordered us to get up on our knees.
As the initial silence turned into a babel of voices, I heard a hysteric woman: “You pigs! They should blow your brains out right now!”
Looking up, I saw her standing on a balcony. A man, stripped to the waist and covered with countless tattoos, yelled at her from the balcony of a neighboring apartment, “Shut up bitch!” Then he turned to us and gave us the thumbs up. “Good job, boys!”
A heated debate started among the residents. Through all the noise, I also heard the voice of the super’s wife. “What have you done to my apartment?” she cried.
Motors started and revved. Brakes squealed. An unmarked car stopped in front of us. Hulk dragged Joerg to her, opened the back door and pushed him inside, smashing his head against the car roof. Then he slammed shut the door. After someone got in the other side, the car took off with screeching tires.
Being the last and having seen the head–banging three times, I didn’t stand up straight. Hulk, however, didn’t want me to spoil the party. He tried to drag me up, but I resisted. Even though he managed to throw me into the car that I almost flew out the other side, he failed to bang my head against the roof.
Passing groups of rubberneckers, we raced through town at an incredible speed. Glaring at me, Hulk kept pushing me with his broad shoulders against his comrade on the other side. My eyes wouldn’t stop watering and burning. The handcuffs cut like knives into my wrists. I was positive we were headed for Berlin, but to my surprise, we left the road to the autobahn on the outskirts. The car pulled into a compound I had passed many times before. On it was a typical East German apartment block. We passed a gate and continued into an underground garage. Hulk dragged me out of the car and locked me in a standing cell. As I anxiously waited, I was observed by someone looking through the peephole. During the short ride, I was convinced that the Hulk was going to pound me to a pulp. It was so palpable that I began to visualize it happening; preparing myself: If so, I would take it like a man.
When the cell door opened, I found myself face to face with two young guys in gray–green uniforms. I knew one of them by sight from the athletic competitions in my childhood. They led me to a laundry room and removed my handcuffs. There was a woman in a blue tunic standing behind a table. She seemed to be the authority. After sizing me up, she said, “Strip!”
She pointed to a door and ordered me to go in and take a shower. The Hulk beating me up was apparently off the table. I breathed a sigh of relief. But still: What was this place? The uniforms were neither police nor army. Despite my uncertainty, my initial fear vanished. Even though I was only met with stern looks, I didn’t really feel threatened.
The woman watched every move I made. When I was done, she handed me brand–new underwear and clean work clothes. After that, a chain was swung around my right wrist, and the boys took over again. They led me up a staircase. There were white lines painted on the floor in front of each gate. They told me I had to stop at these marks and turn my face toward the wall till the gate was unlocked. When on one occasion I didn’t do what I’d been told, the chain nipper almost crushed my wrist. Even though I had to keep my head down the whole time, I managed to catch a glimpse of my environment: There were cameras on every corner. The walls were equipped with pull cords for sounding the alarm.
They locked me in a cell either on the third or fourth floor. I wasn’t quite sure. My mind raced. I knew what we had done would have terrible consequences, but I could not really imagine what to expect. I felt totally numb inside. I lay down on the bed, shaking my head in disbelief. This was how far I had gotten. One thing was sure: there was no chance of me making it to the West anytime soon. I wished I could turn back time. I had been so optimistic when we set out four weeks ago…
It was rush hour, and the coach was packed to the rafters. When the train pulled out, I shot a last glance at the huge trash mountain. The incinerating plant was next door to the station, and this mountain had been there for as long as I could remember. It would probably always be there. Whatever! I didn’t care. I was sure I would never see this place again.
It was just four years ago when I left my village to live in Eisenhuettenstadt—the first and only “socialist city on German soil.” The city was founded by the communists in 1951, and there wasn’t a single privately owned properties or businesses in town, hence the byname. I have to chuckle when I think of it today, but back then, I adored “Iron Works City,” which is the English translation for Eisenhuettenstadt. It seemed so big to me, which it actually wasn’t at all, but you have to see it in perspective: Streichwitz, the village where I grew up, had 97 inhabitants; Iron Works City had almost 50,000. And there was so much going on. There were pubs and supermarkets and the department store “Magnet” and the movie theater “Friedrich Wolf” and allegedly the biggest open air stage in East Germany. Iron Works City was the place to be!
The train picked up pace. Ta–tam, ta–tam, ta–tam. The regular vibration made me sleepy, and the voice of this guy who kept trying to engage Andreas in conversation faded… As a child, I ran away from home a few times, my destination being the seaport in Rostock, where I wanted to sneak aboard a cargo ship and sail around the world. Becoming a sailor was my childhood dream for years. I wanted to get away from where I lived; go to a place where people looked like me. But I never made it further than Frankfurt (Oder). Even though, I remember the last time I attempted it—I was 13 if I remember correctly—a man in a gray suit asked me a lot of questions before they took me back home. He wanted to know if I were headed for West Germany, and if someone had known about my plans. Nevertheless, I guess my running away as a kid didnot qualify as a “flight from the Republic,” at least it was in no way politically motivated. Even though I wanted to leave the country, back then I didn’t blame socialism for anything. But what Andreas and I were about to do now certainly was politically motivated. It was my third attempt to escape from East Germany.
“Hey!” A sharp voice broke my revery.
I straightened up and looked at the guy who was sitting across from me beside Andreas. “What!”
“Where do you come from?” Even though it was a question it sounded slightly aggressive like in: What are you doing on my train?!
I was used to this kind of behavior toward me. But today I was in a good mood meaning I wasn’t susceptible to provocation. Having in the back of my mind what I was about to do, I didn’t feel like getting into a dispute with this guy. Just one more day, and I would be out of this damn country.
Looking at me, Andreas inhaled sharply and rolled his eyes. He knew what I was thinking. Just the night before, we had a thorough conversation about this topic. I told him how much I hated answering this stupid question. I knew of course what the people wanted to hear, but I wasn’t willing to say it because it was not true. I didn’t come from Africa. I was born in East Berlin, and I was fucking tired of constantly having to explain myself. “What do you mean?” I said grimly.
The man, who was in his early thirties, shot me a baffled glance. “What country do you come from? That is what I mean.”
Andreas butted in, “Leave him alone, dude. He’s German.”
“What?!” the man exclaimed. “How can he be German… I mean, his German is pretty good but—” He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he wagged a knowing finger at me and said: “I got it. You’re a festival child, right?”
Asshole! This was actually an insult because “festival child” meant that my mother had been knocked up at one of these international communist youth festivals. I felt my anger rise.
Andreas, who saw me struggling with myself, gave the guy a stern look. “Stop it, dude! You don’t wanna make him angry. Trust me.”
The guy knitted his brow and shrugged innocently. “I was just curious,” he said and turned away.
I shot Andreas a grateful glance. He was a true friend. I liked him, this big, gentle guy, and also admired him because he always kept his cool contrary to me. I knew him since childhood. We were the same age and had both been good at track and field. Many times, we competed against each other at youth sports events. We lost contact later but since a while ago, we had been hanging out again together. After his girlfriend left him, he tried to find a new meaning in life. Certainly for other reasons than me, but he was also determined to get out of East Germany. Over the last days, we had concocted our escape plan. We wanted to try it near Boizenburg because two guys we knew had made it there.
The train emptied out in Frankfurt (Oder). The guy who had been so eager to learn where I came from also got off. Now Andreas and I were almost alone in the compartment. Andreas yawned. It was contagious. We hadn’t slept the night before. Celebrating our farewell, we had pulled an all–nighter. Andreas got out a pack of smokes. He put a cigarette between his lips and also offered me one. I accepted. Slowly exhaling smoke, he pointed at the burst knuckles on my right hand. “Does it hurt?”
I raised my right hand, made a fist and contemplated it. “Maybe a little… I bet the other guy’s face hurts more.”
“Yeah,” Andreas said with a smirk. “I think you broke his nose.”
“Did I?” I said and shrugged. I actually couldn’t care less because he deserved it. He was one of those who needed to find out if the “nigger” was as good as everybody said. At least once a week, I had to fight one of these assholes. I don’t know where from, but they kept coming.
“I wish we were already there,” Andreas said.
“So do I,” I said. “What are you gonna do over there?”
Andreas thought for a while. “Honestly, I don’t know yet,” he finally said. “I guess I’m gonna enjoy my free life, hitchhike to the Cote Azur and go to rock concerts. What are your plans?”
“I’ll drop by my Oma first,” I said.
“Where does she live?”
“In the Black Forest… But I don’t think I’m gonna stay in West Germany. I wanna join the Foreign Legion.”
Andreas raised his eyebrows. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“You have to stay with them for seven years once you sign up,” I said.
Andreas nodded pensively.
“Tickets please!” we heard the conductor shouting.
Of course, we had no tickets because there had been a long queue in front of the ticket office at the station in Eisenhuettenstadt. The conductor fined us, but we didn’t give a damn. We still had about 100 East German marks. They wouldn’t be of any use to us in West Germany.
For the next hour, we hardly spoke. Each of us hung on to his own thoughts. In Berlin–Lichtenberg, we changed trains. Our new destination was Schwerin. It was late when we arrived there. The first train to Boizenburg didn’t leave until 6 in the morning. We killed the time in a pub in the station; later with a few bottles of beer on a bench in a park nearby.
Boizenburg was at the immediate border area. So we concocted a cover story in case somebody asked what we wanted there: Buying a certain kind of sneakers that were only sold there. The story about the sneakers wasn’t even a lie, that’s at least what we had heard. We also worked out a worst–case scenario. Should they arrest us, we would break out of prison and try it again. I don’t know if it had something to do with all the alcohol we consumed, but we were dead serious about it.
At 6 AM, we boarded the train to Boizenburg. We were only a few minutes on it when two police officers came through and asked for our IDs. The cop to whom I gave my PM 12 took a long look at the document. He looked at me, then at his colleague, then at me again. When he asked where we were headed, we told our cover story. Finally, I got my PM 12 back, and the two went on. Just a few minutes later, they returned, wanting to see my ID once more. After I handed it over, the cop put it in his pocket.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “There’s something we need to check.” He and his colleague whispered to each other. I overheard the word “PM 12.” Now I knew I was in trouble. If they called Iron Works City, I was fucked. But that was exactly what they did.
Three stations later we had to leave the train. Two plainclothesmen were waiting for us on the platform. They arrested us on suspicion of attempted flight from the Republic. This is how far we got. It was actually a joke because the border was still more than 30 kilometers away. I owed this to the damn PM 12, and I hate to admit it, but their system worked—at least in our case.
Of course, we lied like troopers, but not a chance. The officers were pros and not to be fooled by two 20–year–olds. Besides, the information they obtained spoke against us: I had already been arrested on suspicion of attempted flight from the Republic at the Czechoslovakian border to West Germany two weeks earlier. To add insult to injury, I hadn’t shown up at work for a couple of days, which was a statutory offense in East Germany because of the law covering “antisocial behavior.” As for Andreas, he hadn’t been at work for some weeks and was arrested near the Berlin Wall on August 13, the anniversary of the building of the “antifascist protective wall.” There was no way out of it for us.
After spending two weeks in a holding center in Hagenow, we were sent via “Grotewohl Express,” as the prisoner transport by rail was called in the vernacular, back to our home county. The guards made sure that Andreas and I didn’t have any contact. However, after we switched from the train to a truck in East Berlin, they made a mistake and placed me beside my friend. We weren’t allowed to speak but managed to whisper. The outcome was that we both promised to find a way to break out of the holding center in Frankfurt (Oder).
The truck dropped off prisoners at different prisons on its way from Berlin to Frankfurt, and shortly before we arrived in Frankfurt, the guard responsible noticed that Andreas and I shouldn’t be sitting next to each other. Angrily, he separated us immediately, but by then, everything had been discussed…
A loud noise interrupted my thoughts. The ugly face of a woman appeared behind the lowered flap in the door. “No lying on the bed during daytime hours!” The flap banged shut again.
I got up and walked back and forth for a while, inspecting the cell. It was extremely clean, downright sterile, compared with the one in the detention center. The window was made of glass bricks, which made it impossible to see outside.
Eventually, the boys returned and took me downstairs to an office. A man in a suit, sitting behind a desk, asked my name. He pointed to the chair in front of his desk, indicating that I should sit. After I sat down, he started to speak: “We’re here in the Frankfurt regional headquarters of the Ministry of State Security. You’ll be brought before the judge shortly. Until then, I’m going to start the interrogation.” A smile flashed across his face. “Just to let you know, there’s a guard outside. This is a high–security facility, and even I will have difficulties getting out of here later on.”
OK, the Stasi! That’s why the strange uniforms. I never had anything to do with them before, but I had heard of them—everybody had. But I never associated the Stasi with a uniform. For me, Stasi guys wore pleather jackets and Wisent jeans and spied on people in pubs and discos. I myself had had the feeling of being watched after the flight attempt in Czechoslovakia. There was a guy I knew from the track and field meetings in my childhood. I hadn’t seen him in years, and now I bumped into him at the strangest places. I also saw him a few times drive by me. Even though I never had anything to do with him, he suddenly acted like we were great pals, offering me rides in his Lada…
I gave the interrogator the once–over. He was an okay looking guy: friendly face, soft brown eyes, slim body and dark, longer, wavy hair with sideburns. He looked a bit Mediterranean. I would have guessed him to be in his late thirties. “Already noticed this place is as secure as the border,” I said.
The interrogator shook his head. “More!” He took about half a dozen packs of cigarettes out of a briefcase, piled them up on the desk and said, “When they’re all smoked, we’re done.” He smiled again.
At first appearance, he looked smart with his perfectly side–swept bangs in his gray suit, but not so much anymore when one noticed his stained teeth and the yellow–brownish discoloration on his right–hand index and middle fingers. He opened the first pack, offered me a cigarette and took one himself. After that, he jotted down my particulars. “Okay,” he said, exhaling smoke through his nostrils, “tell me what happened.”
“You mean how it started this morning?” I said.
He shook his head. “The planning phase and the prison break. Everything from the beginning all the way to the end.”
I took a drag of the cigarette and thought. I would tell the story alright, but I had to be careful not to say the wrong thing. I took a deep breath and reliving everything in my mind, I started to speak, telling him nothing that would further incriminate me. The interrogator made notes, all the time smoking like a chimney.
After I arrived at the Frankfurt holding center, they put me in a cell with a dude called Matthias. I didn’t like him even before I knew that he was in for child maltreatment. One reason was that he had a nasty habit: He would sit cross–legged on his bed and masturbate in broad daylight with no trace of shame at all. Thank God, I spent only three or four days alone with him in the cell. After that, two other guys by the names of Joerg and Burkhard joined us. Like me, both had been at the juvie in Wriezen before but not at the same time as I, so we didn’t know each other. Joerg and Burkhard were in for “theft of socialist property“ and auto theft. We all were the same age.
I got along well with the newcomers, and we talked a lot. Somehow we got onto the subject of security in the facility, and Burkhard said that he could get out of the holding center if he really wanted to.
I listened attentively.
“I was a member of a construction unit when I was here the first time,” he said. “We remodeled the place. We went everywhere. That’s why I know every nook and cranny of this building.”
“And why don’t you ‘really want to’ get out of here?” I asked.
“I want to,” Burkhard said. “But it’s impossible to pull this off alone. I’m not the guy who can take two guards out.”
Just like me Joerg also seemed to be very interested in the topic. “What do you mean by taking out?—Killing them?” he asked.
Burkhard made a significant gesture. “Well… they need to get locked away in a cell.”
“And then what?” Joerg asked.
“And then one can use their keys to let oneself through the gates down to the yard, where one sneaks up to the sentry box and takes the guard’s gun away. The sentry box has a windowless rear, so he can’t see what’s going on in the yard.
Joerg shot him a skeptical glance. “How do you get out of the building? As far as I know, there’s an electronic lock.”
Burkhard made a dismissive gesture. “That’s right, but that’s also something not to worry about. As soon as someone presses the intercom, the door can be pulled open. The guard in the sally port does it blindly. It’s routine for him. I tried it myself a few times when we were remodeling.
This was interesting. If what Burkhard said was true, getting out of the holding center was a piece of cake. I hadn’t given up my plan to get to the West and was determined to break out, but were the others too? Talking was one thing, acting another. And there was Matthias. He had been listening the whole time quietly. Aside from the fact that I wasn’t going to break out of prison with someone who was in for child maltreatment or abuse or whatever, I didn’t trust him. He couldn’t be around when I asked the others if they were really up for it. This problem, however, took care of itself: The next day, they came for Matthias and took him to the interrogation room. As soon as he was gone, I asked Burkhard and Joerg point–blank if they had the guts to break out with me. Their OK came almost too fast for me. So I asked again, “Are you really sure?”
Both nodded their approvals.
We arranged to plan and discuss everything the next time Matthias would be away. And we were lucky again because the following days, they interrogated him again for one to two hours, which gave us enough time to discuss everything…
There was a knock on the door. The interrogator motioned for me to stop talking. Then he got up. I was a little surprised when I saw him walking to the door because he was much shorter than it had appeared when he was sitting behind his desk. He cracked open the door and spoke to someone. Then he nodded and turned to me. “We’re taking a break.”
The door swung open, and the boys entered. The chain–nipper swung around my left–hand wrist. Then they took me down the corridor to another office.
The man inside introduced himself as the district attorney. He had the coldest eyes I’d ever seen. He officially informed me that investigation proceedings against me had been initiated. After listing the charges, he asked me if I had anything to say. What was there to say? I replied as such and the boys led me back to the interrogator, where I continued telling my story.
I wanted Andreas to take part but wasn’t sure if he had been serious about it when we promised each other to break out of the holding center. Before we continued planning, I needed to find out if I could count him in. Since there was no way I could get near him, we had to find another way: Through a third party, we told Andreas to make a dentist’s appointment for a certain day. Joerg made one too and met him in the waiting room. There he told him everything. We had already fixed the day. It was Sunday, September 20. We had chosen the date because there was only a reduced staff there on the weekends and with ten days to go, we had enough time to perfect our escape plan. Andreas told Joerg to tell me he was on it. With this problem solved, we could continue our planning.
There were always two guards on the cell block when they let us out for recreation. A third guard would be waiting at the bottom of the stairwell. We needed to overpower the two guards who were upstairs, take their keys away and lock them up in our cell. If everything went down quietly, the guy downstairs wouldn’t even notice. Then we would free Andreas and sneak up to the sentry box in the yard to disarm the guard. With his gun, we would threaten the guard in the sally port and make him open the door. We would steal a car from the parking lot in front of the holding center and drive with our two hostages, the guard from the sally port and the one from the sentry box, to the border checkpoint Drewitz in Berlin, where we would threaten to kill the hostages if they didn’t let us pass. But they would. The commis couldn’t risk the lives of their comrades, could they?
This was our super plan. We wanted to bluff, and it was far from our minds to seriously hurt let alone kill somebody. We were young and naive and didn’t have the first idea of how much reality can differ from theory.
Everybody got an assignment according to his skill: Joerg was chosen to be the one to take the gun from the guard of the sentry box. He would talk a lot about his ability as a shot. His uncle, an official for the Society for Sport and Technology, was in the possession of the key to the gun room of this organization in the town he came from. That’s why he could practice whenever he wanted to. Burkhard was to be the driver, and Andreas was to take care of the hostages while I was to take care of everybody who would stand in our way.
The night before the prison break was the longest of my life. All three of us were incredibly nervous. We had gotten a criminal code and calculated how many years we would get in case we didn’t make it. Today I laugh about our naivety, but we were sure we couldn’t get more than four years. We were convinced we could only be charged with bodily harm if we shot someone, targeting an arm or a leg.
We didn’t sleep and chatted the whole night through. Nobody doubted that we would make it. We spoke boldly without regard for Matthias, who considered all this as blather. He didn’t believe for a second that we were serious. The nearer morning came, the more often the three of us needed to go to the toilet. Finally, the time came: “Get up!”
We dressed immediately. When Matthias saw us putting on our shoes, he became suspicious. Now it dawned on him that we were serious. But there was nothing he could do about it. He was a pussy anyway. He begged us not to hurt him, which we didn’t do. We grabbed him, bound his hands, gagged him and pushed him under the bunk bed. This was the point of no return. We had started, and now we were condemned to pull through.
At 7:30 AM, the lid of the peephole moved. An eye appeared behind the glass. Seconds later, the slide latches were pushed back; a key was inserted into the lock; it turned, and the door swung open. I stepped out first. I didn’t like what I saw. There was this guard whose nickname was “the Catcher.” And it was not for nothing that the prisoners had given him this name. This wouldn’t be easy for Joerg and Burkhard. It couldn’t be helped, though! He shot me a baffled glance when I walked past him because we were supposed to line up in front of our cell before filing out for recreation. He was about to address me to enforce the rule when a confused expression appeared on his face. Something much more important had caught his attention. “Shouldn’t there be four prisoners in this cell?” I heard him say while I kept walking toward the guard who stood further down the corridor.
For a second, I was afraid that Joerg and Burkhard would bail on me, but then I heard one of them say, “He is lying on his bed.”
“Are you pulling—” The Catcher stopped in mid–sentence.
I heard a bang and was relieved: The fight had begun!
I stormed toward the guard—a small guy compared to the Catcher—and punched him in the face. He went down immediately. Dragging him in the direction of our cell, I saw that my concern was justified because Joerg and Burkhard couldn’t keep their man under control. He fought back like hell. They had managed to push him into the cell alright but couldn’t shut the door because the dead latch was in a locked position plus the Catcher kept throwing his enormous weight against the door. I took my man’s key and tossed it to them, to no avail: When Joerg tried to insert the key into the keyhole, holding the door shut alone proved too onerous a task for Burkhard, who was actually a featherweight, and the Catcher managed to get out again. Screaming like a lunatic, the guard tried to get to one of the boxes on the wall to sound the alarm.
My buddies needed backup. When I saw that the Catcher was about to break free, I left my man alone and rushed toward them. He was just about to push the button when I knocked him down. For a moment, all three of us stood there, gasping for air.
After locking the guards away, we heard the gate in the stairwell being unlocked. The racket had alerted the third guard. I didn’t think twice and ran. The element of surprise on my side, I punched him in the face when he turned from the stairwell into the corridor. Then I threw him against the wall. He slumped unconscious to the floor. We put him into the cell with his comrades.
The next step was to get Andreas out of his cell. We took the stairs and passed through two gates. While his three cellmates backed fearfully away when we opened the door, he gazed at me in disbelief. “What are you doing, Andy?! Are you out of your mind?!”
“You coming? Yes or no?”
Apparently, Andreas hadn’t believed we would pull this off. He hesitated for a long moment, but then he grinned. “Let’s do this!”
We took the stairs down to the ground floor. Now there was only the door with the electronic lock left that separated us from the yard. One of us pushed the intercom. Seconds later, there was a buzz, and we could pull open the door. Hurrah, we had made it out of the building!
The next job was to disarm the guard of the recreation yard. We snuck across the inner yard to the sentry box. I knocked on the metal door, saying in a deep voice, “Open up, Sergeant!”
“One second!” I heard a muffled voice. Then the latch was pushed back, and the door opened. Butterball, the guard, was so surprised that he couldn’t react at all. We stripped him of his AK–47 in a heartbeat.
As agreed, Joerg took the gun. Then all of us headed for the sally port. We saw “the Student” through a little window in the door. He noticed us too. Adjusting his metal rims nervously, he looked in our direction. It took him a moment to realize that something was amiss. He winced when Joerg trained the gun on him. “Open the door!” Joerg ordered.
After a few seconds, the Student reached for the telephone and started to dial. Joerg didn’t think twice and fired through the window. The shot knocked the guard off his chair. “Everybody back off! I’m gonna shoot the lock!” Joerg shouted.
It took one shot, and the door sprang open. We stormed into the sally port. We found a second AK–47 and the Student’s handgun. The man was hit in the arm. Andreas took care of him. He picked his glasses up and gave them back to him and applied a pressure bandage to stop the bleeding.
It took us a minute to find the right button on the control panel to open the last door, but we managed. It was hard to believe; we had made it out of the holding center. However, there was no cause for rejoicing because we were still in the big prison GDR.
There were several Trabants and one Skoda in the parking lot across from the holding center. Of course, we went for the Skoda. Even though the Czech–made car was everything but a road cruiser, it was spacious compared to a Trabant. While Burkhard tried to hot–wire the vehicle, a patrol car turned the corner. Dammit, the guard did manage to raise the alarm!
The patrol car stopped at a safe distance. For a minute or so nothing happened. Then two cops got out. Having one of the AKs at the time, I yelled at them, “Get lost! We have guns!” Then I fired in their direction to show that I meant it.
While the two ran for their lives, the patrol car made a U–turn and sped off with screeching tires. I fired a second round after it.
Since the Skoda’s motor kept shutting off, we moved on looking for another vehicle. Suddenly, we spotted another patrol car in a parking bay at the other end of the parking lot. A cop took cover behind it. He was training his gun on us. We decided spontaneously to disarm him and use the cruiser as a getaway car.
Guns at the ready, we approached the cop. Being outnumbered, he put his hands in the air and stepped away from the vehicle. Burkhard walked up to the big man and yanked off the service pistol, which was dangling from a cord attached to his belt.
I demanded the key to the cruiser, but the cop refused to hand it over. When I was distracted for a second, he sprang at me and tried to get hold of the AK. While I pushed the gun up high, he pressed it down, trying to point the barrel at me. The man was strong, and he almost succeeded. But then a shot went off. It’s not clear who pulled the trigger, but the cop slackened for a moment, giving me the chance to regain control over the gun. After I elbowed him, he staggered backward. I heard two gunshots in rapid succession and saw him go down. I turned around and saw Burkhard lowering the gun he had ripped off the cop’s belt. We all rushed toward him, roaring at him. Why had he done this? The fight was over; the cop had no longer been a threat to me. Burkhard just stared at us impassively as if he didn’t understand what was going on.
I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned around. Just a few meters away, a man stepped out of a house onto the sidewalk. I don’t know why I trained my gun on him, but I did it, and he stopped dead. I was in some kind of trance and for a moment, it was like he and I were the only people in the world. I saw the deadly terror in his eyes. I could have taken his life with the tiniest move of my finger. I felt incredibly powerful. This feeling, however, scared me at the same time. I didn’t even know the man, and he hadn’t done anything to me. So why shoot him? I saw him breathe a sigh of relief when I lowered the gun. He turned around and hurried back into the house.
I heard the sound of approaching sirens. I saw people looking curiously out of their windows. Someone shouted at them to call an ambulance for the wounded cop and warned them to stay away from the balconies and windows. When the same voice suggested that we proceed toward a nearby high–rise, I snapped out of my trance and ran along.
After entering the high–rise, we took the stairs down to the basement because we needed a quiet place to regroup. Our original plan had gone terribly wrong. We sat down to discuss our next steps. We needed to contact the cops. The problem was that private households usually didn’t have telephones in East Germany, but superintendents did. So we needed to find out where he lived. We went up to the second floor and pushed a doorbell randomly. Probably alerted by the noise we made, a male voice asked through the door what we wanted. We said we had an injured person with us and needed help. The door cracked open. Seeing us, the man tried to shut it again, but I jammed it with my foot and pushed it open. The married couple in the apartment gave us the information requested…
Another knock on the door. The interrogator asked me to stop and got up. Again he conversed in a low voice with someone at the ajar door. The boys entered and took me a second time to the district attorney, who informed me that the initial charges had been upgraded to include multiple charges of attempted murder. This time, I had something to say, “I never intended to kill anybody!”
The district attorney gave me a stone cold look while his secretary wrote down what I said. After that, I was taken back to the interrogator.
Andreas, the Student and I took the elevator up to the super’s apartment on the fifth floor to check if he had a telephone. When the man answered the door, he was so terrified at the sight of our guns that he tried to slam it shut. But again I jammed it with my foot and pushed it open. There was a woman in a dressing gown sitting at the living room table. Seeing us, she cried out and jumped up in fear. She calmed down after we explained who we were and what we wanted. A few minutes later an old lady, also in a dressing gown, appeared. She screamed and rushed back into the bedroom when she saw us. As we learned, she was the super’s 78–year–old aunt, who was on a visit and would be leaving in the afternoon.
Since there was a telephone in the apartment, I stayed there with the hostage while Andreas went to get the others from downstairs. When he returned with them, the super’s wife asked us to at least take our shoes off. Otherwise, she seemed to have accepted that her Sunday morning was ruined.
Our new plan was to call the cops and demand a getaway car and free passage to West Berlin. I made the call.
“Who is this?” I heard the disbelief in the cop’s voice after I told him who I was.
“I have the ones who just broke out of the holding center on the line,” he said excitedly to someone in the background. There was confused talk for a long moment. Then the phone was passed on, and another voice spoke to me: “Hello, please talk. What do you want?”
“We need a doctor for your injured comrade. And we want a fully–fueled station wagon and free passage to West Berlin. We have two guards as hostages. So you better cooperate. They’re gonna die if you don’t meet our demands.”
“Er, well… I… listen. I don’t have the authority to decide that. Don’t do anything stupid. Maybe we can—”
“Listen pig!” I interrupted “We call the shots now, got it? We want out of your Bolshevistic state, and you better not fuck with us.” I waved Butterball nearer and gave him the phone.
“This is comrade Koehler. The boys are not joking. Please do as they say, or they’ll kill us, and… and we badly need a doctor for comrade Schuhmann.”
I took the phone again. “And no tricks! When we come out, your comrades won’t be wearing their uniforms, and we’ll all be wearing balaclavas. So you won’t be able to tell us apart. Got that? I’ll be in touch.”
As time went by the super and his wife became more trusting—actually downright friendly. They said they were hoping we would make it and they would go to the West too if they were younger. The super’s aunt stayed in the bedroom the whole time. She didn’t want to sit with us because she was as she put it, “too old for all this.”
The two hostages sat quietly on the sofa, their eyes downcast. Butterball sweated like a pig and kept mopping his forehead. He asked for one glass of water after another. The Student’s condition worsened visibly. Andreas had to apply a new bandage because the old one was soaked through with blood.
“We’ve been waiting for your call,” the voice said when I called an hour later. “We’ll meet your demands, but please don’t harm the hostages.”
“We won’t,” I said. “When is the doc coming? And when will the car be here?”
“The doctor is on his way. But the car needs to be checked first. That’ll take a while.”
This promising piece of news raised our spirits. We sat around the living room table, chatting and drinking coffee. Our mood soured again when we took a look outside the window: The area around the high–rise resembled a combat zone. There was no more traffic on the streets. We saw a large group of men in uniforms a block away; also several groups in civvies close to the high–rise. They were wearing bulletproof vests. It didn’t look like the cops were going to meet our demands at all, but rather as if they were preparing for an attack. After half an hour, I called again, yelling angrily into the phone: “What about the doctor?! You are killing your comrade. Is that what you want? Where is the car you promised us?!”
“It’s on the way.”
“Listen!” I said. “We’ve been patient. If the car isn’t here in 30 minutes, the first hostage dies!”
“Please don’t do anything stupid,” the voice pleaded. “We are going to fulfill your requests, but we need more time to do this.”
“As I said, you have 30 minutes left.” I banged the phone into its cradle.
The cops wanted to gain time. Would they really be so reckless and attack us? And what were we supposed to do if the car wasn’t there in 30 minutes? After discussing these questions, we came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t attack us and that they would provide the car as agreed. What else could they do? They wouldn’t risk the life of one of their own, would they? However, if push came to shove, we would fire a shot in the air to make them believe we killed one of the hostages. After that, they would have no other choice than to give in.
This half hour dragged on. We waited, but nothing happened. After 45 minutes, Joerg went to the window and fired one round into the air. The phone rang a minute later. Burkhard picked up.
“Was that a gunshot?”
“We told you we would shoot a hostage if the car weren’t here in 30 minutes,” Burkhard said.
“You haven’t really done this, have you?” the voice asked in disbelief.
“We told you,” Burkhard repeated. “If you want to save the life of the other hostage you better hurry up.”
“We’ve arranged everything,” the cop said. “The car should be there any minute.”
“All right, but if you keep shitting us, you’ll be sorry.”
After Burkhard hung up, I looked over to Butterball and the Student. Their faces expressed the fear they felt. They didn’t know how far we would really go.
It was quiet for a few minutes. Everybody dwelled on their own thoughts, probably guessing how this would end. Joerg kept looking out the window, hoping to see a station wagon approach the high–rise. We got startled when the doorbell rang.
“Please open the door! I am the doctor,” a voice came loud and clear from the hallway.
Burkhard cautiously opened up. The doctor had a nurse with him. After we searched them for weapons, they entered the living room and started to examine the Student. The doctor said the man needed to be taken to a hospital right away, otherwise, he would die. Seeing the Student sitting on the sofa groaning semi–consciously with pain, his metal rims crooked on his nose, it wasn’t hard for us to believe the doctor. After discussing the matter briefly, we decided to let him go. Since he was no longer able to walk, the nurse left to get a stretcher. When she returned, the super helped the doctor to carry the Student down to the ambulance. To everyone’s surprise, the super came back after the job was done.
At 11:30 AM, the two women came out of the bedroom. They had their purses on them and a suitcase. It was first said that the auntie would not be leaving before the afternoon. However, it made no difference to us. We had no reason to stop the ladies. They left for the train station.
We went over our plan once more, put on the balaclavas and lined up in the order we intended to walk to the getaway car. Then another wait. We all sat quietly listening to the music on the radio. I was about to get up to make another call when there was a burst of gunfire. Something whizzed past me. Debris flew through the air. Panic–stricken, everybody jumped to their feet and stormed into the bedroom. But we got in each other’s way. When I could think clearly again, I realized that I was wrestling with Andreas. Driven by sheer self–preservation, we were both trying to get under the bed. Realizing what we were doing, we stopped wrestling, started to laugh and hugged each other. The fear of dying that had been so strong just seconds before was gone.
We heard a thud; then the apartment filled with smoke. We could no longer see or breathe. We coughed terribly. Our eyes were burning and watering. Even though we smashed in all the windows, it took ages for the smoke to dissipate. Andreas and Burkhard had the AKs. They fired into the living room at invisible assailants. At one point, Andreas inched into the living room, using Butterball as a human shield. “Nobody here!” he finally shouted, whereupon the rest of us also left the bedroom.
The apartment looked like a battlefield. On our hasty retreat, we had knocked over all the furniture. There was plaster all over the carpet and dozens of bullet holes in the walls. There were several spent tear gas grenades on the hall floor and pieces of the door that had been shot out. The radio was still playing, though—ironically “The sound of silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. And silence there was, only interrupted by our coughing.
I went back to the bedroom because Joerg was missing. I found the super lying in a fetal position under the king–size bed. Joerg was nowhere to be seen. When I wanted to go back to the living room, I heard a sobbing coming from behind the open bedroom door. I pulled it back, and there he stood in a gap between the wardrobe and the wall, crying. He turned around when he realized that someone was behind him. “We must surrender. Then we might have a chance,” he said, coming out of his hiding place. In the living room, he repeated his statement in a tearful voice. Burkhard nodded in agreement. Andreas looked at me, but I averted my eyes. I knew Joerg was right. I didn’t want to make the decision, though. After thinking for a moment, Andreas nodded too.
“It’s better this way,” the super, who was on his feet again, said. “I’ll put in a good word for you guys.”
The phone was still intact. I called the cops for instructions. “We give up. What do you want us to do?”
“The hostage and the superintendent leave first. They’re taking the guns along. After five minutes you follow in single file, hands in the air!” the voice at the other end commanded.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I finished telling my story. Believe it or not: The last pack was almost empty. Apart from three or four cigarettes that I had smoked, he had smoked everything alone.
The interrogator yawned and said: “That’s it for today. You only have to sign now… but each page separately.”
His yawning was contageous. I looked at the pile that had grown to 30 pages and sighed. He handed me the first page, and I skimmed it. I had difficulty concentrating because I was dead tired. To add to the matter the man’s handwriting was not exactly legible. I came across a strange sentence: “From the outset, it was our intention to kill everybody who stood in our way.”
“What’s this?” I said and read out the sentence. Then I looked up. “Those are not my words.”
The interrogator gave me a surprised look. “No? Then I must have misheard.” He leaned back and made a dismissive gesture. “Just cross it out. You want to go to bed too, don’t you?”
I didn’t, because suddenly I was wide–awake. So that was the way he wanted to play it! “I’m going to go through this again word for word, and if I find anything I didn’t say, I’m not signing,” I said.
The interrogator’s jaw dropped, and he looked at me in disbelief. “You’re going to read all 30 pages word for word?”
“Yes!” I said and got to work while he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was unbelievable: I was “the ringleader.” The gun was in “full auto mode” when I was firing at the cruiser and the cops, and I also shot “with intent to kill.” So did Joerg when he was shooting the Student in the sally port. I “kicked the cop” after Burkhard shot him down. We considered “the super, his wife and also the old lady as our hostages,” and the list goes on. I found countless sentences that were either twisted or construed to implicate me. When I protested, the interrogator reluctantly said, “cross it out.”
At some point, I simply drew a line through everything I didn’t agree with. Now he became agitated. “What the hell are you doing? I’ve written this, and I want to know what you’re crossing out!” So far, he had had everything under control. He had played it really cool, but now he was showing emotions for the first time. He got up and paced behind his desk, thinking hard, the mandatory cigarette in his hand. Eventually, he opened the door, asked the guard to keep an eye on me and left. I continued scouring the pages.
The smile was back on his face when he returned after a few minutes. He eased himself into his chair and lit a cigarette. “I do have to compliment you, Mr. Schneider,” he said, then paused dramatically to shoot me a pitiful glance. “But unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter what you said because your friends have screwed up and admitted to all the charges.” He puffed on his cigarette and added in a smug voice: “That’s the price you have to pay when you’re dealing with idiots.”
I didn’t respond and continued perusing the pages. When I was done about an hour later, we rephrased the twisted sentences.
“We’re not going to see each other tomorrow,” the interrogator said when he picked up the phone to call my escort. After a look at his watch, he corrected himself: “I mean this afternoon of course because you will be writing your CV. Tomorrow, we’ll see each other again.”
Even though I should have been dead tired, I couldn’t sleep. All the smoke had given me a massive headache. A million thoughts were racing through my mind. At some point, I fell asleep but was hounded by nightmares. In addition to that, the light was switched on and off every few minutes, and the noise of the peephole latch being moved made it impossible to have a restful sleep.
They woke me up in the early afternoon, and right after breakfast, I was taken to a different cell. Pointing at my new cellmate, the guard said: “He’s number one. You are number two. No names here.”
My cellmate was a guy in his late thirties. He told me he was a truck driver with Deutrans. He had given a lift to a hitchhiker during a trip through West Germany. On one of his next trips, he visited his new friend in Cologne. The Stasi arrested him when they found out that he had left his fixed route and accused him of espionage and illegal contact. Allegedly, the hitchhiker had been a West German agent.
He seemed like an OK guy. But you never can tell. There was the possibility that I had been moved to this cell so he could sound me out. That’s why I was on my guard and didn’t give him too many details of my case.
In the evening, they escorted me to a “writing cell.” “Write your CV and pick a lawyer,” the guard said. When he was about to close the door, he stopped and turned to me once more: “The sheets are counted so don’t even think about trying to swipe one.”
I sat on the stool, looking at the sheets of paper, the ballpoint pen and a list with names of lawyers on the table in front of me. I didn’t feel like writing novels. I jotted down my date and place of birth; when and where I went to school; what apprenticeship I had done. Then I took the list of lawyers and went through it. One name was familiar: Dr. Vogel/Berlin. I had heard his name in connection with defending people who tried to escape from East Germany. I wrote him a letter, asking if he would take my case.
The next morning, I went to recreation for the first time. The recreation yard looked like a row of dog runs. High concrete walls enclosed each one, and the ceiling was made of wire mesh. They weren’t much bigger than the prison cells. The guards patrolled on a catwalk above us. We were under constant surveillance. Any attempt to establish contact with the adjacent section was immediately terminated. Security was the priority in this place. You could sense it everywhere all the time.
My interrogation continued on the following afternoons. The interrogator asked questions, and I answered. They were no longer just about the prison break but also my family and friends. He showed a special interest in my Oma, wanted to know how often she visits, and if we discussed politics.
The many conversations I had had with her, actually encouraged me to leave the GDR. She always said I would be much better off in West Germany because colored people were no rarity there. There were many black American soldiers where she lived. However, I wasn’t going to tell him that…
Dr. Vogel’s response arrived soon. He informed me that unfortunately, he was too busy with other matters to be able to take my case.
“We’ll get you a public defender,” the interrogator said. “Knowing your attitude, we’ll make sure he’s not a party member.”
Soon after, I was taken to the visitation area to meet my lawyer. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Dr. Krauss from Fuerstenwalde. He pronounced the “from” like a “von” as if it was a nobiliary particle. He was wearing gold–rimmed glasses and had very thin lips. It almost looked like he didn’t have any at all. He said, even though he was “only” a public defender, he would do everything in his power to help me. This power seemed to be quite limited because he wasn’t even able to tell me what kind of sentence I could expect. “I never speculate. But tell me which of the accusations against you are wrong.”
“To begin with, the attempted murders. I… we never intended to kill anybody—”
“Every shot you fire can be considered as an attempted murder,” Dr. Krauss von Fuerstenwalde interrupted. “As soon as the bullet leaves the barrel, you’re no longer able to influence its trajectory.”
I took a deep breath and sighed realizing I couldn’t expect any help from this man. I think there was mutual dislike from the outset. He might not have been a party member, but he was in cahoots with the Stasi.
Back in the interrogation room, I asked the interrogator what sentence he thought I would get.
He looked at me and smirked. “Hard to say. What do you expect?”
“Eight years? But I won’t be doing the full term. The West German government will get me out. Don’t they always say they have a duty to take care of all Germans?”
The interrogator took a long, pensive drag of his cigarette and exhaled slowly. Then he forced a smile and said: “Keep on dreaming and maybe you’ll be lucky.”
Our relationship was kind of interesting. He was friendly alright, but he wouldn’t answer any question I had for him. The only time I managed to break down his reserve was when we talked about sports, especially soccer. He was extremely proud of the GDR’s achievements in sport, and he didn’t like the fact, that the GDR was not world–class in soccer, which was for him the mother of all sports. But he was sure it wouldn’t take much longer for them to also be a power to be reckoned with in this sport. He suffered from the delusion that the East German soccer team finished fifth at the 1974 soccer world cup in West Germany and was actually the secret world cup winner because they were the only team that beat West Germany. The qualifiers for the word cup in Spain were on at that time, and he was dead sure that the GDR would get into the finale, where they, unfortunately, would be beaten by Brazil because they were too strong…
I also had to undertake a psychological test. The results would be used to decide whether I should be tried according to juvenile criminal law or adult, or if I was even mentally fit to be tried at all. During the examination, the shrink talked to me as if I were a child. He wanted to know if I felt threatened in any way by his questions. My situation was not trivial or amusing, but I found it comical all the same. When he looked at me through his Coke–bottle glasses, making strange gestures, I burst out laughing.
The man ignored my reaction. “How would you describe your personality? I mean are you soft or tough, selfish or generous?” he asked.
I decided to play ball and said I was soft and generous.
“No, on the contrary!” he challenged, jumping down my throat. “You are tough and selfish! The crime you committed proves that!”
“Why are you asking if you already know?”
Instead of answering my question, he calmly said with a weird expression: “You’ve got a well–trained body. You should have become an athlete instead of a criminal.”
At 7 AM on the Monday three weeks after the prison break, they came and escorted me to the laundry room. There, I had a brief argument with the female sergeant. She wanted me to appear in a suit while I insisted on wearing my own clothes. “The judge will consider this as contempt of court,” she said but handed me my things when she realized that I wasn’t giving in.
An older lieutenant cautioned me: “You are going to be transported to the courthouse. Firearms will be used if any escape is attempted. Did you get that?”
They handcuffed me and took me down to the underground garage. A Barkas B 1000 was waiting there. It had been turned into a paddy wagon with several sitting cells. They locked me up in one of them. Several minutes later, I could tell from the suspension of the vehicle that somebody else got in. The cover of the peephole had not been pushed back properly. I got up and took a look through. Stooping down, dressed in a dark suit, Burkhard squeezed himself into the opposite cell. The engine started up, and the Barkas moved. The ride lasted only a couple of minutes.
When I stepped out of the vehicle, I found myself in the yard of the Frankfurt (Oder) District Court. Another pair of cuffs swung around my left wrist. It was attached to the right wrist of an overweight sergeant. A chain nipper around my right wrist completed the safety arrangements. We headed on—I wedged in between two Stasi servants. The one with the chain nipper pulled so hard that often my Siamese twin couldn’t follow. After climbing the first flight of stairs, he was out of breath and asked his comrade to slow down.
They led me into a waiting room and took the chain nipper off. The lieutenant produced a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “You’re entitled to a cigarette. You want one?”
He took one out of the pack and put it between my lips.
The fat sergeant looked at me and smiled. “You can hold the cigarette in your hand. I can lift my arm when you wanna take a pull.”
I was surprised because so far I had only been met by antipathy and malevolent glares. My Siamese twin was friendly but had pungent body odor that I could smell every time he moved.
After a few minutes, Dr. Krauss von Fuerstenwalde entered the room. He introduced himself with his full title and shook hands with everyone except me. The fat guard apologized for not being able to offer him his right hand. The lawyer asked if there were any questions. I said there weren’t. He stood there awkwardly for a moment rubbing his hands. Then he looked at his watch and said: “All right, I’d better be going now.”
A few minutes later, the lieutenant also looked at his watch. Then he gave a sign to his comrades. The chain swung around my right wrist, and they took me into the courtroom. It was packed to the rafters. As I entered a murmur went through the crowd. All eyes were fixed on me. Those who were sitting in the back rows were straining their necks.
The first row had been turned into a dock. Joerg, Burkhard and Andreas were already sitting there—all of them wearing dark suits. Like me, they were each cuffed to a guard. Sitting down, I bent forward and nodded a greeting to Andreas.
“Hi Andy!” he mouthed back to me.
The lieutenant signaled immediately to the sergeants to pay closer attention. Then he gave Andreas and me a warning look and seated himself at the head of our row keeping a close watch on us.
The lawyers were sitting at desks in front of us. Andreas and I had a lawyer each while Joerg and Burkhard shared one. I turned around to find my interrogator. He was sitting in one of the front rows. I smiled and nodded a greeting to him. He did not respond, just gave me a cold stare. The lieutenant made a warning gesture when I turned around a second time.
A few minutes later, the jury entered: three men and a female secretary. Everybody stopped talking. The fat guard got up and pulled me along. The judge introduced himself and the parties to the proceedings. State’s attorney Meckert and attorney Rau represented the prosecution. The latter had the reputation of being a hardliner.
Chief Judge Schmidt called us one after the other and asked for our particulars. After that, he handed proceedings over to the prosecution. Rau got up and started to read out the indictment or, to be more precise, to scream it. The man was reminiscent of an aggressive terrier. He explained in detail how the prison break and its planning had gone down, according to the investigation. After he finished his elaboration at the point where we left the holding center, he seated himself visibly exhausted and downed a glass of water while his comrade Meckert got up and continued. The state’s attorney was the very antitheses of Rau. Although bowed by age, he was still tall. His Saxon dialect accentuated the gentleness of his voice even more.
Joerg was interrogated first. He meekly answered the questions, which focused mainly on the shot he had fired to disable the Student. “Did it occur to you that you could kill the man?” Rau asked. He reminded me of the Nazi judge Freisler because he never looked at Joerg but stared at the ceiling.
“Not really,” Joerg said. “I’ve always been a good shot.”
“You said otherwise when you were questioned,” Chief Judge Schmidt interposed, quoting: “From the very beginning it was clear to me there would be casualties.—Didn’t you say that?”
“Not really,” Joerg said in a low voice.
“What do you mean ‘not really’? Will you please speak plain German! Yes or no?” Rau yelled.
“Yes,” Joerg whispered.
“I can’t hear you, defendant!” Rau yelled, staring at the ceiling.
“Yes!” Joerg said, this time loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear.
It was evident that he had signed everything without reading it beforehand. In the end, it came across as if he had shot at the Student with the intention of killing him.
Burkhard was next. He was in the worst position of all of us because of the life–threatening shots he had inflicted on the cop. I think he just lost it. Everything had been too much for him. On the other hand, the cop had aggravated the situation by his inflated opinion of himself. Of course, the prosecution saw the matter differently. Burkhard could only hope that the doctors would be able to save the man’s life.
Andreas presented himself well. He was the only one who didn’t accuse me of being the ringleader. Once, Rau yelled at him because he repeatedly used my first name: “We’re not dealing with first names here. Will you please use the surname!”
Andreas wasn’t intimidated and continued using my first name.
When I stepped forward to the microphone, the two attorneys sized me up. Rau, who was practically leading the whole investigation alone, asked if I admitted to being the ringleader, which I denied, and whereupon he called up Joerg: “Would you say that the defendant Schneider was responsible for the planning of the prison break?”
Being visibly embarrassed by the question, Joerg said, “I don’t think so.”
Now Meckert intervened for the first time: “You don’t think so. Well, well… Do you want me to read out what you said at the interrogations?”
“No,” Joerg said in a low voice.
“Answer the question then,” Meckert said.
“Yes, he was,” Joerg said meekly.
A content smile flashed across Meckert’s face.
Chief Judge Schmidt inquired if there were any more questions. So far, the jury hadn’t said anything. That’s why I was quite surprised when one of them addressed me: “Why did you shoot at the patrol car?”
“I wanted to scare them,” I said.
“Was your weapon at any time adjusted to full–automatic fire?”
“It wasn’t,” I said.
The juror nodded. Then he signaled to Schmidt that he had no further questions. After that, the hearing was adjourned till 2 PM. They took me back to the holding center for a lunch break.
The second part of the trial’s first day started with the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution. The guards we had overpowered in the holding center were questioned first. All of them were still written off sick. They described the event from their point of view emphasizing there had been no chance to prevent the prison break. The prosecuting attorneys saw the matter quite differently. Rau asked a lot of embarrassing questions. He wanted to know why the guards hadn’t had their walkie–talkies and batons on them as required, suggesting that they would have to answer for this gross violation of work and safety regulations somewhere else.
Butterball was still suffering from shock. He just stammered and was not even able to give concrete answers. “I don’t remember” and “maybe” was all he said. It didn’t take the chief judge long to notice that any further questioning was futile, and Butterball was excused.
The driver of the patrol car I had fired at came next. “We received a call to check if everything was in order at the holding center on Collegienstrasse. We had an intern in the car. It was his first day. He must have thought he was in a movie —”
“Stick to the facts please,” Chief Judge Schmidt interrupted. “What happened next?”
“Sorry!… We saw a group of young people in prison uniforms standing right in front of the holding center. They were armed.”
“What did you do?” Chief Judge Schmidt inquired.
“I stopped and sent my comrades out of the car to secure the neighborhood. There was a construction site nearby. I ordered them to stop the operations and to prevent passersby from walking in the direction of the danger. Then I heard a gunshot. My comrades ran for cover, and I made a U–turn and barreled off. There was a second shot, and a bullet went through my rear window.”
“Please turn around and have a look at the defendants,” Chief Judge Schmidt said.
We were asked to stand up.
“Can you identify the one who shot at your vehicle?” Chief Judge Schmidt asked the witness.
The cop shook his head. “I can’t. Everything happened too quickly. And I had already turned before the second shot.”
Rau jumped up. Pointing at me, he yelled, “Could it have been him?!”
I had never denied firing the shots, so I didn’t understand the point of Rau’s line of questioning. I looked at Dr. Krauss von Fuerstenwalde, who could have objected to the prosecutor’s attempt to influence the witness. But far from it! He remained seated, acting as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I really can’t tell comrade attorney,” the witness said apologetically, looking alternately at Schmidt and then Rau.
Rau glared at the cop, although it wasn’t clear to me whether he was upset because the witness hadn’t identified me, or because he had called him “comrade,” which was inappropriate. “Well, then!” Rau finally said, indicating with an exasperated gesture that he had no further questions. And with that, the first day of the trial was over.
That night in bed, the events of the day went through my mind. The trial was a farce. Although they wanted to give the impression that they were conducting a fair trial, I was convinced the sentences had already been decided. Besides, they only discussed the prison break. They hadn’t asked a single question as to why I attempted to escape from East Germany. According to them, “a blind hate for socialism” was my one and only motivation.
Before we left for the courthouse on the second day of the trial, the female sergeant in the laundry room told me that the clothes I had worn the day before, and which had been soaked through with perspiration, couldn’t be washed. Since I didn’t want to smell like my Siamese twin, I decided to take the shirt, suit and matching shoes provided by the holding center.
The trial started with the testimony of more witnesses, among them the super, who much to the disgust of attorney Rau, didn’t present himself as a former hostage at all. In fact, as promised, he put in a good word for us. Asked, who kicked in the door after he tried to close it again, he said he didn’t know and that it wouldn’t take much anyway to kick it in because it was only made of compressed wood. Of course, he, his wife and his auntie were scared of us at first, but later everything was OK because we didn’t threaten them. He actually appeared to be happy with the way everything played out. The renovation of his apartment only took a few days. Also, he had gotten new furniture—all for free as he emphasized. Rau could hardly contain himself when he said: “I didn’t know that craftsmen in the GDR could work so fast.” If looks could kill, the super would have dropped dead on the spot.
They led our former cellmate Matthias by a chain nipper into the courtroom. According to him, I was the root of all evil. I had talked the others into breaking out with me. I wasn’t surprised when he incriminated me because of our mutual disdain.
After the testimony of the witnesses, Chief Judge Schmidt read out a couple of expert opinions that cost 3,000 marks each. These expenses were added to the list of damages we had to pay. Then the hearing was adjourned again till 2 PM.
The trial continued with the prosecuting attorneys’ closing speeches. The two old men took turns. Their statements teemed with expressions and phrases like imperialism, conspiracy, enemies of socialism, thwarting these machinations, and so on. District attorney Meckert read the sentencing request pleading that a life sentence be given to Burkhard, Joerg and me. Hearing this, I was stunned! I felt nauseous. It was if an invisible noose strangled me. I gasped for air and had to undo the top buttons of my shirt, or I would have passed out. A life sentence! Were they serious?! I was only 20 years old! I sat there paralyzed. I had prepared myself for eight, ten maybe even fifteen years, but I had never imagined a life sentence…
I don’t remember much of the rest of the trial. However, one sentence was burned deep into my memory: “The defendants must be isolated from our socialist society for good.” Meckert demanded thirteen years for Andreas. They “went easy” on him because he hadn’t taken part in the planning phase.
I didn’t hear the plea of my lawyer, but I don’t think I missed anything. They would announce the sentence the next day. Even though the jury could go easier on me, I was convinced they would go along with the demands of the prosecution.
I must have stepped into the cell like a zombie. My cellmate noticed immediately that something was wrong. “What happened?” he said.
“Guess how many years the attorney demanded?” I mumbled.
“Eight years?” he said.
I shook my head.
I shook my head.
I shook my head again.
He swallowed. “They didn’t demand a life sentence, did they?”
“You bet they did,” I said.
“Are you joking?” He looked at me in disbelief.
“Do I look like I’m joking,” I said and slumped down on the bed.
Nobody said anything for a while. As if compelled to relieve the tension, my cellmate finally broke the silence, “But there are amnesties.”
Hearing this, I sat up and slapped my forehead. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of this myself!” An amnesty was my chance! I just had to believe it. The shock was still there, but the word amnesty began to give me hope again.
The sentencing started with terrible news. In a solemn declaration, Rau informed the jury that the cop had died. Burkhard’s shot had undeniably caused the injuries leading to his death. I glanced over at Burkhard while Rau made the announcement. He was pale and had dark rings under the eyes, and he was shivering. They charged him with murder now. I felt sorry for him.
The jury retired to deliberate again. It only took them a few minutes to return and pass the sentence: I was found guilty of committing acts of terrorism in conjunction with multiple counts of attempted murder, hostage–taking, battery, robbery, assault, illegal possession of firearms, obstructing justice, trying to escape from East Germany and several other minor offenses. Joerg, Burkhard and I got a life sentence. Also, we lost our civil rights for good. The costs of the trial and the damages that hadn’t yet been finalized were imposed upon us jointly—added to our debts to society as it were. Dr. Krauss von Fuerstenwalde came into the waiting room later. Pressing together the lips he didn’t have, he said it would be futile to appeal. I said I would do it nevertheless. Ignoring my resolve, he turned to my three watchdogs, said farewell to them and left.
When they took me through the yard to the paddy wagon, I looked around. The sky was cloudless. There was a giant sycamore tree in the yard. Some leaves were already yellow, but most were still green. It was a beautiful Indian summer afternoon. The brightly–colored atmosphere mocked my black mood. It occurred to me that I might never see a tree again.
They escorted me to the interrogator once more. He was cold and distant this time. It was almost like we had never met before. I asked him if he had expected a life sentence.
He looked at me with his eyes focused on mine and said: “It could have been worse for certain parties.”
I tried to conceal my emotions. “There are amnesties,” I said. “One day, I’ll get out again.”
The interrogator settled back in his chair. Smiling to himself, he said, “Everybody gets out again one day.”
Despite my outward appearance, I was on the verge of weeping. I wrote my appeal; then they took me back to my cell.
They woke me early next morning. “Number two, get dressed!” the sergeant said, giving me my breakfast through the door flap. I had hardly eaten when they came for me. I had to take off my work suit in the laundry room and got a yellow–brown canvas instead. They informed me that they would take me to a prison. Handcuffs clicked, and the old lieutenant warned me what would happen if I attempted to escape. The Barkas was waiting in the underground garage. They put me in the tiny cell; then the motor started, and the journey into an uncertain future began.
When they took the handcuffs off again, I found myself in a yard surrounded by high walls. Several senior guards were standing on a ramp and looked down at me. They were wearing the regular blue uniform of correction officers. A slim first lieutenant held a card with my details in his hand. Looking at it, he asked my name and date of birth. After I answered, he yelled: “Move your ass upstairs! Can’t stand to look at you anymore!”
When I wanted to head for the stairs, one of the officers rushed up at me and blocked my way. “Take it easy!” he said swinging a chain nipper around my wrist. I’m not short, but I felt like a dwarf beside this Goliath. Glaring at me, the senior guards surrounded me, and we got moving. We walked through a lobby where large, gold–colored metal letters hung on the wall. They read: LIFE TO THE PEOPLE—THE FUTURE TO COMMUNISM. A shiver went down my spine. There was the smell of prison I knew from the juvie. Walking through a long corridor, we went through several doors and gates. Then we took the staircase to the second floor. Finally, a cell was unlocked. “Goliath” took the chain nipper off and pushed me inside. Locking the gate he said: “You cause any trouble in here, I’ll beat the living shit out of you.” Then he slammed the door shut and locked it.
I asked myself where I was. At least, the senior guard’s dialect had given away that I was somewhere in Saxony. I looked around: The sink and the toilet were filthy. The walls had been painted a long time ago. The floorboards creaked with every one of my movements. There was no warm water.—No comparison to the bright, clean cell in the Stasi holding center.
I wanted to take a closer look at the window. But I hesitated about climbing onto the bed. I listened carefully for a while. When I was sure nobody was standing behind the door, I chanced it. They had fixed metal panels on the outside of the window. The only thing I saw through a chink in the metal was a piece of the sky. I pictured my future life. I was in an adult prison now, but the rules were probably the same as in the juvie. I had my experiences, and I was sure getting along with the other prisoners would be the least of my problems. When I heard the clattering of keys, I got quickly down from the bed. The door was unlocked. It was the big lieutenant. “Come!” he ordered.
We went to an office on the same floor. The slim first lieutenant and another senior guard with bulging eyes were waiting there.
“Report!” the first lieutenant yelled after I entered.
“Juvenile Schneider reporting,” I said.
“It’s inmate!” the first lieutenant yelled. “This isn’t your first term in prison, is it?”
I shook my head. “But where I was before, we had to report as juvenile.”
“Well, here it’s inmate!” The first lieutenant yelled, then continued in a normal tone: “You’re in the penal institution Bautzen II. You will serve your life sentence here. Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head, having a mental image of wrists with padded burn marks. I had heard of Bautzen before. Wasn’t it called the “Yellow Misery?” My Oma had had this cohabitant for a couple of years. I met him once when I was little. Standing in this office now, I remembered the burn marks on his wrists. I learned his story from my parents: “Addi” was a true Berlin original. As a 16–year–old in 1945, he was a Hitler youth leader in Potsdam, and he was captured during the taking of Berlin. Before the Russians took him to a labor camp in Siberia, they held him for a year in the “Yellow Misery.” Even though Siberia was hard, Bautzen was ten times harder. That’s at least what he claimed. The soldiers in the Russian Far East shared the little bread they had with the German POWs, but the German communists, who were officially in command of the Bautzen penitentiary, were barbarians. They tortured their prisoners in any and every possible way. One of their favorite methods was to burn the prisoners with a scorching iron on their wrists. The inmates died like flies and then were buried in the ground on “Rabbit Hill.” I had a mental image of a wooden cross, bearing my name on “Rabbit Hill”…
The first lieutenant sneered. “Why did you stop shooting? Did you run out of ammo?”
“We had enough ammo left,” I said.
“I don’t like your tone!” he said and turned to his comrades: “We’ve broken tougher guys than you before, haven’t we?”
The lieutenant with the bulging eyes grinned, but Goliath kept a straight face.
“Strip!” the first lieutenant ordered.
“Hands on the wall and spread your legs!”
I put my hands on the wall and spread my legs.
“Feet further apart!”
“I can do the splits if you want me to,” I said.
“You’ll learn to keep your big fucking mouth shut!” the first lieutenant said.
Goliath searched my clothes while I stood with my hands up against the wall. After he was done, I was allowed to dress again.
“If you cause any trouble, I’ll make you disappear, and you’ll never be seen again,” the first lieutenant said. “Get the fuck out of here!”
Goliath escorted me back to my cell and gave me my instructions: “In the future, you stand under the window and report once the door opens.”
“What am I to say?” I said.
“Custody room two thirty–two occupied by inmate Schneider, nothing to report, good afternoon lieutenant!” Goliath said.
After pacing for a while, I heard a rapping on the wall. I answered and kept count of the answering raps, deciphering “sink” and “pipe.” I examined the sink and realized that its pipe could be pulled out from the nozzle in the wall. I squatted down and removed it. A terrible smell assaulted me from the darkness. Nevertheless, I whispered into the nozzle, “Hello!”
“Hello!” somebody answered. “I’m your neighbor. Are you new? How long do you have?”
“I’m doing all day and you?”
“Thirteen years for espionage. Harald’s the name…”
I jumped a couple of times because I heard the clattering of keys, but Harald reassured me. He had been there four years and could discern every noise. I learned that the slim first lieutenant was the chief deputy warden (CDW). His nickname was Trixi. Goliath’s nickname was Bobby. He was said to have beaten some prisoners to a pulp. Harald also warned me about a sergeant called Rosycheeks.
There was a noise. This time, somebody came. I put the pipe back into the nozzle and stood under the window. It was Bobby. He unlocked the gate and interrupted my report, “Catch!” Then he threw the contents of a laundry hamper at me piece by piece: toiletries such as a toothbrush, cutlery, towels, bedding, etc. Before he left, he told me he attached great importance to bed making.
I quickly made my bed, put the other stuff in the closet and resumed my conversation with Harald. I learned that there were two prisons in Bautzen. Bautzen I or “The Yellow Misery,” where Uncle Addi had been, was the other one. Bautzen II was a Stasi prison. Here were mostly prisoners whose investigations had been organized by the Stasi. There were a few prisoners who had been transferred to Bautzen II for reasons of safety because they had been Stasi informers in other prisons. Finally, there were a few former members of the Stasi here, who had committed crimes themselves. There were about 150 prisoners, most of them male. About thirty prisoners were West Germans or other foreigners. They had been sentenced for aiding an escape, espionage or violation of the transit treaty. Harald also told me about his case. He had tried to escape to the West via the West German embassy in Poland. He went to Warsaw, but the Polish police stopped him from entering the embassy. On his return to East Germany, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced for espionage and illegal contact.
There were several isolation units in Bautzen II. The guards closely monitored the prisoners in these units to make sure they couldn’t get in touch with the “regular” prisoners. Nevertheless, there were other ways of making contact with one another. One method was rapping on the wall, another one the “telephone”—speaking through the toilets and drainpipes.
I settled in and learned the daily routine. Sleep was over at 5 AM. Count was at 6 AM. Mealtime was at 11 AM and rec time between 2:30 and 3:30 PM. A second count was at 7 PM and lights–out at 8 PM. I talked as much as possible with Harald and learned many things that would be quite useful in the future. He told me the nicknames and idiosyncrasies of all guards. The nicknames were such good caricatures that I knew immediately which name belonged to which guard.
When one day, I wanted to go up the stairs to my cell after rec time, the guard motioned for me to take a different direction. He took me to the first floor and put me in a cell beside the isolation unit there. All my things from the other cell were on the bed. I pushed the call button but was left waiting. After I pushed the button again, Bobby finally came. When I asked why they had moved me to this cell, he gave me a stern look and said: “We decide on the conditions of your custody, and for now, you’re going to stay in here.” Then he banged the door shut.
For now? What did that mean exactly—a week or a month? I persuaded myself that it meant just a few days. Anyway, it was a fact, and I had to deal with it.
My new cell had been renovated recently. Stool, table and bed were screwed to the floor. I climbed onto the bed and checked the window. It was boarded up with bars and metal panels. Looking outside was impossible, but I could hear the pigeons coo on the ledge beyond the metal panels. How I envied them! They were free and could fly wherever they wanted to…
When they came to pick me up for rec time the next day, I had to put my hands through the food slot in the gate and was handcuffed. Then I was ordered to step back. While I stood under the window, the guard unlocked the gate. After that, he walked away and ordered me from a safe distance to come. On my way to the rec yard, I passed six scowling screws with batons. It was ridiculous, and I would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so grim. Bobby was waiting for me at the entrance to the rec yard. “From now on, you’re only allowed to walk slowly with your head down directly beside the wall,” he said. Then he indicated with his hand what he meant precisely: “You can walk this line of 20 meters back and forth. Doing any form of sport is forbidden.” When he saw that I was about to say something, he added: “You violate any of these rules, the rec time will be terminated immediately.”
What were they up to? I decided to go along with it for the next few days. If nothing changed, they would see.
On the following days, however, the only thing that changed was that the controls became tighter. The guards looked nearly every minute through the peephole. It was easy for them because my cell was at an intersection where they were regularly passing.
One afternoon, Trixi brought me two letters. One was from the East German Supreme Court, who rejected my appeal; the other one was from my mother. “You’re allowed to answer,” he said. “I’m leaving a pen and paper here. I’ll be back in an hour. There are no visitations or packages for the time being. If you write anything about your criminal offense or this penal institution, the letter will not be sent. Are we clear?”
I looked defiantly at him and said, “I don’t want to answer.”
“Um…” Trixi looked at me in surprise searching for words. “You’ve got to answer. If you don’t want contact, tell your parents,” he said and left.
Sitting on the stool, I stared at the letter on the table in front of me. I considered ripping it to pieces and flushing it down the toilet. Anger swelled in me. I hated this woman. She was the one responsible for everything. She had given birth to me without regard to the consequences on the naïve assumption that her love for me would take care of everything.
Eventually, I took the letter out of the envelope. Seeing my mother’s beautiful handwriting, I suddenly felt warm all over, and my anger dissipated. I started to read:
“Dear Andy! Since I haven’t heard from you, I’m taking the initiative now. Vati and I finally went to the District Court in Frankfurt to find out what’s going on. They didn’t tell us much, but now we know at least that you’re alive, which is the most important thing for us right now. First and foremost I want you to know that I love you, and so do Vati and your brothers. We are a family and will always be. As I’m writing these lines, I see my little Andy in my mind. I’ve always been so proud of you, and you’ve been a good son to me for many years. I don’t know what went wrong between us later, but I know it’s never just one person’s fault. I know that now. And I also know that we both can be very stubborn. Please let’s make a fresh start. What happened in the past no longer matters. It would mean a lot to me to hear from you. I’m sure you’re having an incredibly hard time now. But I also know that you’ve always been a fighter. I’m sure you’ll get through this. And never forget you are not alone. If you need anything, please let me know. I will do everything I can to help. I love you, Andy. Greetings from Vati and your brothers. Your Mutti.”
My eyes welled up. Those were the first kind words I had encountered in weeks. I suddenly realized how incredibly lonely I was. Nevertheless, I stubbornly stuck to my decision: I wrote a few lines, telling my mother that I didn’t want to have contact with her. I had got myself into this situation, and I had to get out of it myself.
Time moved incredibly slowly. Mondays, I always got a book, which I had read by Tuesday evening. Then I would pace all day long in the little cell waiting for the newspaper. I had never imagined there would be a day when I would be wanting to read the party paper “Neues Deutschland.” But this rag was my only connection with the outside world, and I had to be satisfied with what little it told me about what was happening on the outside.
I tried to get in touch with the prisoners in the adjacent isolation unit. I knocked on the wall again and again, but no one answered.
After three weeks, I decided to act. I would use a hunger strike as leverage. I would demand the immediate end to my isolation and a transfer to a commando. I was sure it would work.
At mealtime, I refused to take my food tray and informed the guard about my decision. He left and returned with Trixi. “Write down the reason for your hunger strike. I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” Trixi said dismissively, handing me writing materials.
I wrote: “I’ve been in this facility for four weeks. The entire time, I’ve been kept in solitary. I also have to wear handcuffs in the recreation yard. I didn’t give any cause to be treated like this and demand you end these violations of my human rights immediately. Until my demands are met, I refuse to eat.”
Trixi came back and took the letter without comment. The wait started. What would their reaction be? How long would I need to hold out? Four days, five days or even longer? No matter how long, I was resolved to see the hunger strike through.
The first day, I was hardly affected nor did I feel any ill effects the next morning. But around mealtime on the second day, the craving to eat began. The guard left the food tray between the gate and the door, so I could reach it if I wanted to. The smell of the warm meal filled the cell and made my mouth water. In the evenings, they would bring me a pitcher with coffee substitute. Even though it tasted like dishwater, I downed the whole pitcher in an attempt to dispel my hunger.
The third night, I started dreaming about food. I had never given food a second thought, but now, it was the only thing on my mind. Juicy steaks, fried potatoes, grilled fish was all I could think about. I decided never to gulp down my food again once the hunger strike was over but rather enjoy every morsel till the plate was empty… The hunger pangs had miraculously disappeared when I got up in the mornings. But as midday approached the hollow feeling in my stomach returned and almost drove me insane. As a consequence of the hunger strike, I suffered three penalties: no books, no daily newspaper, no rec time. The way the guards treated me remained unchanged—with utter contempt.
On the fourth day, Trixi came by. “I’m informing you that the warden has turned down your demands,” he said. Then he looked at me waiting for a response. When it didn’t come, he said: “Are you going on with your hunger strike?”
I scoffed. “What do you think?”
He apparently hadn’t expected me to react like this, and it made him angry. While his face turned into a grimace, he said: “In that case, I have to tell you that you’ll be tied to the bed and tube–fed if you don’t start eating by a certain deadline.”
I stood under the window and listened to him quietly, which annoyed him even more. “But before, I’ll have your face smashed in, the same way you did with the guards in the holding center!” he yelled and slammed the door shut.
I was sure he was bluffing and that these red swines couldn’t do anything to me as long as I kept my resolve. I decided it was a good sign that Trixi had gotten so upset, and it made me confident.
On the fifth day, I began to feel horrible. My stomach was all shrunken. Giving up, however, was not an option. If I wanted to attain my goal, I had to pull through. Every day, I hoped they would give in and move me to a commando. I pricked my ears at every noise persuading myself, “They’re coming to move you!”
They came on the morning of the ninth day. There was a commotion in the corridor. I heard voices and the jingling of keys. The lid of the peephole moved every few seconds. Finally, the door was unlocked. A short man in a white coat, obviously the prison doctor, stepped up to the gate. An orderly and half a dozen guards, among them Trixi and Bobby, were standing in the background. “I’m asking you again,” the doctor said. “Are you going to eat?”
I shook my head.
“Suit yourself!” he said and stepped back to make space for Jumbo, a guard.
“Come here and put your hands through the food slot,” Jumbo said playing with the handcuffs.
I remained standing under the window, arms behind my back. Something stopped me from giving in just like that even though I knew resisting was useless.
“Are you deaf? Get over here!” Jumbo said.
When I didn’t react, he shrugged and turned around seeking help.
“Stop this circus!” Trixi ordered. “Open the gate and handcuff him! Use the baton if he resists!”
Bobby took the handcuffs from Jumbo, unlocked the gate and entered the cell. He grabbed my arms pulling them from behind my back and handcuffed me. I didn’t resist. While he stood guard over me, Jumbo and Chinese attached cuffs to the bed frame. When they were done, he shoved me onto the bed. The cuffs closed around my wrists and ankles.
Now the doctor and the orderly entered the cell with their instruments. While one hung two drip–bottles on a rack, the other one pulled my pants down to my knees. The doctor attached two cannulas to the tubes and pushed them slowly into my inner thighs. “I could have put them somewhere else, but it’s especially painful in the thighs,” he whispered. Then he turned to his comrades: “We can leave now. It’ll take about thirty minutes for the infusion.” He turned to me again: “You have half an hour to decide whether you eat or not.” Saying this, he pressed the cuffs around my ankles as tightly as possible. “We don’t want to make it too easy for him,” he said as he walked out of the cell.
I moaned with pain when they were gone. I persuaded myself that they would be at their wit’s end after the infusion. They weren’t allowed to use violence, were they? They were just bluffing and trying to scare me…
The drip–bottles were dangling above my head. They emptied slowly and made my thighs swell. My heart was pounding.
The gang returned half an hour later. The doctor pulled the cannulas out. Pushing his tinted glasses up his nose, he said: “Are you ready to eat?”
I shook my head.
“All right, it’s getting unpleasant now!” he said and got a rubber tube out of his bag. “Open your mouth!”
I did the contrary and pressed my lips together.
“Alright,” the doctor said. “You want it that way!” He pushed his thumbs into my cheeks trying to force my jaws open.
I jerked my head fiercely from one side to the other.
“Hold his head!” the doctor said to the orderly.
The orderly tried to hold it but didn’t manage. There wasn’t enough space because the bed was screwed to the floor and only accessible from one side. They kept getting in each other’s way. We struggled for a while before they needed a break.
On the second attempt, Jumbo assisted them. When he pinched my nose together, I tried to breathe through my clenched teeth panting like a lunatic. I smelled the doctor’s bad breath. His face was directly above mine. Jumbo almost ripped my nose off. At some point, I had to open my mouth to breathe, and the doctor pushed his thumbs so far in that I couldn’t close it anymore. “Hurry up! Get the wedge there on the table!” he shouted at Chinese who grabbed for the wedge and shoved it between my teeth. “Done!” the doctor said. His glasses were askew on the tip of his nose. All three who had worked me over stood there breathing heavily.
After a short break, the doctor took the tube again. “I’m going to introduce this now,” he said to me. “It might hurt a little.”
I bit on the hard wedge between my teeth and started to get scared.
The doctor started the process and the further he pushed the tube into my throat the more restless I grew. I gasped and finally shrieked like a cornered animal. When the end of the tube reached my stomach, the doctor pushed it back and forth. I choked and vomited. A brown liquid came out of the tube splashing over the doctor’s white coat and part of the wall.
“He’s suffocating!” the orderly said.
The doctor pulled the tube out with a scared look.
I choked on something and got a coughing fit that made my eyes bulge out of their sockets.
“Well,” the doctor said. “I have to hand it to him: he didn’t eat a bite. He only pumped himself with coffee.”
They gave me a minute to calm down; then round two started. The doctor introduced the tube again and pushed it back and forth. My stomach rumbled. I choked. “Stop it!” I yelled as well as I could.
The doctor pulled the tube out.
I was relieved.
“Yes!” I yelled. The anger and frustration about my powerlessness drove my eyes to swell and water. I tried to hold the damn tears back, but it was so hard.
The doctor packed his instruments hastily together. When Jumbo and Chinese wanted to unchain me, he asked them to wait till he was out of the cell. After they locked the gate, he stepped up once more and said: “I hope this was a lesson for you. Next time, it’ll be even more unpleasant.”
I turned around so he couldn’t see my face. After they locked the door, I sat on my stool and balled my eyes out like a little child. I felt so belittled. I had failed miserably. Those pigs had shown me how insignificant I was. Snot was running out of my nose, and my cheeks were bleeding. I looked at myself: my thighs were so swollen that the pants legs were skintight. The cuffs had left deep marks, and my wrists and ankles ached. My cheeks burned like fire because the salty tears ran straight into the wounds.
Eventually, I got up and washed my face. After that, I ate the soup the doctor had left on the table. There was also my regular food tray. I was so ravenous that I went for it too. But I had to stop after a few bites. The potatoes and the piece of meat tasted extremely salty. Everything felt like sandpaper in my stomach. I went over to the toilet and vomited. My body needed to get used to eating again.
Later, I sat on my stool and stared blankly at the wall. I heard Meckert’s terrible, gentle voice demanding a life sentence. I shook my head pensively: What on earth had I gotten myself into?
Gradually, I got to know the different guards. Apart from Pauly and Hansel, two older sergeants, everyone was antipathetic. Nevertheless, I could still differentiate: Chinese and Rosycheeks were extremely vicious. They treated me as if I had personally wronged them. They didn’t harm me physically but “forgot” to bring me the paper and my weekly book. They turned off the light early, banged against the door at nighttime, closed the cuffs extremely tight and made a mess of my cell when I was out for recreation. In a word, they lost no opportunity to terrorize me psychologically.
My first Christmas was a depressing occasion. Even though I didn’t see any of the festivity, I noticed the unique atmosphere. I had built myself a fantasy world to find shelter from reality, but this world was suddenly shattered. Christmas Day was a Friday, which meant I didn’t get the papers for two days. That was the hardest thing because I was not only despondent but also bored. I paced back and forth almost without a break until Monday realizing once more how bleak my situation was.
Time passed: six weeks, three months, half a year. I had sporadic contact via “telephone” with two guys from the neighboring isolation unit. There were five or six people there, among them an older man who suffered from migraines. Every few weeks, he had a fit and would cry for hours. The guys often quarreled and shouted at each other. Hearing this, I realized that solitary had its advantages too.
My mother kept writing to me even though I never answered. I always had moments of happiness when I read her letters—when she told me how much she loved me and the latest about my daughter. If only for a short time, it gave me strength and faith no matter how miserable I had been before.
During a heat wave in the summer of 1982, I was especially downcast. I was at the end of my tether both physically and mentally. To top it all off, Rosycheeks and his gang were on the day shift at the time. I swallowed it when he “forgot” to bring me my coffee and also when he withheld the newspaper. But then he told me that my rec time was canceled.
“Why?” I asked.
“For administrative reasons,” he said.
I could tell from the expression on his face how much he enjoyed this.
“But I’m not gonna discuss this with you anyways,” he added and slammed the door shut.
I had been in Bautzen long enough to discern the different noises in the building, which is why I knew that the racket coming from the stairwell a few minutes later was caused by the commandos marching out to the rec yards. Rosycheeks just couldn’t be bothered to let me out. It was probably too much work in the awful heat.
I had bottled up so much frustration during the recent months that I was ready to explode. Depriving me of my rec time was the last straw. It was a Wednesday, the day I had to wash and wax the floor of my cell. Rosycheeks had to come back to give me my cleaning supplies. He would cuff me before unlocking the gate, but that wouldn’t stop me this time.
In my cell, there was an iron rod attached to the window, used for opening and closing it. With all the security, that was a weak point I had noticed a long time ago. I started bending the rod back and forth. It broke after a few minutes. I had only one desire: to cave this cunt’s head in. I would also finish off the other screws in his gang and batter anyone to death who crossed my path. I couldn’t think straight anymore. I wanted to kill as many of THEM as possible and didn’t give a damn if they shot me or beat me to death afterward. In fact, being dead was better than having to continue suffering this misery day by day. On this hot summer day in 1982, I was prepared to do anything. I placed the iron rod in the blind spot beside the gate, so I could pick it up when stepping out to get my cleaning supplies.
I couldn’t wait for Rosycheeks to arrive. I kept visualizing myself smashing his skull in hearing my inner voice say, “You’ve got to do it!”
But there was another voice too. It said that I was going through things that look bad now but this challenging period could also be over tomorrow. Wasn’t I a fighter? Wasn’t I the one who never quit?…
There was a noise in the corridor. He was coming! I was terribly excited. My heart raced as the adrenaline flowed through my body. I got up and stood under the window. The door opened gently, not like Rosycheeks at all and—No! It wasn’t Rosycheeks but Pauly, one of the few guards who didn’t treat me like shit. I couldn’t… Nonsense, I could! After all, he was also one of THEM.
Pauly unlocked the gate without cuffing me. What was that supposed to mean? Was fate tempting me? It was the first time that a guard opened the gate without me being cuffed. That was strange. Pauly gave me a friendly smile. Hearing my inner voices fight, I walked to the gate glancing at the deadly weapon that was leaning against the wall waiting to be picked up. I hesitated. Then something made me continue walking out of the cell. Taking my cleaning supplies, I saw that there wasn’t even a second guard!
I threw myself onto the bed after the door was locked again. Thank God! I stared at the ceiling. I had just saved my own life. Tears of joy were running down my cheeks. For the first time in my life, I heard angels’ voices. It was a beautiful choir. Just minutes before, I had felt the irresistible desire to kill, but now I was so happy that I hadn’t done it. Why?—I couldn’t tell but for whatever reasons: out of fear or common sense, I DIDN’T DO IT, and only that mattered. Suddenly, I felt strong again. My spirit was renewed. They were never going to break me. Never!
When Pauly came to pick up the cleaning supplies, I gave him the iron rod saying it broke away when I opened the window. He didn’t doubt my story.
Summer went by. I lived my life in my small cell. There were days I didn’t give a damn about my situation thinking about it as a game and praising myself for being a tough guy. I was overflowing with confidence and thought that nobody and nothing could stop me because my fate wasn’t all that harsh. Some people were much worse off—people who were paralyzed, blind or mentally disabled. Some individuals had been behind bars for 15, 20 or even 30 years, and I, who had not even served 12 months, complained! But on other days, I didn’t have a trace of this energy. I was despondent. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I kept hearing Meckert’s gentle and at the same time so brutal voice, “I demand a life sentence…” On those days, my life was a catastrophe for me, and I had only one desire: to die.
They came for me after mealtime. We went through the corridor I had passed through a year ago upon my arrival and stopped in front of an office door. The leader of my escort pushed a buzzer. A few seconds later, the door swung open. Its inside had a thick padding. A bald older man in plain clothes stood in the doorway. He smiled at me. “Come on in!” he said as if we had an appointment; took my arm and pulled me gently into the room. “I’ll give you a call when we’re done,” he said to the guards before he closed the door.
He crossed the small room with me toward another door. After opening it, he motioned for me to walk through. I did so. There were two more plainclothesmen in the other room. One was sitting behind a desk, the other one standing by the window. The old man didn’t enter. He closed the door from outside.
I looked at the two men silently. Many thoughts went through my head, the principle one being that, hopefully, they were going to tell me that my solitary was over. I was sure they would. What else would they want? In my mind, I jumped with joy already.
The man by the window interrupted my thinking, “Are you refusing to report?”
“Inmate Schneider reporting,” I said, collecting myself.
A smile flashed across the man’s face while he pointed at a chair. “Please have a seat, Mr. Schneider!”
I couldn’t believe it: He had called me mister and by my name!
“Oops! You’re handcuffed?” the same guy said as if he had just noticed when I was sitting down. “We don’t do this here.” He walked out to the adjoining room and closed the door behind himself.
The man sitting behind the desk was burly. He had black hair and a red complexion like someone who suffers from high blood pressure. Even though he was clean–shaven, the part of the face where the beard grows was dark. I figured he was in his mid–forties as was his partner. I held his gaze for a moment, then looked around. The room was not very big. There was a fridge in the corner and a sink beside it. The floor was covered with wall–to–wall carpeting. A few communist slogans and a picture of Erich Honecker decorated the walls. I was sitting across from the man at a conference table that was adjoined to the writing desk. I could look out of the window. What I saw was a wall with touch–activated wires. A bird was sitting on the wall. I wished I was that bird…
The other man returned after a few minutes. He took my handcuffs off and stood by the window again. You had to look twice to notice, but there was a scar on his upper lip and nose as if he had had a cleft lip. “How long have you been here, Mr. Schneider?” he asked.
“A year to the day,” I said.
“And how much more time do you have to serve?”
“Um…” I shot him a puzzled glance. “I’ve got a life sentence.”
“Oh!” he said as if he hadn’t known this already. “And what for?”
Was this guy shitting me? This was absurd. My tone became less friendly: “Why are you asking me all these questions? I’m sure you know everything about me. So what’s the point?”
The red–faced burly guy opened his mouth for the first time: “You answer the questions we ask. Got it?” He had a booming voice and also a distinct Berlin dialect, as did his partner.
“No, Mr. Schneider, we don’t know anything,” the man by the window said, trying to dispel my suspicion. “We’re just here to talk to different people.”
“You’re Stasi, aren’t you?” I said.
The man pretended to be surprised. “Oh! You think we’re from the Ministry of State Security?”
I shook my head in incomprehension, then gazed defiantly into space.
“Well Mr. Schneider, are you going to tell us what you’re in for?” the man by the window said. It was obvious that he did the talking.
I took a deep breath. I wanted out of the solitary; I had to pull myself together. The last thing I wanted to do was to provoke these jerks. So I forced a smile and said: “Because I broke out of the holding center in Frankfurt.”
The spokesman looked at me in surprise. “This was you?” When I didn’t react, he glanced over at his sidekick who raised his eyebrows in surprise. It was altogether bad acting.
“I remember that,” the spokesman continued looking at me again. “It caused quite a stir.”
This silly behavior continued for a while. They made me tell them the whole story, and I played along. Eventually, the burly guy left the room. After the door was shut, his partner pulled up a chair and sat kitty–corner to me. I smelled his aftershave; also that he was a heavy smoker. “Can I offer you a cigarette?”
I thought for a second, then shook my head.
He made a gesture of regret and lit one himself.
I looked at the window. The bird was gone. I was sure I could handle him. He was sitting so damn close to me. But what about the other two in the adjacent room? Maybe they had a gun I could take? I played through a scenario: Suppose I would handle them too, and they had a gun, then what? How many more gates and guards would there be in my way? The Makarov held eight rounds…
The other man returned from the adjoining room. He was carrying a coffee tray, which he set down on the table in front of me.
“Do you take milk or sugar?” the spokesman said.
“I don’t want anything,” I said. Despite the fact that I would have liked to have a cigarette and also a cup of coffee, I wanted to keep my distance for the time being. When would they cut to the chase and tell me that the solitary was over?
An expression of disappointment flashed across the spokesman’s face. “How are your parents taking all this?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Beats me. Haven’t seen them in over a year.”
“Do they not visit?”
I shook my head.
“Because I don’t want them to.” My tone clearly indicated that I didn’t want to talk about my parents. He understood and changed the subject: “What are you gonna do after your release?”
Was this guy fucking kidding me? “I told you I have a life sentence,” I said.
“So what,” he said letting the smoke exhale from his nostrils. “Our socialist society gives every citizen a second chance no matter what he’s done. Of course, you won’t be going home tomorrow. But I don’t think a reprieve from your life sentence should be a problem after you have served a certain length of time with proper conduct.” He looked at me expectantly.
I shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t really thought about it.”
“Well, you should,” he said and smiled, which made it hard for me to go on with my unapproachable act.
“How do you get along with the other prisoners?” he asked.
What was wrong with this dude? “I don’t have anything to do with other prisoners,” I said. “I’m in solitary.”
The man shook his head in disbelief. Then he made eye contact with his sidekick who again raised his eyebrows in surprise.
I had been about to loosen up, but now I felt a surge of anger. Did they think I was stupid? What the hell were they up to?
“So you’re all alone and can’t speak to anyone?”
I took a deep breath. “As I said. I’m in solitary. I have to wear handcuffs when they let me out for recreation, and I’m being constantly harassed.”
The spokesman’s jaw dropped. “But… why would they do that? I mean solitary and having to wear handcuffs when you’re outside the cell is not an actual violation of the law.” He looked over to his sidekick again who nodded in agreement. “But I don’t see the point. Did you do anything to piss them off?”
“Didn’t even have the chance,” I said. “They put me in solitary right after I arrived a year ago.”
The spokesman pointed at the coffee. “You sure you don’t wanna drink it?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
His sidekick got up, came over to us, took the coffee tray and left the room.
The spokesman rested his elbows on the table and made a steeple with his hands. He gave me a warm smile when our eyes met. “Sooo… what do you do all day long in your cell?”
“Not much,” I said. “Pacing three and a half steps, thinking, waiting for the newspaper; reading it when it comes; reading the one book I get every week.”
He shot me a sympathetic glance. “Doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not, believe me,” I said.
“What would you like to do?” he said.
“Hm.” I thought for a moment and said, ”Learn English if you ask me.”
“Why do you wanna learn English?”
I shrugged. “You said yourself maybe one day, I’ll get out of here again. I don’t know, but maybe I’ll emigrate to an English speaking country. Since I have plenty of time here why not use it to prepare myself for it. Just in case.”
The spokesman nodded. “Positive thinking is good.” Then he spread his hands in a questioning gesture. “What would you need? A grammar book… or?”
“The basic vocabulary would do for starters,” I said.
I contemplated. “Choosing my own books from the prison library would be good too?” I put it as a question because I thought it was too much to ask for.
But the spokesman smiled and nodded. “I believe we can arrange this.”
I looked him in the eyes. “Why do you wanna do this for me?”
Holding my gaze, he said: “Regard my colleague and me as philanthropists.”
I loosened my aloofness toward him, and we continued chatting for another while. He said one more time that he wanted to help me. At some point, the sidekick entered the room again and gave his colleague a sign. Thereupon, the spokesman glanced at his golden, pretty expensive looking, Soviet–made watch. “Well… time’s up,” he said with a sad expression. He took the handcuffs off the table and put them loosely around my wrists. “See you in two weeks, Mr. Schneider!” Then he saw me to the door and turned me over to the old man.
Back in my cell, I had to take time to digest this new development. For the first time in a year, I’d had a decent conversation. It was the event of the year for me. I paced excitedly. My head felt like it was about to burst. Too many thoughts were flying around in it. Maybe they did want to help me? The spokesman had been friendly. I couldn’t deny that. After all, I had one year of solitary behind me. Maybe this conversation was the first step in paving the way to getting moved to a commando? On the other hand, they were Stasi and not to be trusted even if it was hard not to. Expecting something from them was pointless. They probably only wanted to find out if I was locked up safely, or if I had contact with other prisoners…
A book catalog in hand, Trixi was waiting in the corridor when I came back from rec time the next day. “From now on, you can borrow three books per week,” he said his tone suggesting that he didn’t approve.
I was speechless. So the Stasi guy had not been pretending! It also proved that the correctional officers were just peons; that they had to jump when a Stasi ordered. My heart jumped for joy when I looked through the catalog. There were so many books by American writers, books to learn English, French, Spanish and even Chinese! I hadn’t expected to find such a variety in a prison library. It seemed that the times were over when I had to content myself with reading books of contemporary socialist literature. Suddenly, I was the happiest man on the planet. There was nothing that could destroy my euphoria. It’s amazing what books can do. I was serving a life sentence, was in solitary confinement and was still happy just because I was allowed to borrow three books per week. What a crazy world!
I had nothing to write with, so I engraved the titles of the books I was interested in with my spoon onto the wall. I chose fifty titles—enough for the next six months.
A few days later, there was a commotion out in the corridor before mealtime. Someone looked through the peephole repeatedly. Then the door was unlocked, and a tall elderly man with the insignia of a general stood there. Several other big wigs and senior guards were standing in the background. “Unlock the gate!” the general ordered.
Trixi wriggled himself through to carry out the command. The general had to bend down when walking through the doorway. In the cell, he stood upright again. Even though he was stooped by age, he still was about one ninety–five.
“Custody room one thirty–two occupied by inmate Schneider! Nothing to report! Good morning, General!” I said.
The general mumbled something like “good morning,” took a look around as if there was anything to be seen, opened the door of my wall closet and looked inside. After that, he cleared his throat and turned to me, “Where do we go from here?” It sounded as if he continued a conversation we had just had.
“What do you mean?” I said in a somewhat disrespectful manner.
Trixi, who was short enough to stand in the doorway, looked up at the general as if he expected him to explode into a rage. The general, however, continued calmly: “Is this the way you want to go on, or are you prepared to take up some work? That’s what I mean.”
I scoffed. What kind of bullshit was this? Before I worked, I wanted to be moved to a commando! I felt a surge of anger. At the same time, I was thinking of my new Stasi friend. He was my man, and he would take care of my problems. Why even bother with this idiot here? Instead of answering the general’s question, I looked at the ceiling.
While the general was waiting for a response, Trixi broke the silence saying submissively: “If so, I suggest you come back in a year and ask again, comrade General.”
This comment pushed the old man over the edge. “If so, I won’t come back at all!” he roared, shoving Trixi out of his way as he left the cell.
Even though I found this visit strange, I didn’t give it much thought. It would be much more exciting if Harelip kept his promise. Nevertheless, I saw a pattern: after a year of solitary, they took me to two Stasi guys. Then this big shot stops by asking me stupid questions. Something was going on. I was sure the hardest time was behind me.
I listened for every sound on the Thursday when the two weeks were over. Again, they came for me after mealtime.
The spokesman gave me a cordial welcome smiling the friendliest smile. “Coffee? Cigarette?”
This time, I accepted.
Again, he alone was my dialog partner. Right after his sidekick left the room, he pulled up a chair and sat kitty–corner to me. Our chitchat began.
“I’m allowed to borrow three books of my choice now every week,” I said. “I guess I owe this to you. Thank you.”
He waved dismissively. “No need to thank me. I told you it could be arranged.”
I sipped my coffee looking at him expectantly.
“Sooo,” he said clasping his hands. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
I shrugged. “What do you wanna know?”
“In fact, everything.” He flashed a sheepish grin. “I mean, you don’t look exactly like the average GDR citizen. Why don’t we start with you telling me what your background is?”
“My biological father is from Guinea in West Africa, and my mother is from here,” I said.
The spokesman nodded. “And… how did your parents meet?”
“At one of these meetings where GDR students meet foreign students. It’s actually hard for me to understand how my mother ended up with my biological father. My guess is she having this affair with him was an act of rebellion.”
The spokesman raised his eyebrows. “Against who?”
“Against her ultra–conservative grandparents,” I said. “But I would have to go into detail to explain it.”
The spokesman looked at his watch. “Go ahead. We have nearly an hour.”
“Well,” I said, “you need to know that my mother grew up with her very strict grandparents in Saxony. After school, she went to Humboldt University to study to become a teacher. Around that time, she met my biological father who had been sent by his wannabe socialist government to the German sister state. Living in Berlin, my mother was far from home, and it was easy to keep her relationship and later even her pregnancy a secret from her grandparents. But they found out eventually, which was a tragedy without comparison for them. Oh, my! Their granddaughter in a relationship with a Negro and to add insult to injury being pregnant with his baby. Resolute Magdalena, that was my great–grandmother’s name, took the train to Berlin to save what could be saved. She said to my mother that if she really needed to strike up a relationship with a foreigner why could it not have been with a Chinese. There was one living not far from my great–grandparent’s house. My mother told her to go to hell, and as I know her probably thought, ‘now more than ever.’ But Magdalena did not give up so easily and tried a different approach: After she found out my father’s address, she sent him a letter asking him to leave her granddaughter alone and to go back to his country with his child once it was born. She also contacted a number of authorities, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t help her. Anyway, all this did not prevent me from being born.”
The spokesman chuckled. “You can’t change old people. They stick to their beliefs.” He offered me another cigarette, and I took it. “So your mother and your biological father broke up because of all the fuss your great–grandparents made?” he said.
I shrugged. “I’m not really sure about that. Maybe there was a different reason.”
The spokesman looked at me expectantly. “Like what?”
“You know, I know hardly any other boys or girls like me,” I said. “But the few I met had never seen their biological fathers either. I guess it’s just the usual thing that the ‘Fräuleins’ and their African lovers don’t stay together. The fact that they’re attracted to each other hasn’t anything to do with love. It’s just the excitement of being together with someone so different… But that’s just me. However, my great–grandparents calmed down eventually. Magdalena admitted that I was cute and even pushed me in a baby carriage through Berlin. After all, I was family. However, after my mother finished her studies, she was transferred to Wismar, a town on the Baltic sea, and three years later, I had a stepfather and a younger half brother.”
“Is your stepfather German?” the spokesman asked.
“I know Wismar,” the spokesman said. “It’s a beautiful town.”
“You can say that again,” I said. “I have only wonderful memories of the time there. I remember that I could see the sea when I stood on the garbage cans beside our apartment block. There were so many kids I could play with, and we went to the fish market every day. I was the star in my kindergarten. My teacher, Sonia, was like a second mother to me because she was also my babysitter. This beautiful time ended shortly after the birth of yet another brother. For whatever reason, my parents decided to move south. I’ll never forget the long journey on the furniture van down to Streichwitz, a tiny village with about 90 inhabitants.” I took a sip of coffee before I continued. “I was only five years old back then, but I remember everything. It was a hot summer day and also one of the worst of my life. Just a few weeks earlier, my parents had bought me roller skates. Maybe you can imagine how a kid feels when he suddenly finds himself in a place with no paved streets when roller skating is his favorite pastime. There were only dirt roads there and no kids to play with. I mean, there were kids alright but not a fraction of the number I was used to. However, the worst thing was that I heard somebody call me negro for the first time. I don’t remember that from Wismar. Everybody was friendly there. And to add insult to injury, I was also a fischkopp.”
The spokesman chuckled again. “So you had a northern German accent?”
“Totally,” I said. “I only lived a year or so in Berlin. Up in the north was where I learned how to speak.” I said the last sentence in a northern German accent.
“You still have it,” the spokesman said and laughed.
I sighed. “I missed my happy life in Wismar like hell: the sea, the salty air; eating fresh sprats every day, and I hated this dead new place from the beginning. I never really forgave my parents for taking me there.”
“But they must have had a reason for moving there,” the spokesman said. “They were teachers, right? Maybe they were assigned to work there.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I heard that my youngest brother suffered from asthma and that the doctor advised my parents to move to an area rich in woodlands.”
“So they did it for your brother,” the spokesman said.
“Probably,” I said. “But it was a huge mistake regarding me. I spoke many times with my mother about it, but she didn’t see it that way and could never understand why I didn’t like Streichwitz. By the way, so did my father and my brothers. They all love it there. However, that was my new life, and I had to deal with it. On the plus side was that we had a huge house and garden now. I also have to be fair and admit that there were no more racist comments after the villagers got used to me. In fact, some of them grew really fond of me, like the mayor and his wife, Uncle and Auntie Krueger. I spend a lot of time in their house. Both had a way with kids, maybe because they couldn’t have any themselves.”
I sipped my coffee again. Then I told the spokesman how Uncle Krueger tricked me into doing jobs for him. I couldn’t see myself, but I’m pretty sure my face gave away a reminiscent smile while I was speaking:“One day, Uncle Krueger called me and said: ‘Hey Andy, every village needs a sheriff. I’m the sheriff here alright, but what does every sheriff need?”
‘Um… a deputy?’
‘That’s right!’ Uncle Krueger said, slapping me on the shoulder. ‘And since I don’t have one, I make you my deputy.’
Little Andy was as proud as a peacock.
Besides being the mayor, Uncle Krueger was a passionate hunter. Of course, he couldn’t give me one of his guns, but he was also very good with woodwork. So we went to his shed, and he made me a gun because a deputy needs a gun. After I was equipped, he and I walked to a sand heap that was spread all over the place in the middle of the village. Since a deputy not only has to ensure law but also ‘order,’ I was to shovel up the heap. But before that, I was to get a pack of cigars from the village pub for the sheriff. After the sheriff gave me the money, I stood to attention and saluted. Then I stormed off to execute the command… Auntie and Uncle Krueger were lovely people, and their presence made having to live in Streichwitz bearable to some extent.” I took a deep breath and nodded wistfully. Then I continued: “My parents worked in a neighboring village called Neuzelle. I went to kindergarten there for one year. What I remember from this time is that the other kids didn’t like me and that I didn’t like them. Quite the same goes for my time in school. The school was in a village called Wellmitz. I remember my first day there. My mother put me in the bicycle seat and rode with me the three kilometers to my new school. Once more, I have to say, it was one of the worst days of my life. I was in this school for ten years, and I hated every single day of it. I never spent one minute longer in Wellmitz than necessary. Kids can be cruel. Don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not that I was bullied. I wasn’t the type for that. Even as a kid, I had already developed a certain aggressiveness and won almost every fight, but I was the Negro, how they called me behind my back, and I didn’t belong to them. Another point is, but that’s just me again, I started school in ‘67, so just 22 years after the destruction of what was probably the most racist entity on the planet. What I’m trying to say here is that many of my older teachers fought in World War II and had been followers of the guy from Austria as well as some parents and definitely the grandparents of my schoolmates. They were raised in the brown spirit, and I think I don’t have to elaborate on what they really thought of me and also of my mother.”
The spokesman nodded pensively. He seemed to understand. After all this time in solitary, I was in need of conversation, and I enjoyed the fact that he listened.
“I was a good student,” I said. “But my strong suit was track and field, which I guess can be put down to my African genes. Not a single one of my classmates was fit to hold a candle to me in this regard. There was only one guy who beat me in running in the whole school. And he was older than me. Engaging in sports activities runs like a golden thread through my childhood and early youth. When I was ten, I built myself a long jump in our garden. I also put a pull–up bar between two trees and practiced every day. I won every long and triple jump competition of my age class at the meetings in Eisenhuettenstadt for years and was chosen to join a promotion program. But I consider a third place in a different event my greatest achievement. There was a guy in the sports promotion unit I was on friendly terms with. His name was Kalle. He invited me to his birthday party; I invited him to mine—stuff like this. He was very slim and sinewy and a natural long–distance runner. He wouldn’t have a prayer when we sprinted against each other, but as soon as the distance exceeded 1,500 meters, he was the king. The boy could run and run and never seemed to get tired. I don’t know if Kalle was jealous of my results in my particular events, but I was jealous of his achievements in medium and long distances. I found it much cooler to be a long–distance runner than being a sprinter or long–jumper. I mean, I wasn’t really bad in the endurance run. I won the cross country race in our school every year without a problem. But when it came to playing with the big boys like Kalle, I didn’t have a prayer. While Kalle won the competitions in Eisenhuettenstadt most of the time, I finished the race in the rear third. My PE teacher explained to me that I had a different muscle structure because I was a sprinter. Therefore, a loss of power over long distances was typical for me. But I wouldn’t put up with that explanation, especially since Kalle didn’t stop teasing me after every competition. So I worked out a plan, and my strategy was the following: Kalle and all the other good long–distance runners got really strong at the end of the races. If I gave everything in the first part, my margin should be so big that they wouldn’t be able to catch up. At the next competition, I put my plan into action. I was twelve, by the way. I started like mad and had a comfortable margin on the first climb after 800 meters. I still remember overhearing a boy who was standing at the racecourse: ‘Wow Dad, look how fast the Negro is!’ I also heard Dad’s answer which was: ‘Don’t worry, I know him.No way, he can keep this speed.’ And Dad was right! After the first climb, I was bushed. The whole pack passed me. In the end, I came in as third or fourth last. It was a devastating defeat. After that I got an earful from Kalle, who had noticed that I was secretly working on beating him. ‘You’ll never beat me in a distance that’s longer than 1,500 meters,’ he promised me self–confidently. ‘We’ll see about that!’ I said and started to do additional practice at home. There was a special route I used, about 3 kilometers long, in a wood near Streichwitz. I ran it as often as I could, and the practicing had an effect. One day I noticed that I had closed up to Kalle. I was sure the next cross country race would be my show. Being one year older, I dreamed up a new line of attack. The plan was to keep up with Kalle no matter what. A few meters before the finish, I would attack him because sprinting was something he wasn’t good at at all.
When the day came, Kalle began slowly, slower than usual. We were at the very end of the pack, and I started to worry. After the second climb, however, the Kalle show began. He attacked the pack from behind and passed out one after the other. I stayed directly behind him. He glanced over his shoulder a few times and couldn’t believe it. Neither could I, but I stuck to him like wax. About 200 meters before the finish line, there was only one more guy in front of us, but he was in a class of his own and didn’t really matter. 30 meters before the finish line I positioned myself for the final spurt. Never ever my ass! Kalle put up some resistance, and we were neck to neck. However, I stumbled and almost fell because I’d given everything during the race. It was a photo finish that Kalle won. Later, on the way home on the bus, he didn’t stop boasting that I would never be able to beat him in a long distance race. But his words sounded different this time as if he was trying to boost his own confidence because what was never going to happen had almost happened that day. I have to admit though that me coming in before Kalle would have been unjust. After all, he had done all the work during the race. I had proven to myself that I could do it. That’s why this third place meant more to me than all the gold medals in long jump and sprint together. Maybe I might even have beaten Kalle one day, but unfortunately never again had I the opportunity to compete against him. The sports promotion unit was closed down shortly afterward, and he no longer took part in any events in the following years. After setting up a new long jump record for my age class, I was sent to an entrance test for the physical education college in Frankfurt. I’ll never forget this day because I failed miserably and was declined. And all because of one referee. Spotting me, he asked for everyone to hear if this was an international competition. Then he bitched about how unfair it was to the other participants that a Negro was allowed to take part and that he, which was me, should compete against his own and go back to Africa where he belonged. After I heard this, I could no longer concentrate. I totally underperformed in every discipline. When I came home, I didn’t say anything to my parents because I was so ashamed of myself. It was a topic I never liked to address. I remember the reaction of my PE teacher when he learned that I had failed. He just couldn’t believe it. It was a foregone conclusion to him that I would be a successful sportsman one day.”
“And now you’re here,” the spokesman said. He offered me another cigarette.
I declined with thanks. I wasn’t a chain smoker. But all Stasi guys seemed to be, because he lit one after the other.
I went on with another story from my childhood. It was about Uncle Horst, who was another example of a good person.
“That was perhaps a period of not more than two years in my childhood but for me it seemed much longer and those times with Uncle Horst were magical. I was 11 years old when construction workers came to Streichwitz to renew the sewer system. The presence of these strangers was a real sensation—at least for us kids. We made friends with them quickly, and I especially liked the foreman—a big guy, who was always in good humor. His name was Horst, ‘Uncle Horst’ for little me. I still remember how mad I was about him: I would crane my neck to see if he was at the building site when the school bus brought us home. And as soon as I spotted him, I got up to be first at the door. Then I would run to the building site, check in with Uncle Horst and hurry home to get rid of my satchel just to storm back out again: The most beautiful part of the day began!
My hero had to continue working of course, but we chatted, and I was just happy to be around him until he and his men boarded their truck to drive back home. This must have taken place in June because my Oma was there. She used to visit us every year around this time. I remember that she was totally against it when I asked for the first time if Uncle Horst could take me to his house for the weekend. ‘You don’t know this man at all,’ she said to my mother. ‘Who knows what he’s up to? I wouldn’t let the boy go if I were you.’
Overhearing the conversation, I couldn’t understand my Oma. ‘Uncle Horst is a good man. What would he be up to?’ I said defending my hero. Of course, I was way too young to get what my Oma was trying to say.
My mother was skeptical, but she had noticed during recent weeks how crazy I was about him and finally said, ‘maybe.’ She wanted to talk to him, so we went to the building site together, and they talked. My heart was racing when I saw him writing down his address for my mother assuring her that she didn’t need to worry at all. He would bring me back safe and sound on Monday morning.
Hooray! I ran home, packed my rucksack and said goodbye to my family. I guess when I was sitting with Uncle Horst and his fellow construction workers on that truck headed for Eisenhuettenstadt, I was the happiest 11—year–old boy in the whole world. And when I came back home Monday morning, I told my parents of the most beautiful weekend of my life. Uncle Horst was married to an extremely nice woman called Uta. They had a 5–year–old daughter, Rike, who looked like a princess and was also treated like one. Nevertheless, Uncle Horst dedicated himself entirely to me: We went swimming in an oxbow of the Oder–Spree–canal near his house; we practiced shooting with an air rifle in his garden and went fishing. In the evening, we visited a neighbor who played one song after the other on the accordion for us. And he had a Great Dane that was so much fun to play with. When Uncle Horst showed me photos from his sports album, my admiration for him grew even more: He used to be a successful boxer at a worker’s sports club in Eisenhuettenstadt. To show me that he still had it, he lifted me above his head and raised me up in the air time and time again with his strong arms never getting tired…
From then on, I visited him at least once a month, and it was the cruelest punishment for me when my parents didn’t allow me to go because I had done something wrong. After Uncle Horst and his men were done with the sewer in Streichwitz and went to work somewhere else, my parents would drop me at his house on Saturday after school and pick me up again on Sunday evening. Or sometimes, I would cycle the 13 kilometers. I remember, when I passed a group of children on my way there once, they catcalled at me, ‘Negro! Negro!’
Uncle Horst noticed that I wasn’t as happy as usual when I arrived at his house. ‘Andy, you shouldn’t worry about that,’ he said after I told him about the incident. ‘And you know why?’
Little Andy shook his head.
‘Because you’re the swellest kid I know!’ he said and squeezed me.
Suddenly, everything was all right again because I had the ‘swellest’ uncle in the whole world!
I will never forget the end because it was so painful: When I asked my mother if I could spend the weekend at Uncle Horst’s one day, she said with a touch of contempt in her voice: ‘Your uncle Horst is no longer around! He defected to West Germany and abandoned Aunt Uta and Rike.’
I was the saddest 12–year–old boy in the whole world and cried all night long in bed thinking of Uncle Horst. I never learned if his escape attempt was successful, or if he was caught. I think if he made it to the West, he got Aunt Uta and Rike over through family reunification because there’s one thing that I’m positively sure of: Uncle Horst would never have abandoned his family.”
The spokesman scoffed, then forced a smile and said, “What a beautiful story.”
The door cracked open and the sidekick’s head appeared. He and his partner exchanged looks. Then the head disappeared, and the door closed again.
I took up the thread: “By the way, my Oma was right to worry. Uncle Horst was an OK guy, but not everybody was like him. Something similar happened to me about two years later.”
The spokesman looked at me expectantly.
“That summer, our family was camping near Frankfurt. Do you know Lake Helene?”
The spokesman shook his head.
“You should go there,” I said. “It’s a flooded coal mine. The water is pretty cold, but it’s crystal clear. There are a lot of leisure facilities like a marquee cinema and volleyball and tennis courts. It’s a beautiful place, but my problem, as usual, was my dark complexion.”
The spokesman shot me a skeptical glance. “You don’t look so dark.”
“That’s because I’m not exposed to the sun in here,” I said. “But you should see me in summer. I can look like somebody who comes straight out of Africa. However, in order to avoid the constant rubbernecking and stupid comments of my fellow GDR citizens, I retreated to fewer frequented corners. I spent a lot of time canoeing, swimming and snorkeling in the connection between Lake Helene and neighboring Lake Katja. The ‘Kongo,’ as the canal is called, is a few hundred meters long and about a 100 meters wide. It has a fascinating underwater world. It was there where we met for the first time. He looked like a hippie. He had very long sandy hair, was wearing ripped Wrangler jeans and a T–shirt with a peace sign on it. And there was a camera around his neck. When I saw him sauntering along the bank, he was just another adult to me. After watching me for a while, he came closer and asked if he could take my picture. I didn’t mind. I got into a conversation with him, and he showered me with compliments: ‘Wow, you’re a natural swimmer! You got such beautiful brown skin! It’s incredible how long you can hold your breath! What’s the capital of Paraguay?’—’Asuncion!’ I answered like a shot. Geography was one of my favorite subjects in school and learning capitals by heart one of my hobbies.—‘Man, you know so much for your age!’
We quickly became friends. His vacation was almost over, but we spent a lot of time together during his remaining days. On his last day, he came over to our tent and asked my parents if he could visit me at home. My mother found it strange that a 22–year–old showed so much interest in a 12–year–old, but then again, it wasn’t that unusual. People often showed interest in me because of my ‘special’ appearance. And what was the worst that could happen at home?
He was literally waiting in front of the door when we came home three weeks later. In the meantime, he had written me a few long letters which were so boring that I never made it beyond the first lines. I have to admit though I felt flattered by his interest in me, and I was on fire when he asked if I would like to visit him in his hometown Leipzig before the end of the summer vacation. My mother said nothing when I asked her permission in his presence, but she tried to talk me out of it when we were alone. She was suspicious and argued like my Oma two years before had when I wanted to go with Uncle Horst. ‘You know there are men who are interested in little boys,’ she said. I nodded without getting what she was trying to tell me. Deciding wasn’t easy for her because I actually earned this. I was a hard–working boy and did a lot in the house and in the garden. When he assured her that not only his parents but also his sister would be around, she finally agreed. Since my father saw eye to eye with my mother most of the time, my new friend and I took the train the next day.
After we arrived at his house, he told me that we had the whole apartment to ourselves because his parents and sister were still away on vacation. Even though I knew what he had told my mother, being only 12, I didn’t read any importance into this lie. Besides, I didn’t have the time to worry because he started his appealing visiting program with an evening tour through the Leipzig ethnological museum where he had a vacation job. Walking through a museum after closing time was incredibly exciting,and when we came home around midnight, he had even another surprise in store: He showed me a self–made movie. In it was a little brown boy like me who swam for a while in a lake and then crawled exhaustedly ashore. The story of Robinson Crusoe was to be re–enacted in this flick. From today’s point of view, I can imagine that there couldn’t have been anything more desirable for him than to live with a young Friday on a secluded island. Of course, he offered me a part in his movie, and, of course, little Andy found the idea super cool. It probably was to be the version with two Fridays.”
The spokesman chuckled but grew serious again immediately.
“He told me I would meet the Friday from the flick the next day. We turned in very late. Even though there were enough beds, we slept together in one. Like I said, I was twelve and absolutely clueless. I guess you know what’s going to come.”
The spokesman swallowed. I saw his Adam’s apple move up and down. “I hope not,” he said disgustedly.
“At first, I thought I was dreaming,” I said. “But then I realized he was fumbling around with me. Even though I was backward in my sexual development, I knew intuitively this wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be touched like this, so I pushed him away and jumped out of the bed. He apologized, but that didn’t stop me from leaving the room and continuing my sleep in his sister’s bed. The mood was ice–cold the next morning. He apologized over and over again, but I insisted on being taken back home immediately. Until the evening before, he had been a person to be respected because of the age difference, but now I saw him through entirely different eyes. He begged me to spend the week with him as planned and above all not to say a word to my parents about what had happened. After a thousand apologies, I agreed to stay but avoided his company whenever possible. In the afternoon, we went to meet the afore–mentioned Friday, whose name was Pierre. He was a year older than me. I couldn’t tell why, but I didn’t like him from the beginning. He was the first nonwhite person I had ever met. In a way, he reminded me of myself and my situation. Maybe that’s why I felt extremely uncomfortable in his presence. I liked his mother, though. She was a friendly and also beautiful woman, but from a present–day perspective, I have to say she was pretty dumb not to notice what was going on. Pierre came along home with us. My older friend disappeared with him directly into his room. Since I didn’t feel like hanging out with them, I went to the living room and watched TV. When I went to the bathroom later, I heard Pierre’s giggle over the noise of the music coming from their room. They seemed to have Oktoberfest in there, but I wasn’t jealous at all. On my way back to the living room, I bumped into Pierre. He was almost naked. What struck me was the wet spot on his underpants. Again, I knew intuitively that something was amiss. He brushed past me even though there was enough space darting a strange glance at me. I neither stopped nor turned around. I was just thinking that I didn’t like him at all…
After I was back home, I told my mother she had been right and that I didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. We never spoke of him again. He kept sending me letters for years which I didn’t read or answer.”
The spokesman exhaled audibly. “That’s a bit much. I guess you were lucky he wasn’t violent.” He stared off and contemplated. “You said he had long hair and was always wearing Wrangler jeans?”
“I know this type,” he said. “These guys are totally influenced by Western ideology.”
I didn’t say anything but shook my head in disbelief. How could a man be so stupid—or mislead? A faint memory flashed through my mind.I thought about another guy, who didn’t have long hair or wear Wrangler jeans. In fact, he had a crew cut and wore the uniform of the Red Army… There was a shooting range in a small wood just outside Streichwitz. The Russians went there every once in a while to practice. In order to go there, they had to drive through the village. One day, one of the army trucks stopped. The driver leaned out of the window and addressed us. We were playing. I think we were three. He offered us a ride in broken German. Of course, we were thrilled driving in an army truck. After we arrived at the firing range the soldiers got off the cargo area and left to do their shooting practice. I only remember that the three of us were alone with this guy and that he opened his fly and started to play with himself, motioning for us to get closer. We were so small, maybe six, that we didn’t even think it was weird. He took our hands and made them touch his dick… Western ideology my ass!
“Well, you can’t say your childhood was boring, can you?”the spokesman said.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “ But I know it wasn’t nice.”
He looked at his watch, then lit the next cigarette. “Any more stories?”
I thought for a moment, then something else that I could tell him came into my mind. “When I was fifteen, I got a reward for excellent school performance and being a model member of the Free German Youth,” I said.
“No shit!” the spokesman said.
I nodded. “It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. They sent me on the friendship train to Moscow. On this trip, I had my first experience with a girl.”
The spokesman lit the next cigarette and leaned in. “Tell me more.”
“Her name was Kerstin, and she was a year older than me,” I said. “She was from the Spreewald. Her group was on a class trip after graduation. During the 14 days, the two of us were inseparable to the great displeasure of her suspicious teacher—a bearded Hercules, who constantly watched us. At our hotel in Moscow, Kerstin told me to come to her room in the evening. I waited until the teacher was done with his rounds and sneaked out of my room and over to hers. She and her two roommates were lying in bed when I entered. Kerstin asked me if I dared to kiss each of them goodnight. I was only interested in her, but if this was the deal, so be it. After I kissed the other two halfheartedly, I walked over to Kerstin and sat on the edge of her bed. She put her arms around my neck, pulled me toward her and gave me the mother of all kisses. Everything around me stopped existing. After a while, her grip got tighter. She squeezed until I could no longer stand it. Was she crazy? I broke free from her painful embrace. Suddenly, I realized it couldn’t be her. I turned around and looked into a bearded face.
‘I finally caught you, my friend!’ he said triumphantly. ‘I’ve known all along that you were up to something.’
The girls were lying quietly in their beds the comforters pulled up to their ears.
‘Leave my girls alone!’ the teacher said. ‘If you molest them again, I’ll make sure you’re going home.’ Then he grabbed me by the ear and pulled me out of the room into the hall. After he shut the door, I heard him giving the girls a good talking–to.
A few days later, however, we managed to outwit him. It was at a Minsk motel—our last stop. Coincidentally, my room was next to Kerstin’s. After the teacher finished his rounds, we locked the doors from inside, and I climbed over the balcony to her room. We weren’t overly scared. Even if he had caught us, there would have been no consequences because we were heading back to the GDR the following day. So sending me home was no longer possible.”
“Old rascal!” the spokesman said jovially. He found my story obviously amusing. “When and why you became a bad guy, you can tell me next time,” he said looking at his watch. He seemed to be in a hurry now. “Just one more question for today: Would you like to work in your cell?”
“Hm,” I scratched my head asking myself if I would. “It’s not that I’m too lazy to work, but it’s a matter of principle,” I said. “I don’t think I’m gonna work as long as they keep me in solitary. As soon as they transfer me to a commando, I’ll work, no problem.”
The spokesman smirked. “I think that’s where you’re wrong. I’m sure it only works the other way around. You have to show goodwill first.” Listing with his fingers the advantages I would have if I worked in my cell, he said: “You can buy cigarettes, coffee, tea and toilet articles. And you can also pay off your debt… So what do you say?” He took a drag of his cigarette and looked at me expectantly.
I shrugged. “OK. If you think that’s the right approach, I’ll do it.”
He gave me a warm smile. “I can also arrange for you to receive packages and to get regular visits from your parents… I mean, if you want to. I can take care of all your problems here. If you encounter any in the future, just let me know.”
I nodded. “OK.” I really started to like him and was no longer suspicious of him. It was only our second meeting, but I felt as if I had known him for a long time. I believed that he wanted to help me, for whatever reason.
“I’m afraid our time’s up for today,” he said while casually slipping his hand into his briefcase. It appeared again holding a booklet. “I almost forgot. Here’s the English textbook. It contains the basic rules and vocabulary.”
I couldn’t believe it and wanted to leap for joy.
Putting the handcuffs on me, he said he would send for me again in two weeks.
From now on, I considered him a friend and abandoned all suspicions. I stopped questioning the reason for his visits. He spoke with me and listened and wanted to improve my situation. What more could I ask for? I counted down the days until our next meeting.
The following Monday, Bobby came by with a civilian. The man put a box of work materials on my table and briefed me. My job was to push spring washers onto bolts and arrange them on trays. Forty bolts made one row and ten rows one layer. After that, I had to put a sheet of oil–impregnated paper on it and start afresh. I would continue this until the tray was filled with 2,400 bolts. I had to deliver three trays per day.
My new friend kept his word. He sent for me again after two weeks. His sidekick only stayed a few minutes. After he left the room, the spokesman pulled up a chair to sit kitty–corner to me. “What’s new?”
“I’m working,” I said.
“What do you do?”
I made a dismissive gesture. “It’s an idiot job, totally monotonous, but I’m happy it’s not mentally taxing so I can fully concentrate on learning English vocabulary at the same time.”
“Good,” the spokesman said and nodded approvingly.
The door opened, and his sidekick re–entered carrying a coffee tray. He set it down on the conference table and left again. The spokesman gestured to me to help myself, which I did. He then offered me a cigarette and took one himself. After he lit it, he leaned back comfortably in his chair. “Sooo… Let’s take up where we left off last time. You wanted to tell me when this model student turned into a baddy?”
“That happened right after he finished school,” I said. “I took up an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. I had two weeks practice and two weeks theory. For the theory, I had to go to a trade school in Frankfurt. Since the bus connection from Streichwitz was pretty bad, my parents decided to put me in a dormitory in Eisenhuettenstadt. Something happened there that I would call a key event.”
“A key event?” the spokesman repeated. “I’m curious about that.”
After I sipped my coffee, I told him the story: “One evening I came home to the dormitory and ran into these three guys in the hallway. I’d seen them before, and I knew they were about two years older than I and trained as construction workers. But I’d never exchanged a word with them except maybe hello. However, their names were Mikey, Klaus and Lars, and they invited me into their room for a drink. But I wasn’t really up for it because I had to get up early the next morning. I asked for a rain check, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I finally gave in. After I entered their room, the door banged shut behind me. Suddenly, all their friendliness was gone, and they looked at me with hateful eyes. Before I could ask what was going on, I got punched in the face. What followed was the most humiliating situation. While Klaus and Lars gave orders, Mikey, who looked like a big baby because of his rosy cheeks, beat the shit out of me. I was so intimidated by his build that I didn’t even think of fighting back. The guy was twice my size, and I was sure I wouldn’t stand a chance against him. So I let everything happen and even ‘cooperated,’ repeating everything they told me to. ‘Yes, I was a fucking kanack!’ and ‘Yes, I didn’t belong there.’ and ‘Yes, as soon as they were done with me, I would move my black ass back to Africa…’ I cried my eyes out and begged for mercy, but these thugs just laughed at me. In fact, my wailing seemed to give them a kick. I’m still embarrassed when I think about it today. I can say for myself that I was only 16 years old, but I guess that’s no real excuse. The truth is I was a coward and scared shitless.” I felt my fists clench, re–living the whole thing.
“I’m sure everybody would have been,” the spokesman said. “How did you get out of it?”
“When I was on the ground, Klaus and Lars did their share too. They kicked me and worked me over for a while. At some point, Mikey threw me on the bed and smothered me with a pillow. Out of an instinct for self–preservation, I finally started to fight back. Gasping for breath, I managed to struggle free. I pushed him off, got up, moved away from the bed and huddled up against the wall. When Mikey tried to grab me again, I punched as hard as I could. Klaus and Lars looked in surprise at their buddy when he stumbled back, holding his jaw with a fearful expression. They couldn’t believe that big Mikey wavered.
‘What’s going on?’ Klaus said. He had been doing most of the talking and seemed to be the one in charge. ‘Kick his ass, Mikey!’
‘This nigger has one hell of a punch!’ Mikey mumbled, spitting out a tooth. Big Mikey was apparently scared to get near me again, and I guess that was my prompt: I stormed toward him and hit him a second time in the face, then a third time and a fourth time. I don’t remember how often. When he lay motionless on the floor, I took care of Klaus and Lars and didn’t stop until they whimpered and begged for mercy the same way I had before. Then I smashed everything to pieces in their stinking shack feeling my self–respect return. After that, I went back to my room and nursed my wounds.
About ten minutes later, there was a faint knock on the door. I jumped to my feet. Still loaded with adrenalin, I was convinced round two was about to start. No problem! I grabbed the poker. When I cautiously opened the door, the pain in my jaw stopped me from bursting out laughing: With a bottle of sparkling wine in his hand, Big Mikey stood there in a pose as innocent as can be. The other two idiots were standing behind him. I had a battered face myself, but Mikey looked a hundred times worse, probably because of his rosy skin. His eyes were black, and his face looked like a collage of purple, yellow, green and red. He didn’t look tough at all anymore. ‘Hello, Andy!’ he mumbled through swollen lips. ‘That’s your name, right? Let’s make peace. Okay?’
Wow! Suddenly, he knew my name! It was pathetic! However, I didn’t feel like fighting anymore. I agreed and let them enter my room, even though I hated their guts—especially when they told me that I was an OK guy for a kanack. This fucking bunch of losers! But I grinned and swallowed it. As a consequence of all this, I said to myself: You won’t be scared of anybody anymore only because he’s bigger than you. And you will certainly never again let anyone call you a kanack. Since I was aware of my ‘punch’ now, my new motto was: Always be the first to strike.
As for Mikey, Klaus and Lars, we never came across each other again even though I was in the dormitory for almost another year after the incident. I saw them a few times from a distance, but as soon as the chickens spotted me, they would change direction.”
The last sentence made the spokesman chuckle, but he became serious again immediately. After thinking for a moment, he said: “I understand what you’re trying to say, but isn’t it too easy to pin your aggressiveness on this one incident?”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t just one incident. Actually, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When I moved from Streichwitz to Eisenhuettenstadt, I entered a whole new world, and every day, I had to listen to stupid comments. Going out without somebody picking on me was impossible.”
“Hm.” The spokesman looked me in the eyes. “That’s not what I heard.”
“What did you hear?”
“That you were pretty popular.”
I scoffed. “You must be joking!”
The spokesman shrugged. “That’s what people say.”
“Alright,” I said. “Maybe there were a few dudes who liked me. But most people didn’t. They only boasted about knowing the negro, which was probably a cool thing for them.”
“You talk a lot about insults and provocations,” the spokesman said. “But you don’t strike me as somebody who’s low in self–confidence… Why didn’t you just ignore them and said to yourself: ‘These guys are idiots; they can’t do anything to me.’?”
I inhaled sharply and sighed. “I don’t know.”
The spokesman shot me a sad glance and said, “Go on. What happened next?”
“I started to drink,” I said. “When I wasn’t sober, the world was beautiful, and I didn’t care anymore. I hung around in bars and discos almost every evening. I met these two guys who made their living with burglaries. Since I came from a decent home, I’d never had anything to do with criminals. Maybe that’s why I found them so interesting. One night, they took me along. We broke into a pub to steal the money. For me, it wasn’t about the money at all. I only went along because I considered it an adventure. However, the burglary went wrong. A neighbor heard us and called the cops. It was the first time I had anything to do with them. While the other two went straight to prison, the cops drove me home to my parents after the interrogation. A few days later I was in a bar fight, and the cops took me home again. From now on, every cop in town knew me. The trial was about two months later. They gave me eight months probation for the burglary and the bar fight. I couldn’t care less and went on with the same lifestyle. The only thing I took halfway seriously was my apprenticeship. I went to work or trade school respectively every day but spent the rest of the time drinking. When one night our gang was riding on a train home from a disco, I applied the emergency brake just for fun. The conductor fixed it again but warned us to call the cops on us if we did it again. After 20 minutes or so the train took off again. When one of my buddies applied the emergency brake again, the conductor acted on his threat. A riot squad came from Eisenhuettenstadt and drove us out of the train. Among the cops was a guy I knew from school. He had been a bully. Had slapped me once when I was in second grade. He was in tenth grade back then. The whole thing was ridiculous, and I bet he wasn’t a bully anymore, but drunk as I was, I wanted to get my revenge. I asked him if he remembered me. He did, of course. When he tried to talk sense into me, I punched him in the face, and he went down. I don’t need to tell you what happens when you assault a cop. They took me straight to the holding center. I got eight months for it plus the eight from before, which made 16 months in juvie. They sent me to Wriezen.”
The spokesman lit another cigarette and shifted in his chair. “How was it for you there?”
I smirked at his question. “Believe it or not. It was exactly the right place for me.”
The spokesman gave me a surprised look. “How come?”
“Only the strong survive,” I said. “That was the law there. And strong I was.” I thought back to when I arrived at the juvie telling him the story:
“I was 17 back then. It was a freezing winter’s day in 1979 when I filed with a dozen other newcomers into Wriezen juvenile detention center. The inmates were clinging to the bars in the open windows. There were hundreds of heads next to each other and one above the other yelling and trying to scare us. In contrast to the outside where long hair was in fashion, they all had short–cropped hair which made them look brutal and dangerous. I was relieved when I met Franky in the reception wing. I had seen him last in Frankfurt a week before where we shared a cell in the holding center. We were best buddies there and swore eternal friendship to each other. Franky was my age and already a professional criminal. He was doing his third term at Wriezen. He started his career at the age of fourteen. He was a lean, sinewy type, extremely pale and covered with tattoos from head to toe. I joyfully walked toward him stretching out my hand. But it seemed that the happiness at seeing each other again was only on my side. He shook my hand all right and forced a smile, but his cold behavior told me that he wasn’t interested in further social intercourse. Something had changed between us. I also learned that he wasn’t ‘Franky’ anymore but ‘Rohde.’ There were no first names in juvie. Everybody was addressed by his surname. Seeing Rohde’s behavior toward me, I thought immediately of the words he had said in the holding center when he prepared me for my first term in prison: ‘There are only two categories in juvie: bosses and cunts. Which one a dude belongs to is decided at the very beginning.’ Well, it seemed he had me classified already. Eternal friendship my ass!
There were about 300 juvenile delinquents from the northern districts in Wriezen at the time. The youngest were 14, the oldest 20. Most boys were serving juvenile sentences up to 20 months for hooliganism, battery, anti–social behavior or minor property crimes. The inmates were divided into L and M groups. L stood for lathe operator and M for metal worker. Those who had left school before 10th grade did a partial or full apprenticeship as a metal worker depending on the length of their terms, while the ‘smart ones,’ which were those who had completed 10th grade, trained as lathe operators. The institution comprised a couple of long flat–roofed buildings, fields to play soccer, volleyball and dodge ball, a parade ground and a separate building for a dozen adult criminals—the so–called house workers. Among them was a dude by the name of Bahro. He had committed a murder when he was a minor. Meanwhile, he was in his mid–twenties. Having plenty of brawn, he was the undisputed boss of the prisoners.
Before being transferred to one of the groups, the newcomers had to spend a few weeks in the reception wing. On the first morning, we got a taste of what to expect after transfer. We were standing in the cold in front of the dimly–lit main building waiting for the order to march out for work when a barrage of snowballs came down on us. Then the old guys, Rohde included, pushed us around, beat us, spat at us and abused us. I got off relatively lightly because nobody dared to try me except for one orderly. This guy, who went by the name of Richter, was vociferous about the ‘nigger being his private cocksucker.’ I had learned already that a cocksucker was in prison ranking even below a cunt. Even though Richter was a little shorter than I, he was brawny. When we marched out, he gave me a dirty grin and let me know that closed season would be over after work. At the workshop, I had the chance for a short conversation with a dude I knew from the outside. ‘Richter is a badass. You better watch your back,’ he said.
Brooding all day over the matter, I came to the conclusion that offense was probably the best defense in this case. I couldn’t afford to wait for Richter to come after me. I didn’t know how good he really was; that’s why I needed the moment of surprise on my side.
Being an orderly, Richter was occupied with giving commands on the march back from work. ‘One, two, three, four!’ he shouted hoarsely in his thick northern German accent. When he was close enough, I put my plan into action. Provoking him was easy. I shot him a bird, and his reaction came immediately. As I was to find out later, he was actually as dumb as a rock. He rushed at me like a raging bull. I met him halfway, which he, of course, hadn’t expected. And before he even knew what was happening, I hit him. He lost his grip and landed in the snow. Getting up quickly again, he shot me an angry glance. ‘This isn’t over yet!’ he said, trying to control his gasping. ‘I’m gonna get you back for this!’ Then he wiped the blood off his face with the sleeve of his felt blue overcoat. I had shown him up, and something in his look told me that he got it. He would never get a blowjob from me. It was more likely that hell would freeze over and even then I wouldn’t do it. ‘You gonna be my cocksucker!’ I shouted after him when he went back to doing his job. All this happened in a split second and was only noticed by those around us. But the news spread like wildfire, ‘The Negro thrashed Richter!’
In the evening, I had to report with my educator. Sometimes people can look like animals, and he looked just like a hawk with his crooked nose and piercing eyes. He was a lieutenant of the old school, in his mid–sixties with a shaved neck and metal–rimmed spectacles, an impeccable uniform and shining boots. He browsed through my file, then sized me up. ‘Why did you beat an orderly?’
‘He called me a nigger and wanted me to be his cocksucker,’ I said. ‘I don’t take shit from no one. Don’t care if he’s an orderly.’
After contemplating for a minute, the old man announced his decision: ‘I’m going to abstain from disciplinary action this time—but only this time! Something similar happens again, you’ll be placed under arrest. You might even get a second serving.’ He shot me a piercing glance. ‘Did you get that?’
’Yes sir!’ I said breathing a sigh of relief. ‘Second serving’ was juvie slang for new investigation proceedings that ended with another sentence. I guess the old man cut me some slack because he didn’t really mind ‘self–education,’ as it was called. It had only recently been abolished but was legal during the greater part of his long career.
My former ‘best friend’ Rohde administered a reign of terror on the access station. He pushed everyone around and gave orders although he wasn’t an appointed orderly. After a few days, he started to get rough with me too. When he checked on the bed–making and if the clothes in the wardrobe were folded according to the guidelines, he pulled my bed apart, whipped my clothes out of the wardrobe and threw them on the floor. My first impulse was to spring at him, but the warning words from the educator were still ringing in my ears. If I did it, I had to do it without witnesses. So I looked for a way to teach Big Rohde a lesson he would never forget. The plan was quickly made: The guards locked our cells after roll call at eight p.m.—But only until midnight. Then they would come back and unlock the doors again in case someone had to use the bathroom. I took advantage of this routine and snuck over to Rohde’s cell. The bully was slumbering peacefully in his bed. I watched him for a while and then woke him up with a bucket of cold water. He started up and looked around trying to understand what was going on. I punched him hard several times. The last picture I saw before hurrying back to my cell was him lying blood–smeared and whining on the floor collecting his teeth. A few minutes later, two guards came into my cell. The rat had snitched on me. It figured! I was taken to solitary and cuffed to the bed. On the next morning, the old lieutenant informed me that an early release for good conduct was out of the question and that I should prepare myself for getting a second serving. There was an investigation, but in the end, I got away with a black eye. I sold the old man the story that Rohde had forced me into his cell to bully me and that my fighting him was an act of self–defense. Since there hadn’t been any witnesses plus the fact that Rohde was known to be a bully, it was his word against mine. They cuffed me to the bed for three days and gave me two weeks of solitary confinement. When they were over, I was transferred to an L–group.
The reputation ‘don’t mess with the Negro’ had preceded me. The boss of my L–group, Fenske, a good–looking guy with short–cropped dark hair, gave me a friendly welcome. ‘There’s a free bunk in our cell,’ he said. ‘You can move in there if you want.’ The way he looked at me suggested that he was dead sure I would gratefully accept his offer. The more surprised he was when I turned it down.
‘I’m gonna do my own thing,’ I said.
‘Hm…’ Fenske thought for a moment, then shrugged. ‘Suit yourself!’ he said as if it wasn’t a big deal.
Over the following days, I was spared the bullying the other 20 boys who didn’t live in the boss cell were subjected to. Fenske and his buddies Schwarz and Lewandowski pretty much ignored me. But soon I noticed there was something in the air. The guy I knew from the outside told me that I was going to get a thrashing the following weekend. The cinema hall was scheduled to be the war theater. The procedure was to be the usual: A cunt provokes me, and then everybody joins in and springs at me. My friend also told me that Rohde was behind all this. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this would be the end for me. My haughty refusal of Fenske’s generous offer had been a huge mistake. My last hope was to speak with him to find out if his offer was still on the table. I forgot all my pride and knocked on the door to the boss cell.
‘Come in!’ I heard Fenske’s voice.
‘Can I have a word with you?’ I said
Fenske was sitting at the table rolling cigarettes. A smile flashed across his face. ‘Sure!’
Schwarz and Lewandowski, both hard–core fans of the soccer club Dynamo Berlin and sentenced for hooliganism were lying on their beds smoking. They scrutinized me, but not in a hostile way. I cleared my throat and brought forward my request: ‘A few days ago, you invited me to move in here. Is your offer still good?’
Phew! Fenske’s answer took a load off my mind. He offered me a cigarette and lit one himself. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ he said. ‘I think you’re the right man for me… What made you change your mind?’
‘I’ve heard some rumors,’ I said. ‘I think it’s wiser not to take my chances.’
Fenske grinned. ‘Coming here was a smart move. I know… everybody knows by now you don’t take shit from anybody. I respect that. But you gotta understand it’s impossible for us to have two boss cells. There are rules here.’
‘Understood,’ I said.
Fenske slugged my arm and smiled. Our friendship was established. He was two years older than me, and as I was to find out later, excellent at Scottish boxing.
“What’s Scottish boxing?” the spokesman said.
“Two guys face each other and take turns at punching each other in the chest. The one who gives up first loses.”
“Sounds painful,” the spokesman said. “Did you win against Fenske?”
I shook my head. “Not really. We only did it once. One punch him and one punch me. He had a tremendous punch. I had a pain in my chest for two weeks. He probably would have beaten me. Then again, I don’t know how he was feeling after my punch… Anyhow, since Fenske was also recognized by the bosses of the other groups and got along great with Bahro, I had no problems anymore. On the contrary, I belonged to the small elite that ran this place.”
“So you became a bully too?” the spokesman said.
“Hm.” I cocked my head. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was a bully. I mean, there were rules, and I acted accordingly. I wasn’t better than the rest, but I never became a guy like Rohde for instance, who bullied other dudes just because he felt pleasure in doing it. I’m not wired like that. But I did a few things I’m totally not proud of.”
“Like what?” the spokesman said.
“Like,” I paused and took a deep breath.
The spokesman shrugged. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m not comfortable talking about it, but I did it, and I acknoledge it… There was this dude in my group I knew from the outside. He used to be my drinking buddy. My parents gave his mother a lift a few times when they came for visitation. As it turned out, he was everything but a tough guy, and soon our ‘friendship’ cooled. I remember the pleading gaze he shot me when one of my new buddies bullied him. I could have intervened easily and helped him, but I didn’t. Don’t ask me why. Later he said to me, he had always seen me as a friend and never thought I could be so mean. The truth is I didn’t touch him, but I didn’t help him either, which in the end made me kind of responsible for his suffering there. I guess I went along with everything because it suited me. It was the very first time that my skin color didn’t matter. Everybody respected me because they were afraid of me.” I paused again, thought for a while and continued: “The extent of violence and sexual harassment there was incredible. Each boss had a fairy. Don’t get me wrong, none of them were gay. I mean, I was a boss too… I’d rather not go into detail. It was just part of prison life.”
The spokesman gave a subtle nod. “Did you get anything positive out of the time you spent there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “More hatred for the GDR. I mean, the stay there was supposed to get teenagers back on the straight and narrow, but what it really did was the opposite. It turned most of the inmates into hardened criminals, myself included.”
“Did you serve the whole 16 months?”
I shook my head. “I was lucky, only ten because of an amnesty.”
“Did you finish your car mechanic apprenticeship after you were out again?” the spokesman said.
“With great difficulty, but I did it,” I said. “I became a rebel and broke every rule. When I saw a cop, I provoked him. I questioned everything I had learned in school about socialism and politics. I no longer accepted my role as an outsider as God–given and blamed your communist state for my situation.”
“Why would you blame the GDR?” the spokesman said.
“Because you guys didn’t allow me to leave,” I said.
“Did you apply for an exit visa?”
I scoffed. “Cut the bullshit! You know exactly how it works. Maybe you get one; maybe you don’t. In any case, you and your family will be harassed.”
The spokesman smirked admittingly.
“Anyway,” I continued, “my one and only wish was to get out of the GDR.”
“Why did you get married then?” the spokesman said. “You also have a child, right?”
I sighed and said, “I know. That was a big mistake“ I felt a surge of anger just thinking about it. “It might sound ridiculous, but it was my mother’s fault,” I said.
The spokesman knitted his brow. “How come?”
“It’s complicated,” I said. “But to be honest, I only married my girlfriend to satisfy my mother. When she learned that she was going to be a grandma, she went on and on: ‘Such a child,’ meaning a mixed–raced one, ‘needs to be raised in a proper family.’ I loved my girlfriend; I really did, but I was way too young to get married, and I explained it to my mother, but she wouldn’t let up. She didn’t stop pestering me till I finally gave in. I have to admit though I liked the prospect of getting my own apartment in Eisenhuettenstadt.”
“One of the advantages of socialism,” the spokesman said.
“However, the evening before the wedding, I got cold feet. When I told my mother that I couldn’t go through with it, she said that if that was the way I felt then I shouldn’t go ahead. But I would need to inform the relatives that the wedding was off and send the presents back. Of course, I didn’t do that because it would have been too embarrassing. And she knew it. After the fucking marriage, everything was different. I felt like a caged animal, and I let my wife feel it. I was a lousy husband. A year later when our daughter was only six months old, I made her divorce me… I should have had the balls to cancel the whole thing while I still had the chance.”
“Do you have contact with you ex–wife now?” the spokesman asked.
“No,” I said. “But she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against me. My mother sends me her regards in every letter. She and my daughter live in Frankfurt now. They’re fine.”
“What happened after your divorce?” the spokesman said.
“I quit at the car repair shop and took a job at the iron and steel works. But after a few months, I hardly went to work anymore because I was dead set on trying to escape to West Germany.” I paused to sip my coffee. Now I had to be careful what to tell him for the first time. Both my prior escape attempts, I hadn’t done alone. If I told him the truth, my buddies might still get arrested for it. While I told a censored version that couldn’t do any harm, the real one went through my head:
The first time, I tried it at the Berlin Wall. I was damn lucky that they didn’t catch me. My buddy Tommy chickened out when he saw the watchtowers. We argued. I told him that he was a goddamn coward, but it didn’t help: He turned around, saying that it would be suicide. I knew he was right, but my stubbornness stopped me from joining him. So I walked on into the no man’s land. There I lay in the dirt for hours and watched the towers. Searchlights swept the area at irregular intervals. I could see about a hundred meters of cleared ground, a fence and a wall. Behind the wall, there seemed to be another wall. The area was spacious and hard to make out. I crawled closer and found myself suddenly in the beam of the searchlight. I stopped dead expecting to hear a voice ordering me to stand up, but nothing happened. The light wandered on. Obviously, the guards didn’t see me. After I got over the initial shock, I jumped up and ran. I just wanted to get out of the search radius of this damn spotlight. I had seen it with my own eyesnowand was convinced that it was impossible to escape over the Wall. It was suicide; Tommy had been right. I hiked the few kilometers back to Berlin–Schoenefeld and took the S–Bahn to Ostbahnhof. The next train to Eisenhuettenstadt was leaving in a few hours, but I didn’t want to wait and took a taxi. The fact that it cost more than a hundred marks didn’t matter to me that night. I just wanted to get as quickly as possible as much distance as possible between this goddamn Berlin Wall and me. The near escape with the searchlight had scared the hell out of me and put my plan to leave East Germany on hold.Not for long, though. Just two weeks later, I tried it again. This time with another buddy at the Czech–Bavarian border. We ‘borrowed’ the Trabi of my buddy’s dad and drove to the Czech border. There, we left the car behind and hitchhiked on to Franzensbad, where we intended to cross into Bavaria. It was a hilly area, and we could see the watchtowers in the distance. We waited until it was dark; then we set off for the border. Since we didn’t know the exact location of the border, we ended up wandering through the hills for half the night. Eventually, we hiked up a steep mountain. The forest grew really thick, and it was so dark that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Suddenly, my buddy stopped and whispered, “I touched a wire!” A second later, the beam of a flashlight cut the darkness. Unable to move, we heard somebody gasp. Footsteps rapidly approached; then we were hit by the beam of the flashlight. A round was chambered, and a man yelled something in Czech. We didn’t understand a word but hit the dirt because we thought that was what he wanted us to do. Other men with flashlights arrived. Now I saw the touch–activated wires. They were at knee–height all around us. They handcuffed and blindfolded us; put us in a vehicle and took us away. Thank God we had gotten rid of the map beforehand, which meant we had a chance to talk our way out of this. They interrogated us with the help of a translator for hours, but we stuck to our story: We were tourists who had lost their way. The Czechs called Eisenhuettenstadt and inquired if we had a record. Since we were clean, they took us back to the border and turned us over to the East German police. They interrogated us again but couldn’t prove a thing against us either. They kept our IDs though and let us go on condition that we reported to Eisenhuettenstadt police headquarters. When we did so the next day, they gave us a PM 12, which was a particular ID that prevented the holder from leaving the country and was a red flag to every officer who came across it…
I took another cigarette from the spokesman and refilled my coffee cup. Then I said: “I wonder how many of my kind there are in the GDR.” I had to smile to myself because there wasn’t even a name for us. Negro, colored, mulatto—All this sounded antiquated and even insulting.
The spokesman shrugged. “You guys are something special… I mean optically. And everything that stands out attracts attention. That’s the way it is. You might have been the only one in Eisenhuettenstadt, but I’ve seen a few in Berlin.”
“Are you from Berlin?” I said.
“Sometimes it was enough for me to explode if somebody just stared at me,” I said. “I remember once waiting at a bus stop. The two other dudes who were also there were busy talking and didn’t pay any attention to me. When I overheard the word nigger, I jumped up and started to attack them. But they just looked at me with wide eyes and didn’t seem to understand what was going on. When I told them what I had heard, they said they might have used a similar–sounding word like ‘bigger’ or ‘trigger’ but denied having said the N–word. Apart from the fact that they seemed really scared of me, they looked like dudes who preferred to stay out of trouble. That’s why I believed them eventually and apologized. But that didn’t change the fact that I had acted like an idiot. After that, I promised myself never to let myself go like this again. It remained an intention though because the guys who wanted to find out how good the Negro really was kept coming. A few days later I went to a restaurant with a girl. There was this dude, and he kept provoking me. I think he was after the girl himself and wanted to impress her. He said we fucking kanacks should leave the German girls alone, and we were only good with a knife. When it comes to fighting like a man just with our fists, we would shit our pants blah blah blah.
I really wanted to stay calm, but he didn’t stop. He was begging for it. The girl gave him the last warning saying that he wouldn’t stand a chance against me, but he just laughed at her. Eventually, I told him to go ahead to the restroom. I would be there in a minute. He fired a pistol finger at me and disappeared. This guy was so full of himself. In reality he was just a fat fuck who used his frame to intimidate other people. He reminded me a little of Mikey from the dorm. When he saw me coming, he grinned arrogantly, probably expecting a foreplay. But that wasn’t my style. I punched him in the face without warning, and he fell like a tree. I was back at my table in less than a minute.”
“I probably would have done the same,” the spokesman said.
“But… I also have to admit that at some point, beating other people up became a sport for me,” I said. “I’m not overly big but extremely fast—that’s at least what I used to be. I knocked guys out that were twice my size. I wouldn’t have had a prayer if they had gotten hold of me. I always held my antis at arm’s length. Normally, one punch was enough to knock them out.”
The spokesman sneered, obviously involuntarily because he tried to cover it up with a smile. “Would you do anything differently now?” he said.
I nodded. “Definitely. I guess I’d try not to be overly sensitive. I mean, in the end nigger, kanack and all the other epithets are just words. But still… it’s so hard to ignore them when you hear them. Maybe there’s something wrong with the way I see things, but I will never get why people would ask someone where he comes from when he speaks the same dialect as them. I’m totally white and German inside… I can’t be anything else because I was raised that way. But people only judge the book by its cover, and I cannot deal with it.—Do you know these transgenders or transsexuals?”
“I do,” the spokesman said. “What’s your angle?”
“I saw a documentary about them, and I really understand them because I have the same problem: I was born into the wrong body… I know I often overreacted, but at the same time, I kind of understand myself. Every person is met with distain at some point, or there are people who don’t like you. It happens to everybody. But if it happens to me, my first thought’s always: ‘Is it because of your skin color or because you’re actually being a jerk?’ I mean, when you’re fat or… I don’t know… have acne, there’s something you can do about it. But when you’re black or brown or colored, you are like this for the rest of your life. It’s only natural that I became so aggressive. At some point, I couldn’t think straight anymore. You have no clue what it’s like to be one person on the inside and have the world see another.” I paused and looked at the spokesman while sipping my coffee. Then I said: “I’ve told you an awful lot. Does this make any sense to you?”
“It does,” the spokesman said. “I totally understand your problem. But here’s the thing: You can’t change people overnight. It takes time. And I don’t think the problem you just described exists only in the GDR. You probably would encounter the same in other European countries.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But you know what the difference is?”
The spokesman shrugged. “Tell me.”
“In other countries, I could have left,” I said. “So it’s a GDR problem.”
The spokesman smirked as in “you got me there.” After thinking for a moment, he said: “Maybe a country like Cuba would be the right place for you?”
I chuckled. “Thank you very much! I’ve had it with communism.”
The spokesman stubbed out his fifth or sixth cigarette. He had literally smoked one after the other, and the room was full of cigarette smoke.
“It’s a bit stuffy in here,” I said.
“Let me open the window,” the spokesman said and got up. “It’s a nasty habit, I know.” After cracking it open, he sat down again and changed the subject: “Have you heard of any of your former friends lately?”
I shot him a surprised glance. “Seriously?”
He grinned. “I know you’re in solitary and isolation. Still, I don’t think it’s a dumb question because we both know there are always ways to communicate. Prisoners are inventive.”
My inner warning system went on. I had almost forgotten he was a Stasi guy probably with a mission. Was he to find out if I had contact with the outside world?… I slowly shook my head. “I haven’t heard from anybody.”
“Do you know that most of your buddies think you’re dead?”
“Do they?” I said. “Why don’t you tell them I’m not?”
There was a little tension between us now.
He looked at his watch. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m always hungry,” I said. “The servings here are pretty small.”
“How’s the quality of the food in general?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Eatable, I suppose.—Canteen food.”
“I brought some broiled chicken and cake for you. Interested?”
I smiled. The tension dissipated as did the cigarette smoke.
A minute or so later, the sidekick entered the room with another tray. On it was a half broiled chicken and a piece of apfelstrudel. The spokesman couldn’t resist smoking while I was eating, but he politely exhaled in a different direction. “What about your accomplices?”, he said. “Have you heard from them? Any idea in which penal institution they are?”
“Nope,” I said and continued filling my belly.
After I finished everything he had brought for me, the time was up. When we said goodbye, he told me he would send for me again in two week’s time.
Halfway to my cell, I started to feel sick in my stomach. My head was swimming. I could hardly suppress the urge to vomit. As soon as the guard shut the door, I bent over the toilet and threw up. After that, I lay on the bed. My head pounded. Suddenly, I got cramps in both calves and another fit of nausea. I got up again and stormed to the toilet. I had hardly reached it when a fountain of vomit projected out of my mouth. This time, I assisted with my finger and emptied my stomach completely. I threw myself onto the bed again and started to feel better. After an hour or so, everything was over. Only the headache lingered for a while. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I was sure I had eaten too much. And maybe the cigarette smoke did its bit. However, I decided to refrain from consuming so much next time.
Trixi brought me my first paycheck in person and graciously permitted me to buy tobacco, stationery and groceries. He explained to me that I only needed to tell the guards what I wanted, and they would get it for me from the commissary. For the time being, I wouldn’t get more than twenty East German marks because I needed to reduce my debt first.
I smoked in my cell for a couple of weeks. A cigarette now and then was OK, even a pleasure. The problem was that the ventilation of the cell was poor. So one day I decided to quit for good. I crumbled my stock and flushed it down the toilet. It wasn’t particularly difficult for me to quit because even on the outside, I had only been an occasional smoker.
Considering the circumstances, I was psychologically and physically well at this time. Of course, there were certain guards, Rosycheeks for one, who wouldn’t stop tormenting me, but I just shrugged it off.
When I met my Stasi friend again, I stuck to my decision to go easy on the food. I ate two pieces of cake and drank one cup of coffee. This time, he didn’t seem to have a specific topic. We talked about various things but mostly about soccer. Saying goodbye, he promised to meet me once more before Christmas.
On the way back to my cell, the same thing happened again. I fell violently ill. What was this? I’d only had one cup of coffee and two pieces of streuselkuchen. That couldn’t make somebody sick. And what was it with the cramps in my calves? Did they put something in my coffee? Immediately, I pushed this suspicion to the back of my mind because it was too outrageous. This was not a spy thriller, but reality, and above all: what would the motivation be? I probably wasn’t used to long conversations anymore. Maybe my body went haywire because I was too excited. With this justification, I dismissed the matter and waited for my friend to send for me again.
On the Thursday before Christmas, it was the usual procedure: After a friendly welcome, the sidekick left the room, and the spokesman pulled up a chair. He got the cigarettes out, and our conversation began. “Let’s talk about your family. Why do you refuse to have contact with them? Your mother writes you regularly, but you never answer. How come?”
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“Try to explain it to me,” the spokesman said.
“Here’s the thing,” I said and contemplated for a long moment. “It’s not my favorite topic… I actually blame my mother for the mess I’m in. I mean, it’s not her fault alone, but she bears part of the blame.”
The spokesman gave me a questioning look.
“She’s a good–hearted woman,” I said. “There’s no doubt about it. And I’m sure she loves me. But she also made many stupid mistakes regarding me.”
“Like not being able to see things from my perspective. She always thought I was so cute and called me her little brownie and was convinced that everybody felt the same way about me. In a way, she’s incredibly naive. But she is also very headstrong and a know–it–all. I told you the story about the wedding. That was classic her. I can tell you another story that explains how she’s wired. It’s about her sense of justice and how she stands up for other people. It’ll help you to get an idea of her.”
“Shoot,” the spokesman said.
I was just about to start when the door opened, and the ‘waiter’ entered with a coffee tray.
“I’m good today,” I said when he set it down on the table in front of me.
The spokesman shot me a surprised glance. “Is there something wrong?”
“No,” I said. “It’s just that I don’t feel like drinking or eating right now.”
The two Stasi guys exchanged looks. Then the spokesman said to the sidekick: “Leave the tray here. Maybe he’ll have some coffee later.”
The sidekick nodded and left the room again.
The spokesman rested his elbows on the table, leaned in and made a steeple with his hands. “You were going to tell me a story.”
I nodded and began to speak: “Living in the country, we had a cat and a dog and grew all sorts of vegetables and fruits in our big garden. We also had rabbits. My parents bred them as a sideline, for a while that is. The point of breeding rabbits was to make some money by selling them. When they reached a certain weight, they would be taken to the delivery station from where they went straight to the slaughterhouse. But taking the rabbits to the delivery station was always a drama for my mother. Tears would also flow when my father butchered one of the animals for ourselves. My mother wouldn’t eat a bite and make all of us feel guilty about eating the ‘poor’ rabbit.
Bunny was my mother’s favorite. He was a big male with floppy ears and a sight to see with his silky gray fur. Almost every evening, my mother brought him into our living room. There he would scamper around and make the strangest noises, which she interpreted as Bunny communicating with her. He was like a pet. Since eating him was out of the question, my father pushed for taking him to the delivery station. My mother put it off for as long as possible, but the day came when she had to take him there. I still remember how she cried when the truck, loaded with boxes full of chicken, geese, ducks and rabbits, including one holding Bunny, drove past our house, heading for the slaughterhouse in Eisenhuettenstadt. My mother was so unhappy that she wouldn’t stop crying. That was the day when my father, generally a quiet man, put his foot down. He could no longer stand my mother’s exaggerated love of animals and decided to end the rabbit breeding.
Since I was very fond of Bunny too and sad when he was gone, I wanted to have a new one. I secretly bought a replacement for five marks from a girl named Gerda Schuster. My parents were furious when they found out and told me to take it back. On the one hand, because our rabbit breeding days were over, on the other hand, because five marks was way too much for a baby rabbit. So I went heavy–heartedly to return it. When I entered the property, Gerda’s parents saw me and asked what I was doing with the rabbit. Since we had made the deal without our parents’ consent, I lied and told them I found it. Gerda’s parents believed me and took the rabbit. Of course, I couldn’t ask Gerda for the money in this situation. When I did it in school the next day, she said she didn’t have it on her and put me off. The next day she told me the same story. When I hadn’t gotten my five marks back after two weeks, I told my mother, who decided to come along with me to ask Gerda’s parents for it.
Mr. and Mrs. Schuster worked in the cowsheds and pigpens of the agricultural cooperative. They were a little special regarding order and cleanliness, to put it mildly, or to be direct: They weren’t much cleaner than the animals they took care of. Their house was like a pigsty, and one could smell the members of the Schuster family from a mile away. When they were in the little village shop, the shopkeeper would open all doors and windows to get rid of the stink. For the same reason, no kid wanted to sit next to Gerda in school.
Mr. Schuster was a short, thin man with coke–bottle glasses. Besides his unsavory aroma, he radiated something else that made us kids feel uncomfortable in his presence. He was standing on his porch and took his dirty rubber boots off when my mother and I entered the property.
’Hello, Mr. Schuster!’ my mother said. ‘Can I have a word with you? It’s about Gerda.’
We approached the porch, trying to avoid stepping into chicken poop. While my mother explained what we wanted, Mrs. Schuster came out onto the porch too. It was she who yelled at Gerda to come out when my mother had finished. The pretty blonde girl appeared after a few seconds. Apparently knowing what this tone in her mother’s voice meant, she hesitated in the doorway and looked anxiously at my mother and me.
‘Go and get the five marks!’ Mrs. Schuster ordered.
Gerda didn’t move. Her eyes welled up, and she admitted hardly audibly that she had spent the money. Without warning, Mr. Schuster pounced on his daughter and started to beat her. While the little girl screamed and tried to protect her face with her arms, Mrs. Schuster egged her husband on: ‘Yeah, beat the shit out of her!’
Not believing what she saw, my mother rushed up onto the porch. ‘Mr. Schuster, what are you doing?!’ she yelled, trying to stop the brute. ‘You can’t beat the girl like that. It’s just five marks for Christ sake! She can keep it!’
Mr. Schuster, however, continued beating his daughter and only listened to his wife, who kept encouraging him. When Gerda fell, he kicked her—thank God his boots were already off—shouting: ‘Bringing disgrace on this family! I’m gonna beat you to a pulp!’
When my mother tried to separate him from Gerda, he pushed her away. She lost her footing and fell down the steps. I was about seven or eight back then. I remember how scared I was because the man acted like a lunatic. Eventually, he calmed down and let the girl alone. Poor Gerda was lying whimpering on the porch, a picture of misery.
My mother got quickly on her feet again. Fortunately, she hadn’t hurt herself. Grabbing me, she made for the gate, yelling at the Schusters that this will have consequences. While the father was standing there gasping, the mother still shouted at the weeping girl.
On the street, we ran into Schusters’ neighbor Mrs. Mahlow. When my mother told her what had just happened, the woman said that this was daily fare. Mr. Schuster would beat his daughter regularly, and it was about time someone did something about it.
And that was exactly what my mother did: She went straight to the mayor, Uncle Krueger, who informed the child and youth services. They told him they would send someone out to the school the next day. They also suggested somebody take Gerda to a doctor, which my mother did the next day. When asked, Gerda said she didn’t want to go home anymore. The details she gave were shocking: She was regularly beaten and treated cruelly in general. When the parents were on a night shift, she had to get up bright and early to feed the pigs and milk the cows before going to school. Of course, there was no time for a shower before she had to catch the school bus.—So much for her bad smell.
Gerda was taken to a children’s home in Eisenhuettenstadt directly after the interview with the representative from the child and youth services. A few days later, the community policeman came over to interview the Schusters. They, of course, denied everything and said that my mother exaggerated. They swore that they loved their daughter and that the incident was a one–off. They had never beaten her before. The policeman also interviewed Mrs. Mahlow, the one who had told my mother that it was about time someone did something about it. Suddenly, she lost her memory. She had never seen or heard anything.
My mother was well liked for her friendliness and helpfulness in the village, but that changed after this incident, at least for a while. It would be an exaggeration to say she was ostracized, but the majority of the villagers thought that no outsider should interfere in family matters, and they let her feel it. The Schusters managed to talk their way out of it and avoided being charged with child abuse but didn’t get off scot–free: They had to pay for Gerda’s stay in the children’s home, and that wasn’t cheap.
After a while, everything calmed down, even Mr. Schuster. After not talking to my mother for half a year, he asked her for a dance at the village fair. While dancing with her, he apologized for his behavior and promised this would never happen again. Still, Mr. Schuster was definitely out of favor with my mother. She only accepted his apology for the sake of peace and quiet. As for Gerda, she stayed in the children’s home for eight months. She still had to work a lot when she got back home, but her dad never dared touch her again.”
“That was a brave thing to do,” the spokesman said. “Your mother seems to be a remarkable woman.”
“She is,” I said. “But what’s going on between us is a mother–son–thing. I don’t expect an outsider to understand it.”
“Is she a party member?” the spokesman said.
I shook my head. “But she’s a convinced GDR citizen and does a lot of social work.”
“What about your stepfather?” the spokesman said. “Did the two of you get along?”
“I can tell you a story that’ll answer your question.”
The spokesman made an inviting gesture with his hand.
“He used to steal the necks of my two brothers and me,” I said. “I never heard the term ‘neck stealing’ from anybody else. So I assume it’s something that exists only in our family. One day my father decided I was too old for this and stopped ‘stealing my neck’ from one day to the next not knowing that I was far from being ready for it. Back then it was his job to put us three boys to bed. While the male members of our family were goofing around in the bedroom, moaning noises could be heard from the long wooden staircase that led down to the hall. They were caused by my mother, who must have been in that phase where women are terribly afraid of losing their slim figures. She would run up and down the stairs for 45 minutes every evening. When putting us to bed, my father always followed the same routine: He began with the youngest by telling him a story. Listening to his stories was OK, but what we were really looking forward to was him stealing our necks which went like this: When he was done with the story, he would point at the respective neck. ‘What’s this?’ he would ask in pretence amazement.—’That’s my neck!’ would be the answer usually accompanied by an outburst of laughter since the ‘victim’ knew exactly what was going to come.—’What!? That’s my neck!’ my father would shout and change into some kind of a monster. He would press his lips onto the neck, blow raspberries and ‘steal’ it. It was always a beautiful game for us and also had the effect of a sleeping pill because after a couple of minutes we were so worn out that it didn’t take us long to fall asleep. When my father was through with my youngest brother, he would do the middle one and then me. But one day something strange happened. He came over to my bed and told me a short story. But that was it. He kissed me good night and said, ‘Sleep well, Andy!’ Then he switched the light off and left our bedroom. Listening to the creaking stairs and my mother’s gasps, I asked myself: ‘What was that? Why didn’t he steal my neck?’
When the same thing happened the next day and the day after the next day, I became so sad that my mother noticed. She asked me what the matter was, and I spilled my guts out to her. ‘Vati doesn’t love me anymore,’ I said sobbingly.
My mother took me in her arms and comforted me and assured me that this wasn’t the case at all. ‘On the contrary,’ she said. ‘Vati loves you very much.’
Even though I believed her, I wasn’t totally satisfied. In the evening, when my father put us to bed again, I stared at the ceiling in the semi–darkness and listened to him stealing my younger brothers’ necks. I envied them. He came over to me and told me a story. When he was done, he asked if there was something wrong with me because I looked so sad. I was just about to tell him my problem when he pointed casually at my neck asking what it was. All of a sudden, my sadness was gone. I burst out laughing and moved my head trying to dodge the approaching ‘neck stealer.’ But it was too late!… It lasted longer than usual as if my father wanted to make up for the last days. The stairs had long stopped creaking when we were done. I was so worn out that I fell asleep immediately, happy and with the sweetest dreams about my Vati. He didn’t love me anymore my ass!
Although he isn’t my biological father, he has been around as long as I can remember. He has never given me the feeling that I’m not his own flesh and blood. Many people in our environment turned up their noses and couldn’t understand why a man would marry a woman who has a child from a negro and then even adopt that child. But he didn’t give a damn and for that, I will always love him. I guess that answers your question if I got along with him.” I had to wipe my eyes because they welled up.
The spokesman glanced at his watch, then nodded in the direction of the coffee pot on the table.
“OK,” I said, “But I’ll only have one cup.”
He smiled and poured it for me.
The door opened and the sidekick came in with a box of biscuits in his hands. He put it on the table.
“You’re really forcing me,” I said and took a biscuit. “I don’t wanna be rude, so I’m taking one, but only one.”
The spokesman lit another cigarette while his sidekick left the room.
“Sooo,” he said exhaling through his nose, “I understand that you have a grandmother in the West.”
“Who unfortunately is no longer allowed to come and visit,” I said.
“Because of what you did?”
“Can’t think of any other reason,” I said. “She’s been visiting us every summer since the late sixties. When my mother applied for a residence permit last summer, it was declined. That’s at least what she wrote me.”
“Too bad,” the spokesman said.
“My Oma was in prison too,” I said.
“You don’t say!” the spokesman said. “What for?”
“She’s originally from Saxony,” I said. “Since she had never had much time for socialism, she was set on going to the West in 1951. She took her two kids, 11 and five years old at the time, and went to Berlin. There she crossed the sector border and reported to a reception camp. But her request for asylum was denied because she didn’t meet two important criteria: Number one, she was not politically persecuted, and number two, she didn’t have family in the West. So they sent her and the kids back to the GDR. But my Oma didn’t want to give up and stayed in East Berlin to explore other options. She found an apartment and got herself a job. It didn’t take her long to meet somebody who helped her. This person was a former acquaintance of the Minister for All–German Affairs in Bonn, Jakob Kaiser. She advised her to write Kaiser a letter with her regards and ask him for help. My Oma did this, and the minister’s reply arrived a few weeks later. He thanked her for the regards from his friend and promised my Oma to attend to her interests. Somehow the GDR authorities got wind of it. When my Oma came home from work one day, the police were waiting for her. The search of the apartment was unsuccessful, but they made a find when they took a look into my Oma’s purse because in there, was the letter from Jakob Kaiser.
The spokesman chuckled. “Women!”
I shrugged and continued: “They took her along and put her in prison. My Oma was charged with having connections with the West German espionage apparatus and finally convicted of ‘spying for the reactionary forces who want to plunge Germany into another war’ and sentenced to three years. Considering the prosecutor wanted her for ten years behind bars, she came off well. After two years, she was released on probation of good conduct. She went immediately to Saxony, got her kids from her parents and went back to Berlin. This time, she met the most important criterion: She was politically persecuted because she would have been arrested if they had sent her back to the GDR. Crossing the sector border was a parole violation. Everything was all right now except for one thing: My great–grandmother Magdalena showed up at the reception camp begging my Oma not to take the kids away from her. Magdalena even told her she would die if she did it. And besides, my Oma wasn’t fit for taking care of the kids. She was just out of prison and had to organize her life first. This argument made my Oma think because her mother had a point there. She needed to find an apartment and a job, and she didn’t even know how much longer she would have to stay in the reception camp. What if she left the kids with her parents until she was back on her feet? She finally buckled, and that was the deal: Magdalena would take my mother and her baby brother back home to Saxony, where they would stay until my Oma was able to take care of them. A few weeks later, my Oma was flown out of West Berlin to West Germany. Of course, Magdalena and her husband Edwin refused to let the kids go back to their mother, and there was nothing my Oma could do about it. That’s why my mother grew up with her grandparents.”
“And how does your grandmother earn her living?” the spokesman said.
“She’s retired now,” I said. “She used to be a secretary in a publishing house.”
“What about your younger brothers?” the spokesman said.
“What about them?” I said. “They are good boys, and I love them. They kinda looked up to me, but I disappointed them… You know I figured out why I’m here. It’s not because I wanted to leave a hostile environment and took drastic action to succeed—for which I won’t be sorry in a million years by the way. I’m here because I treated my mother, my father, my two younger brothers and my wife badly. I took out my frustrations on the people who loved me, and now I’m paying for all the shit I did. Destiny, the God I believe in, has chosen this gang here to enforce its sentence.”
The spokesman chuckled again. “Wow! That’s an interesting way to look at it. If it helps you, fine.”
“It does,” I said.
He pointed an admiring finger at me. “I don’t agree with everything you just said, but a fault confessed is half redressed.”
“I have plenty of time to think,” I said.
“Speaking of time,” the spokesman said and looked at his watch. “I’m afraid our’s is up for today… Are you making any progress learning English?”
“I am. I’m almost done with the book you gave me.”
“You need another one?”
“That would be great.”
He promised to get it for me by the time we would meet again, which was in two weeks.
Nausea hit again when I was back in my cell. I was lost. Was I sick? If so, what illness could it be? Which disease comes every two weeks and disappears again after an hour? The more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became. What could the reason be for putting something in my coffee? Could anybody be so cruel? On the other hand, they were Stasi and therefore capable of anything. The fact that they brought me little presents didn’t change a thing. I decided to refuse everything next time. Should I have another fit afterward, I would know for sure that the Stasi had nothing to do with it.
On Christmas Day, there was a piece of stollen on my tray, but it was rock–hard and dry. I longed for the butter stollen my mother used to bake every year. About this time, I changed my attitude toward her. For the most part, because I kept getting letters from her. After the New Year’s, I sat down and wrote her a letter promising that I would be in touch regularly from now on. I also requested a visitation permit for my parents, which was granted. The visitation was scheduled for the end of the month.
The spokesman kept his promise. He had gotten me another English textbook—another 1,000 words and phrases for me to learn. This time, he wanted to talk about books. “What are you reading at the moment?” he asked.
“The most famous classic German writers like Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Heine,” I said. “I’ve even tackled Shakespeare. There’s a volume called ‘The complete works of Shakespeare’ in the prison library. I’ve become fluent enough in English to read it even though I have to consult the dictionary about a dozen times per page.”
The spokesman nodded approvingly. “Why the classic writers?”
“Well, first and foremost to broaden my horizon, I guess. In the beginning, I really had to force myself, but then I kinda liked it. I mean, their wisdom and proficiency with language are quite impressive. Reading them, I even found out something about myself.”
“What did you find out?” the spokesman said.
“The humanist ideas of these guys strengthen my conviction that what I did wasn’t wrong… See, my goal was to gain the freedom you guys denied me. And the longing and endeavoring for precisely this freedom, for independence and a life without dictatorship, I found in every line of Goetz von Berlichingen, the Robbers, Cabal and Love, Emilia Galotti. The list goes on. And you wanna know something else?”
“Sure,” the spokesman said.
“I’m always incensed when I read the prefaces of the publishers. I mean, how dare they misinterpret these works claiming them as their own! What right do they have to compare these masters’ genuine humanism with the faux humanism you guys call socialism? I bet if these writers were living today here, they would be total dissidents, and you guys might put them in jail.”
The spokesman scoffed. He didn’t seem to like what I just said. “Maybe you don’t understand what you’re reading? These classic writers—” He stopped because his sidekick entered with a tray.
This time, I stuck tenaciously to my decision. I didn’t touch a thing even though he kept urging me. While we went on discussing the classic writers, he kept telling me that I got the whole thing wrong and that these writers were socialists in fact. In my mind, I laughed at him. When he urged me again to have at least a cup of coffee, and I declined with thanks, he looked at his watch. I was surprised when he suddenly said that the time was up because not more than 20 minutes had passed since I came.
On the way back to my cell, I expected nausea to start again. But nothing happened. After the guard locked the door, I violently shook my head and leaped in the air, but nothing: I felt absolutely normal. I hadn’t eaten; I hadn’t drunk, and I didn’t get ill. It was unbelievable! Those bastards! The scales fell from my eyes. In my mind, I saw the spokesman urge me to drink or eat something and looking at his gold Soviet-made watch. To get their timing right seemed to be important for them. This way they probably wanted to make sure the stuff they gave me wouldn’t kick in before I left their office. There was something else that struck me as odd: As soon as it was clear I wasn’t going to eat or drink, he was no longer interested in talking to me and cut the meeting short. No doubt about it: These assholes had dosed me with something. But what on earth was their motivation? I was sure they didn’t want to kill me because if so there were much easier ways to do it. Maybe they wanted to torture me or drive me to commit suicide? That scenario, I was inclined to believe. I knew from the beginning that they were Stasi, but I had trusted the spokesman and considered my relationship with him to be something special. All the time in between the visits, I had been looking forward to our conversations because I enjoyed them. They had been a pleasant hiatus from my solitary life in the cell. I felt totally betrayed, and as much as I liked him before, I hated the spokesman now.
I thought about what to do and initially decided to file a complaint, but I changed my mind on second thoughts because no one would believe me. After much consideration, I decided to eat my fill once more next time. If I called the doctor immediately and told him everything, they wouldn’t be able to deny it and would hopefully at least get into some trouble. I could put up with an hour of vomiting and cramps one more time.
Politics was the topic at our sixth meeting. Among other things, we spoke about the Red Army Faction. The spokesman’s remarks about Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff echoed sympathy and admiration. “Whatever one may think about them, they died for their belief,” he said.
“Belief?” I scoffed. “I call it a twisted ideology. But whatever you call it, it doesn’t make what they did any better. They were terrorists who kidnapped and killed innocent people, and it’s good that they’re dead now.” I couldn’t say much about the Red Army Faction. Of course, I knew what it was. I had heard about them in the news and seen documentaries on TV. I knew the names of their leaders, but I hadn’t really been into it. While the media in West Germany called them terrorists, the East German media avoided the term, which was enough for me to hate them.
“Well, you’re a terrorist too,” the spokesman said. “It’s a pity you’re on the other side. I bet you would be an A player if you were one of us.”
“I’m not a terrorist,” I said. “And I could never be one of you.”
“Why?” the spokesman said.
“Because I think communism or socialism or whatever you call it is totally wrong. People who believe in it are either stupid or a bunch of liars and hypocrites. No offense.”
“None taken,” he said and smiled. “How old are you?”
“You know how old I am—twenty–one.”
He nodded. “You still have so much to learn.”
“I may be young,” I said. “And I’m not saying I understand everything, but I’m pretty sure I see things realistically. Wanna know a secret?”
“Sure,” the spokesman said.
“I actually don’t care about politics at all. But I’m against communism. It’s a natural instinct because I’m for civic liberty. I don’t give a shit about your GDR. I just don’t wanna live here. I couldn’t care less about what you do when I’m gone. If you guys think you’re happier this way, so be it. But it’s beyond me why a state prevents its own people from traveling abroad and practically imprisons them.”
“You see that’s what I mean,” the spokesman said. “You don’t get the concept. Socialism is the pre–stage of communism where the people is being educated. The way the people think needs to be changed, which by the way you of all people should understand. The party has to obliterate any capitalist ideas. And to do this, drastic measures need to be taken. It might last for a few generations, but it’s for the greater good.”
“Greater good my ass,” I said.
“Why don’t you let the people who don’t wanna be part of your ‘project’ leave? I’ll tell you why. Because almost everybody would leave, and you guys would have a state without people at some point.”
The spokesman chuckled.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” I said looking him in the eye. He averted his gaze. I hated this two–faced bastard! “The other day,” I went on, “there was an in–depth article about the leader of the Paraguayan Communist Party, Antonio Maidana, in the Neues Deutschland. The author was outraged by the prison conditions of this man who is being kept in solitary confinement by the minions of dictator Alfredo Stroessner. He couldn’t understand how a system could be so brutal. Reading this made me furious.”
“Why?!” I exclaimed and couldn’t believe it. “Because it’s nothing but fucking communist propaganda! I’m in solitary confinement too. And I’m not in a banana republic but in a state in central Europe that claims to be a model of human rights.”
The spokesman smirked. “You’re a little agitated today. Is something wrong?”
I shook my head. There was nothing wrong apart from the fact that this asshole had been poisoning me. “You wanna know what I think?” I said.
“Desperately,” the spokesman said with a sarcastic undertone.
“I think the so–called GDR isn’t even a real state.”
“Ho, ho!” Now the spokesman sounded amused. “What are we then according to you?”
“Just a territory occupied by the Russians,” I said. “They installed a communist government here. I’m sure if there were free elections, the SED wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“You know what I think?” the spokesman said shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “You watched too much western TV. You fell for their propaganda.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t fall for anything… You can’t deny the truth. The government here is not legit. Ergo, all the public authorities aren’t. By the way, I was born in Germany and consider myself a German citizen; not a ‘GDR citizen.’ And that’s why you guys have no right to hold me here.”
“I beg to differ,” the spokesman said. “You were born in the GDR—a country that’s been recognized by almost every other country in the world.”
“But not by the Federal Republic,” I said.
“We’re working on it,” the spokesman said. “It’s a pure formality. The chancellor’s visit last year equaled a recognition.”
The Federal Republic will never recognize you, and you know it,” I said.
The spokesman took a deep breath. “If you say so.”What I said enraged him, but he pulled himself together.“Even if you don’t consider yourself a citizen of this country, you committed a crime here,” he said. “A policeman died because of you… All politics aside. Don’t you feel sorry for him? The man had a family.”
“I couldn’t care less,” I said. “And you cannot leave all politics aside because politics is the reason for everything. Of course, it’s tragic that he died. But I don’t feel responsible for his death at all. I didn’t pull the trigger, and killing him wasn’t part of our plan. The one who shot him is responsible. As for the rest, the man chose to work for a regime that’s not legit. Apart from the fact that his behavior was totally unprofessional, he knew what he was in for. It’s the same with these two border guards who were killed by Werner Weinhold a few years back. You guys keep calling the man a double murderer, but I think he’s a hero. He took a risk and fought for his freedom. That’s something to admire. If your guys had shot him, you would have pinned the Karl–Marx–medal on their chests.”
The spokesman bit his lip and shook his head so slightly it was barely noticeable. Then he forced a smile. “Of course, everybody is entitled to his opinion.” He offered me a cigarette, which I took.
A few minutes later, the sidekick entered with his coffee tray. “I’m pretty hungry today,” I said.
“Oh!” The spokesman was delighted. “What do you want? Chicken and cake again?”
“If you have some?”
The sidekick left and returned with another tray.
This time, I made a pig of myself. We continued our conversation while I was munching. “I think a lot of Ronald Reagan,” I said. “He’ll bring the Soviets down. He seems pretty determined.”
The spokesman couldn’t help laughing.
I looked him in the eye. “You don’t think so?”
“I think he’s a clown,” the spokesman said holding my gaze. “But a dangerous one indeed. His politics pose a threat to world peace. What he does in Nicaragua is just terrible. He’s a crazy actor. I don’t understand how you can elect somebody like him president. Then again, it says a lot about the American people and capitalism in general.”
“Okay,” I said. “The CIA backs the Contras in Nicaragua. But what about your ally, the Russians? What’s their business in Afghanistan? It’s a sovereign country, and they just invaded it. Where is the goddamn difference?”
Our political debate continued until the end of the session. For the first time, he countered my arguments instead of shrugging them off.
When he checked the time and told me that the meeting was over, I started to feel sick. It was the first time it happened while I was still in their office. He said he would send for me again in two weeks time. I was sure this was not going to happen.
I managed to control the urge to vomit until I was back in my cell, and the guard had taken my handcuffs off. Watching for a while, he asked if I needed a doctor. I signaled the affirmative. Everything went as planned. This time, however, it was worse than it had ever been before. What I had was not just diarrhea. The toilet bowl was red with blood, and I soon regretted getting myself into this mess once more. The doctor came after an hour. It was the same one who had taught me the lesson during my hunger strike a year earlier. Lying exhausted on the bed, I told him my story. When I mentioned the Stasi guys, he pretended not to hear, but apart from this, he tried hard to help me. He examined me, confined me to bed and prescribed some medicine. He said he would return the following morning.
The night was pure agony. My head seemed to explode. When I lifted my arms, I felt as if I was being given an electric shock. I spent hours on the toilet asking myself where all the fluid came from. My one and only wish was for morning to come because I desperately needed a doctor. I kept blaming myself for taking this rash action. I should have just let it be and filed a complaint after I figured it out. They would have left me alone, and I would have been spared this torment. I was irritated with myself.
The doctor came early in the morning. He examined me while I was lying semi–conscious on the bed. When he was done, he said I needed to be hospitalized immediately. He ordered the guards to help me get dressed and left to make the necessary arrangements. Trixi had turned up in the meantime. He was standing in the corridor making sarcastic remarks. Pauly, who was on duty, seemed to be the only one who had any sympathy for me. When the ambulance was ready, I dragged myself to the sally port assisted by Pauly. Trixi shot me a nasty glance when we passed him in the corridor asking Pauly if he was aware that “this one” had to wear manacles outside his custody room. Pauly had a placid nature, but now he was agitated. “Don’t you see that this man is hardly able to walk!” he yelled holding on to me firmly.
“Now, he’s getting a taste of his own medicine. How pathetic!” Trixi responded surprised at the reaction of his subordinate.
I had no idea what he meant and nor did I care. I only wanted to reach the ambulance. The one hundred meters or so I had to cover seemed endless. It was a relief when finally I lay down on the stretcher…
“Open your eyes,” a voice sounded from the darkness.
I felt somebody slap my face. I opened my eyes and could make out a hazy image. The man was wearing a white coat. My eyes wanted to close again, but the man kept shouting in my ear: “You need to stay awake!”
I tried hard to keep my eyes open.
There were two guards and three men in white coats probing me. They measured my temperature, took blood and connected me to a monitoring unit. I heard one of them say: “There’s hardly any pulse. I think we’re losing him.”
Eventually, they put me on a stretcher and carried me to an ambulance. From the conversation between the doctors, I learned that I was in the infirmary of Bautzen I, but they couldn’t keep me there because I needed to be taken to a proper hospital.
Two prisoners, recognizable by the yellow marks on their white coats, got me out of the ambulance and carried me into a building. There, they left me on the stretcher in a corridor. One of them returned after a while and looked after me. It was a nice feeling getting addressed by my first name again after one and a half years. “Helmut” took my details and informed me that I was in the Leipzig prison hospital. Later, a doctor and a couple of orderlies came and took me to a detention cell. They laid me on the bed and took my clothes off. “I suggest we cuff his leg to the bed so the gate can stay open,” one of the orderlies said.
The doctor thought for a moment, then shook his head and turned to me: “If you behave, the gate stays open.” While connecting me to a drip, he explained that I needed to drink a lot to compensate for my tremendous loss of fluid. Then they left.
I was soaked with sweat. The heating was on full blast and the small window only ajar. The cell was stuffy with almost no fresh air. My head, my throat and my stomach were aching, as was every single muscle in my body. After a while, I felt the urge to go to the toilet, but I couldn’t make the journey because of the drip. I held it for another while, but then the urge became too strong. I took the bottle from its stand and carried it with me to the toilet. I was so weak that I could barely hold it. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I had to make the agonizing trip to the bowl.
When the drip bottle was empty, an orderly came and replaced it. “Are you one of the guys who broke out of the detention center in Frankfurt a couple years ago?” he asked. It was the same one who suggested they cuff my leg to the bed.
I nodded because I was so weak I could hardly speak.
“Did you kill the cop?”
“None of your business!” I whispered using the last of my strength.
He shot me a hostile glance and left the room.
Since having to lie still on the bed was too torturous for me, I turned the little plastic wheel to make the fluid run faster. After a short time, my arm was swollen, but the drip bottle was empty. I schlepped myself to the door and pushed the call button. Seconds later, the lid of the peephole was cautiously pushed aside.
“The bottle is empty,” I said.
No reaction. The lid closed again.
I went back to the bed. After a while, I braced myself and yelled, “Hello!”
The lid of the peephole opened again. “Shut the fuck up, nigger! I hope you die!” It was the voice of the orderly who had asked me about the prison break.
If that was the way he wanted to play it, alright! I ripped the needle out of my arm. A few minutes later, the door opened and my ‘friend’ entered. “You rang?” he said as if he had just noticed.
“It’s been taken care of already,” I said.
“Don’t tell me you removed the needle!” he said dramatically.
“I did,” I said, “because the bottle was empty.”
“That’s impossible,” the orderly said. “The adjustment was set at the slowest speed. I know you tampered with it, and this will have consequences.”
“So will the stupid comment you made behind the door,” I said.
He blushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The dude reminded me of Rosycheeks because he had his mannerisms and even his looks: the blonde mustache and these tinted glasses that made him look like a sadist. Mumbling about how dangerous it could be if the drip was not synchronized with my pulse, he left.
I fell asleep just before morning but was soon woken again. A gang of white coats, among them several women, filed into the cell and circled around my bed. The chief physician asked how I felt bandying medical jargon about. He was of the opinion that I needed to be moved to a proper hospital ward and not be held in an unventilated detention cell.
Soon after the medical round, the prisoners from the earlier day came with a stretcher. They put me onto it, strapped and handcuffed me, carried me downstairs and out of the building. Over a snow–covered sidewalk, they took me to a neighboring house, carried me upstairs to the second or third floor, put me in a room at the end of the corridor, lay me on a beautiful soft bed and left.
I was amazed: The room was bright and clean and had no gate in front of the door, only the window was barred. After a while, a nurse came in with my medicine. Seeing her made my jaw drop because she was a dead ringer for Kerstin, the girl I met on the trip to Moscow. The two small glasses on her tray contained a powder and a liquid. The taste of the powder was so vile that I could hardly swallow it. But the nurse made sure I did. She was very friendly.
Some prisoners were standing at the door watching us. Their cell was next to mine. I could hear the music coming from their loudspeaker. It was a great feeling to hear music again after such a long time.
However, the fact that I was no longer in isolation made no difference for the time being because I was too weak to converse. At night, I still couldn’t sleep, but I was happy with my new environment. I thought of my parents and their impending visitation. It would need to be canceled if I had to stay any longer than three weeks in the hospital.
A different crew of white coats entered my room the next morning. After the doctor finished conferring with them, he sent his colleagues out, took a chair, sat by my bedside and turned to me in an intimate tone: “What did you eat? You can tell me.”
I sat up supporting my upper body with my elbows. “What do you mean?”
“Listen,” he said still in a friendly tone, “you’ve got an acute bowel inflammation. You don’t get that by chance.” He looked at me as if I were a child you only have to patronize to find out the truth.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” I said. “Could you be more precise?”
“All right, then I have to put it plainly,” he said sounding less friendly now. “I was told you ate toothpaste and cleaning agent to commit suicide… I mean, it’s totally understandable with your life sentence and all.”
I swallowed. “What?… Who said this?” If my indignation or my disbelief was greater, I don’t remember.
“It doesn’t matter,” the doctor said. “I know it, and that should be enough.”
Inside I was furious. Who did this quack think he was? These two Stasi assholes had poisoned me, and now I had to listen to this bullshit?! I pulled myself together and didn’t betray my feelings. “I didn’t eat any toothpaste or cleaning agent,” I said and collapsed back, exhausted, onto my pillow. “I would never do that,” I added.
The doctor shot me a skeptical glance. “Okay, whatever,” he said, then got up and left.
This issue festered in my mind. I hadn’t mentioned the Stasi since the doctor in Bautzen had been so dismissive about my story. But now, the situation was different: they were accusing me of trying to commit suicide or at the very least, self–harm. When an orderly came to lock the door, I asked him to call the doctor back. He came immediately and stood by my bed.
“Have a seat please,” I said pointing to the chair.
“Why? I can stand just as well,” the doctor said arrogantly probably thinking I was going to confess that I had eaten toothpaste and cleaning agent.
I searched for the right words to begin with and started hesitantly: “Well, there were two men… They were Stasi agents… I’m sure they put something in my… coffee… They… poisoned me. That’s where it all comes from.”
The doctor’s jaw dropped while he was staring at me. After processing my words, he said: “Listen! Don’t take me for an idiot!” Then he hurried out of the room.
I palm–slapped my forehead. I couldn’t have expressed myself in a clumsier way. If I expected anyone to believe my story, I must at least be able to communicate it clearly and not stutter like an idiot. It was my own fault that the doctor didn’t believe me. I was so furious with myself!
After two weeks, the annoying diarrhea finally ceased, and I could go back to eating something other than zwieback again. The worst was behind me, but I was still weak. My weight had dropped to 60 kilos.
I was always in top form when “Kerstin” was on duty because she made sure that I had enough books and always brought the newspaper to me on time. The fact that my door was locked didn’t stop me from talking to other prisoners. I learned that Andreas was doing his time in Torgau. An inmate who had been there before they brought him to Leipzig told me that.
When I was able to sit at a table again for a few minutes, I wrote a letter to my parents informing them that their impending visit needed to be postponed. I also asked them to send me a package.
At one of the numerous examinations, the doctor told me that I would be struggling for a long time with the ramifications of this bowel inflammation. He mentioned bloody and slimy stool, diarrhea and indigestion. According to him, my recovery would take about a year. I suppose he was trying to reassure me when he said that I didn’t have to stay in hospital the whole time. How could he know that I preferred the prison hospital a thousand times to Bautzen? In the end, I would be reminded of my “self–harm” for a long time. He never referred directly to it again but dropped surreptitious remarks from time to time.
My mother wrote me almost daily. When Kerstin brought the mail, she would wave the letter at the door saying: “Another letter from Mutti for our mail king!”
The treatment in Leipzig was entirely different to Bautzen. I was in a prison hospital, of course, and the staff was made up of corrections officers even if they were wearing white coats. But most of them were amicable and always ready to chat. On the other hand, in Bautzen, I felt the relentless animosity of the guards every second. They didn’t regard me as a human being. For them, I was a horrible monster you had to approach with cruelty. I dreaded the day I would be taken back to that terrible place and wished I could spend my entire sentence in Leipzig. I knew this desire could never come to fruition.
In my seventh week in Leipzig, my mother’s package arrived. It contained many useful items like coffee, fruit, chewing gum, toothpaste, aftershave lotion, shower gel and so on. The toiletries were all from my Oma. Kerstin was on duty that day. She was delighted for me making a witty remark about every item she unpacked. Under the circumstances, I was quite happy but also lulled into unguarded complacence.
Not long after I received the package, two orderlies came asking me to get dressed and pack my things. Walking out to the corridor, I saw Rosycheeks’s cheeks gleaming in the distance. Playing with the handcuffs, he was waiting for me with two other guards from Bautzen II. He took my package and handed it to one of his comrades. “You won’t be needing this for the time being,” he said. Then the handcuffs clicked.
While we were waiting for the papers to be processed, I took a last look around. Kerstin was standing in the doorway of the nurses’ lounge and looked in my direction. I said thank you and goodbye with my eyes. She understood and nodded at me. A minute later, I felt a push from Rosycheeks. “Let’s go back home!”
The Barkas was waiting in front of the building. They locked me up in one of the sitting cells. After a few minutes, I passed out. I was still far too weak for this kind of transportation. There was this glimmer of hope that they might move me to a commando. However, when I was standing in front of my old cell, and the door opened, I couldn’t even be disappointed. How could I have expected any mercy from a bunch of heartless thugs? They wanted to end me; I was acutely certain of this. Compared to the bright, modern room in the prison hospital, I was in a medieval dungeon now. Just a couple of hours ago, I had been happy. Now, all that seemed like a distant memory. I felt an amalgamation of fear, anger and powerlessness. I wished I could cry until all of my misery had been expelled, but I couldn’t. Reality caught up with me. I was incarcerated in a tiny cell in the penal institution of Bautzen II where only hatred and terror existed.
The following day, I asked for Bobby to find out the situation with my package. He came in the afternoon. After the report, I said: “Your colleague took my package away from me yesterday. I’d like to have it back.”
“It wasn’t granted in this institution, so the matter needs to be considered first,” Bobby said.
“What’s there to consider? The package is my property!” I said.
Bobby glowered at me. “I’m not arguing with you!” he said and shut the door.
I felt anger surge up in me. Again, I realized how impotent I was against such arbitrary measures. The guards didn’t even respect their own rules after all.
A few minutes later, I was taken out of my cell. From the direction we took, it was easy to tell where we were headed for. Lately, I hadn’t been thinking of those two at all.
The spokesman gave me a warm welcome pretending not to notice that I didn’t return the sentiment. He pulled up a chair and sat kitty–corner to me. “You don’t look so good,” he said after studying me for a few seconds. “I understand you were in hospital.”
“Yes,” I answered brusquely. I was so weak I almost fell off the chair, but I pulled myself together because I didn’t want to show weakness in front of these pigs.
The sidekick entered the room with a glass of orange juice. When he set it on the table in front of me, the spokesman made an inviting gesture.
I shook my head. “I’m not drinking that.”
The spokesman straightened up. “Oh, I forgot you don’t take anything from us because we allegedly poisoned you.”
“Not allegedly,” I retorted looking him straight in the eyes, “You did poison me!”
The spokesman held my stare for a moment but then looked away blushing. “How dare you say something like that!” he yelled.
“How dare I?!” I said in the same tone. “Because it’s the truth! By the way, I’m done with you guys. This is the last time I’m coming here. There will be no more conversations between us.”
“That’s our call,” came from the other end of the conference table. “We decide if you come here or not.”
I glowered at the sidekick. “Eat a dick!” I said. “You’re gonna pay for what you did to me. Your fucking GDR won’t exist much longer, and then it’s payback!”
The sidekick sneered. “Let’s see who lasts longer: the GDR or you. My bet is the former.”
The two Stasi guys exchanged looks. Then the spokesman handcuffed me. After the sidekick left the room, the spokesman walked over to the window. Looking outside, he hummed a tune.
“Why?” I said.
He stopped humming and glanced over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“You heard me,” I said. “Why did you do it?”
Instead of answering my question, he turned around again and resumed his humming.
“You know, I kinda liked you,” I said.
“Shut up!” he said not turning around anymore. He only did it when the door opened and his sidekick re–entered. They exchanged looks and nodded at each other. While the sidekick resumed his position at the other end of the conference table, the spokesman kept standing by the window. We glowered silently at each other until the guards came to take me back to my cell.
Getting my package back was my only aspiration over the next days. I asked a few times to see Bobby, but he never showed. That made me so incensed that I decided to threaten another hunger strike. I still remembered my failed attempt a year and a half earlier, but I would be damned if that would happen to me again this time. I would abort the hunger strike immediately when I saw it was leading nowhere. If I wanted to win, I needed to take a chance.
Italian was on duty that day. When he gave me the food tray, I refused to take it telling him I wasn’t going to eat until I had my package. A few minutes later, Bobby came with my package under his arm as if it had just arrived. “Well, here’s your package, inmate Schneider.” He gave me the half rotten apples and oranges through the latch. “What else do you want?”
“Everything,” I said.
Bobby shook his head. “No can do. You’re only allowed one item of each in your custody room.”
“Who dreamed up this bullshit?”
“This is an order and not up for debate,” Bobby said in a stern tone. “Is there anything else you want, yes or no?”
I considered. It was another form of harassment, but I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to go. I had achieved something: I threatened, and Bobby jumped immediately. That alone was inconceivable. I decided not to push my luck, but compromise and secure the partial victory. “All right,” I said, “one tube of toothpaste, one bottle of aftershave, one bottle of shower gel and one pack of chewing gum.”
Bobby gave me the items without comment. After that, Italian gave me the food tray and the matter was settled.
My general condition improved slowly. Soon, instead of having to run to the toilet every hour, I only needed to go three to four times a day. But I had to go easy with my exercise routine because my body was still weak. Reading became more and more difficult. My eyes hurt, and I couldn’t see clearly anymore especially distant objects. I presumed it was an aftermath of the poisoning because my vision problems began the day I got sick.
My parents’ visitation was postponed for a few weeks. Unfortunately, my father couldn’t make it. He had a doctor’s appointment that he couldn’t reschedule. I didn’t sleep a wink the night before. In the morning, I paced nervously in my cell stopping every time I heard a noise. Visitation time was scheduled for 10 AM. Finally, there was a commotion out in the corridor. The door was unlocked and Bobby stood there. I reported. He smiled at me and wished me a good morning. I was surprised because I had never seen him that friendly before. One other senior guard and three junior guards were with him.
They escorted me to the visitation area. When we were there, Bobby sent the turnkeys away; the other senior guard stayed. “Your mother’s waiting next door,” Bobby said. “I’ve already talked to her. I’m explaining the visitation rules to you now. You don’t touch your mother, and you don’t talk about your crime and the conditions in this penitentiary. You break these rules, I’ll terminate the visit immediately. Did you get that?”
He patted me down and took off the handcuffs. “Visitation time is one hour. It’s up to you if we use all of it,” he said, then motioned for me to walk into the adjoining room.
There she sat, smiling and crying at the same time. Bobby pointed at the chair that was meant for me, watching me closely. A table with a low glass panel in the center separated me from my mother. While Bobby sat next to the table, the other senior guard seated himself by the door.
“Good morning!” my mother said loudly.
“Hi Mutti,” I said and smiled.
We looked at each other. Neither of us knew how to begin. There was this twitch around her lips that she always had when she was trying to hold back her tears. She looked over to the senior guards. She was insecure and seemed intimidated.
I cleared my throat and tried to start the conversation, “How are you, Mutti?”
“Thanks, I’m fine,” my mother said, again excessively loud and distinct, glancing at the senior guards to make sure she hadn’t said anything wrong. Suddenly, she could no longer hold back her emotions and started to weep.
“Mutti,” I said, “aren’t you happy to see me?”
“Of course, I am,” she said between sobs.
“Why are you crying then?” I said. “I think this is a cause for rejoicing. So please smile.”
She blew her nose and wiped the tears from her face. The expression on her face brightened up and she smiled. “I’ll pull myself together,” she said for the first time in a normal tone and started to ask me questions.
I tried to be cool and even cracked a few jokes. It seemed to make everything easier. Bobby shot me a nasty look when I told my mother to stop looking at them all the time and just to pretend that they weren’t there. Nevertheless, she followed my suggestion. After ten minutes, the awkward barriers were broken, and we talked like we used to when I was still her little boy. She told me all the news from the family and especially my daughter. Time flew by quickly, and before we knew it, Bobby told us to wrap it up.
My mother unpacked the stuff she’d brought for me: fruit, chewing gum, toiletries, vitamin pills, even chicken. It was more than the 20–mark limit allowed. I expected Bobby to say something, but he didn’t. I still couldn’t figure this guy out. He informed my mother that she and my father were allowed to come every other month from now on. They would get the visitation permits automatically by mail. He gave her all the dates for the coming year. After that, we had to say farewell. I would have loved to hug my mother and kiss her goodbye, but Bobby blocked my way with his huge body. I thanked her for the presents and said, “See you, Mutti!”
She looked at me tenderly obviously wanting to say something, but she hesitated. Then she seemed to have made up her mind and spoke: “I’ve thought a lot about what you said to me back then.”
I knew immediately what she meant and shook my head defensively. I didn’t want to be reminded of this. “You had to sleep with a fucking black man, and I must suffer the consequences now!” Those had been the words that made me go bright red with shame now.
My mother continued talking, but more to herself: “Skin color never mattered to me. Probably that’s why it never occurred to me that you would have any problems because of it. You’ve been such a cute child, and I was so proud of you… See you, son! I love you!” She took her bag and walked to the door.
She was the only person in my life that had always stuck up for me, always—even when I was wrong. And I had caused her nothing but pain. She wasn’t to blame for anything! She had always done her best. Once more I realized how much I deserved all of this. I regained my composure and winked at her before Bobby closed the door. As soon as the door was shut, I broke down and wept.
There were days where I was made of steel and could move mountains. And there were days where I despondently asked myself if there was any point in living.
At the next visitation, I saw my father again. Bobby was the only watchdog. The hour went by so quickly, and I longed for the next time and the next time again.
Another Christmas arrived. It was the same as the two previous years. They say you get used to it. But I couldn’t get used to spending this celebration in a solitary cell.
The pain in my eyes and the difficulties reading got worse, and I decided I needed to see the eye specialist. The guard that I told about my problem dismissed my request saying that the eye specialist had already been in this month, and he wouldn’t come back to see just one patient. Besides, it was vacation period. Although this sounded strange to me, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Every Tuesday morning, they got me out of my cell and took me, only clad in underpants, to a washroom down the corridor. There, I had thirty to sixty minutes, depending on the mood of the guards, to take a bath or a shower.
One Tuesday morning in June 1983, I was lying in the tub. The water was running. Suddenly, I heard somebody call my name. I turned the water off, listened but couldn’t hear anything. When the water was running again, I heard my name again. I thought my mind was playing tricks with me. When the tub was full, I turned off the tap and relaxed in the warm water. There it was again loud and clear, “Andy!”
I didn’t know where it was coming from but thought immediately of the “telephone.” I got out of the tub and had a look at the pipe under the sink. It was solid and couldn’t be moved. But there was a thick pipe between the sink and the tub. It came out of the ground. It was about 30 centimeters long and sealed with a lid, which was bonded to the pipe with paint. I managed to get my fingernails in between and forced it open. There was a foul stench, low rushing and bubbling noises. “Hello!” I whispered.
“At last!” a voice said. It sounded young and seemed to belong to a guy in his twenties.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name’s Tommy. Harald sends you his regards. He told me everything about you. I’ve been here since yesterday. They put me here because the detention unit is full.”
“Where is here?” I asked.
“I’m directly above you.” There were a few thumps on the ceiling.
“OK, OK, I believe you,” I whispered shooting an anxious glance at the door. “Hang on a sec!” I pulled the plug out of the bathtub, dried myself, put my underpants on and went back to the pipe. “Hey Tommy, I’m back. We need to be careful. The screws can come back any minute.”
“All right,” he said.
“Why are you in the hole?” I said.
“Because of the CDW.—Do you know the new one?”
“Isn’t it Trixi anymore?” I said.
“No,” Tommy said in his thick Berlin dialect. “The new one is called Rooster. He’s a complete moron. The entire detention unit is full because of him. He wants to reorganize everything and introduce new methods.”
I heard the jingling of keys. “The screws!” I jumped up and stood under the window. It took the guards a couple of minutes to come. There would have been enough time for me to say goodbye to Tommy. Damn! I had become such a coward.
I decided not to take a bath next Tuesday. Instead, I would use the whole time talking with Tommy. I spent the entire week hoping he would still be in detention the following Tuesday. I didn’t hold out much hope since I was used to having bad luck. That made me all the happier when he was still there the next Tuesday. We had an extensive conversation. Tommy told me that the strangest rumors were being spread about me. Everybody knew there was a black guy in the isolation unit on the first floor. Most prisoners thought I was a two meters tall 120–kilo multiple cop killing psychopath. I was also supposed to have unhinged several doors with my bare hands and consequently needed to be restrained in irons. I had been wondering the whole time why the laundry room kept sending me clothes that were way too big.
Tommy was doing 15 years for planned acts of terrorism in conjunction with an attempted escape from the GDR. He and two friends wanted to hijack a tour bus on the transit autobahn exiting East Germany by force. Somebody snitched on them, and they got busted. Although Tommy’s voice sounded so young, he was, in fact, thirty–five. He had already done five years. He went on about the new CDW. According to him, the guy wasn’t playing with a full deck. He put people in the hole just for not arranging the items in their cabinet properly. Once he addressed a prisoner, “Inmate Mueller, what’s your name?” I burst out laughing when Tommy imitated the idiot’s voice. After an hour, the jingling of keys indicated that the guards were on their way, and we had to say goodbye.
The following Tuesday, I talked once more with Tommy. He was to be moved back to his commando the next day. I was sad because the conversations with him had done me so much good.
One afternoon on my way back in from rec time, I saw a senior guard I hadn’t seen before. I glanced over at him and said, “Good afternoon lieutenant!”
The man’s face turned red, and in exasperation, he puffed himself up. I don’t know how he did it, but it was phenomenal. He did look like a rooster. “Good afternoon!” he yelled like in “how dare you address me.”
I knew immediately that this lieutenant could only be the new CDW. Tommy hadn’t exaggerated. This man was weird.
When I was back in my cell, I chuckled about his demeanor not knowing that the laugh would soon be on the other side of my face because Rooster was a living nightmare. Over the following weeks, he “reorganized” everything concerning me. I was always confronted with these adjustments when I came back from rec time: For starters, my books and writing materials were removed. Another day, the springs of my bed had been replaced with a welded solid metal sheet. Another time my aftershave had been poured into a plastic bottle and my shaving cream smeared onto a butter dish. My aluminum spoon, knife and fork had been replaced with plastic cutlery and my razor disappeared. Shaving was only allowed under a guard’s supervision, and I had to pour my milk from the glass bottle into a plastic cup under the supervision of a guard. At some point, I had had enough and asked to speak to the officer in charge. He didn’t show, so the following day, I refused to take the food tray and repeated my demand. Finally, Rooster came and inquired about my problem.
“You are my problem,” I said.
“Unfortunately, I can’t help it,” he said. “You are on suicide watch because of the gravity of your sentence.”
“What?!” I said.
“You heard me,” he went on. “You tried to kill yourself before. That leaves me no choice… You’re not allowed any utensils that can be used to inflict self–harm.” He lifted his hand and listed the dangerous materials with his fingers: “No glass, ceramic or metal in your custody room.”
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “And what about my books and the writing things?”
“Um…” he thought for a second; then said, “That, I need to check first.” Then he shut the door.
After this conversation, I was sure the man wasn’t just weird but crazy.
The next surprise followed a few days later, when they told me rec time was canceled for administrative reasons for the time being. There was a lot of noise in the corridor. When they let me out again, I saw a new wall right beside my door. Rooster had decided to put another obstacle in my way in case I managed to break through the wall of my cell, which was only one meter thick. This man was a lunatic! From now on, the guards had to notify the duty officer via radio whenever my cell was to be opened or closed.
With Rooster’s appointment as CDW, a time of incredible psychological terror started for me. The first visitation under his supervision was also a disaster. Everything was different: He and three other guards were in the small room watching my parents and me closely. I was handcuffed the entire time. When my mother asked if I had done something wrong, Rooster blew up at her, yelling that these were security measures that he was not going to discuss. I had a good mind to kick his ass for talking to my mother like that. Of course, my parents had to take half of the presents they brought for me back home.
It was an unbelievably difficult time. Except for the mindless work, I only had exercise to occupy myself with. And I did my workout to excess just to switch off. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much. I had nightmares of torturing and killing Rooster. I turned into a beast that had no reservations about killing his tormentors. My dream world was destroyed. During this period my eye problems got worse, probably as a result of my depression. Six months had gone by since my first request to see the optometrist. When I asked, I always got the same answer, “Your appointment’s coming up.”
Christmas number four came. I felt more miserable than ever. I thought I couldn’t keep going, but I toughed it out somehow and dragged myself from day to day, week to week and month to month. Around this time, the prisoners from the neighboring isolation unit were moved elsewhere. Henceforth, I was alone in the wing.
My fourth winter was particularly trying. All day long, I had to do exercises to keep myself warm because the small radiator wasn’t sufficient to keep my drafty cell warm. During rec time, I only managed to keep my hands warm for twenty minutes. After that, I was cold and miserable. The icy metal around my wrists almost froze my hands off. All but one of the guards accepted my decision to abandon rec time over the following days. The one was my old friend Rosycheeks.
“It’s too cold out,” I said when he came with his crew to pick me up.
“Recreation time is an obligatory right,” he said through tight lips.
“What does that mean?” I said.
“It means that the inmate can insist on it but also has to avail himself of it whether he wants to or not.”
Hearing this nonsense, I scoffed and shook my head. Rec time had been canceled many times for “administrative reasons” whenever the guards didn’t feel like implementing it, and in those cases, I could insist on my “obligatory right” until I was blue in the face. “You’re talking bullshit,” I said.
“Watch your tongue!” Rosycheeks said, his cheeks getting even rosier. “I’m not arguing with you… Get your coat on and put your hands through the food slot. C’mon… Hurry up! I don’t have all day!”
I didn’t move and kept standing under the window.
After waiting for another moment, Rosycheeks realized that he couldn’t make me follow his orders. Shooting me a venomous glance, he banged the door shut, only to return with backup, among them Bobby and Rooster, a few minutes later. Rooster immediately assumed command. It seemed as if Rosycheeks had interrupted his morning break. It was the first time I saw him without a hat. He had a disheveled combover. It looked ridiculous. Under different circumstances, I would have laughed. “Carry out the guard’s order!” he yelled at me.
I glowered at the gang behind the gate and still didn’t move. From Bobby’s look, I could tell that he didn’t think much of this show. Rooster waited another moment, then turned to Rosycheeks swinging his baton: “Open the gate and get him out! If necessary with force.”
My reaction was spontaneous when Rosycheeks put the key in the hole. A second before it happened, I wasn’t even aware myself that I would be behaving like this. I leaped forward, opened the doors of my cabinet and threw its contents on the floor, then stripped the bed and threw the blanket and mattress also on the floor, doing what Rosycheeks would have done anyway while I was outside. After that, I stood under the window again and said to Rosycheeks: “Now you can come and get me asshole! I just wanted to take this job off your hands.”
“Enough already!” Rooster said turning to Rosycheeks. “Go in and put the manacles on!”
Rosycheeks executed the order. He unlocked the gate, approached me hesitantly and secured the cuffs tightly around my wrists.
“Take him to the washroom!” Rooster ordered.
They escorted me to the washroom down the corridor and locked me in.
Half an hour later, they picked me up again and made me stand face against the wall. “Spread your legs!” Rosycheeks yelled kicking me in the ankles. Then he patted me down and pushed me back into my cell. “Clean up the mess!” he said before closing the door.
I sat on my stool and stared into space—still handcuffed. If they thought I would clean up while being cuffed, they were very much mistaken! A few minutes later, the door opened again.
“Get him out!” I heard Rooster’s voice.
I didn’t look up. Two arms grabbed me—Rosycheeks again. He dragged me out of the cell and locked me to a gate. I only saw blue uniforms. The whole shift seemed to have gathered in front of my cell. After a while, I was unchained from the gate. Rosycheeks tightened the cuffs even more and pushed me back into my cell. It was entirely empty. Even the toilet paper was gone.
The day went by. Nobody came to take the cuffs off. I didn’t get a mattress or even a blanket. At 8 PM, they turned off the light. After my eyes got used to the darkness, I paced for a couple of hours—three and a half steps forward and three and a half steps back. When I was tired of pacing, I tried to sleep in a sitting position. But I felt terribly cold. The rest of the night, I spent pacing again, cursing Rooster and Rosycheeks. Not for a second, did I regret what I had done. In a way, Rosycheeks had won this battle, but it was important to me that I hadn’t taken his shit and had even stood up to him. Luckily, I had been to the toilet beforehand because it would have been a messy business without toilet paper…
The next day, I got my coffee and food at the usual times. It dawned on me what they were up to. The event happened on Friday, and they probably wanted to let me stew over the weekend. No problem! I was looking at two more hard nights, but I had coped through rougher times. On Sunday I was lucky: my bread was wrapped in tissue. There I had the paper I needed so urgently. And I managed to do it even though my hands were cuffed!
I was right. On Monday morning, Rooster stood in the doorway. He took my handcuffs off and imposed a 21–day “detention” on me, meaning my cell stayed empty, I got my bedding at 7 PM and was woken at 3 AM. I could wash up and got clean underwear. Immediately after they gave me my bedding in the evening, I fell asleep. After 72 hours of pacing and no more than five hours of nodding off while sitting down, I was in dire need of sleep.
The three weeks went by quickly. Apart from Rosycheeks’s hostile behavior when he was on duty—going to bed later and getting up earlier—just coping with the cold was hard. On the other hand, it would have been cold regardless of whether I had been in “detention” or not. When the time was up, I got my bedding, toiletries and work materials back. Rooster also informed me that a package I had requested just before the incident had arrived and asked what I needed. I listed a few items and gave him my shopping bag. When I came back from rec time the next day, the bag was on my table; in it, everything I had ordered: chewing gum, toothpaste, shaving cream and soap.
I was happy and surprised at the same time because Rooster liked to play games. Either half of the stuff I ordered was missing, or he only brought me the items after several requests and days later. But there was also something else in the bag. It was a map of the northwest of East Germany. Boizenburg, the place where Andreas and I had been arrested, was marked in red, which was weird.
I had no idea how the map had gotten into my shopping bag. I mean, it was obvious that Rooster had put it in there, but the question was why? There was no way the map could have been in the package. Apart from the newspaper, I hadn’t had anything to read and look at in quite a while, and the map was beautiful. All terms and explanations were written in English and German. I considered: Keeping the map was dangerous, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I decided to hide it for a few days and then flush it down the toilet.
Just before lights–out, I was already in bed, the door was unlocked. Chinese asked me to get up and get dressed. Such sudden searches had happened before, so I wasn’t surprised. But when they handcuffed me, I remembered the map. It was under my pillow. I was returned to my cell just a few minutes later. Unlike previous times, they hadn’t made a mess. Of course, the map was missing.
The next morning, I was taken to an office. Besides Rooster, another senior guard and a junior guard were in the room. I had to sit on a chair and answer the imbecile’s questions while the other senior guard typed everything I said. It was about the map. I explained everything as it had happened. Rooster, of course, denied having put it in the bag and accused me of slandering him. When we were finished after half an hour, I was angrier with myself than I was with Rooster. After enduring almost four years of prison, I had let myself be framed like an amateur by a guy whose deviousness was well known. If I had thrown the damn map away, I would have won this game. Stupidity deserves punishment and mine arrived promptly. Rooster came the same afternoon imposing a 21–day detention on me for possession of unlawful material and illegal contact—I had gotten the map from another prisoner according to him—and insulting a senior guard. He also announced that he would tighten security. I couldn’t imagine how security could be increased any further.
Just ten days had gone by since my last detention, and again everything was taken out of my cell—another 21 monotonous, long days and short nights. The worst thing about it was that my parents’ visitation fell during this time. It lasted only 15 minutes, and my parents had to take everything they brought for me back home again.
During this difficult period, something changed in me: I put up with the harassment of the guards, the solitary and my lot in general. I became weak. I had no energy left to fight all these injustices. There had been a time when I believed in justice. Now, the only thing I believed in was the inherent evil of man. I even went so far as to curse my mother. Why did she allow me to suffer like this? Why didn’t she do something to help me if she really loved me? Soon, however, I realized in my self–pity I was looking for blame. What could she do? How could I even know that she hadn’t already taken every possible step to help me?
After serving my 21 days, I learned what Rooster meant by “tightening of security.” Henceforth, I had to face the wall with arms raised and legs spread after rec time so the guards could pat me down, which was particularly enjoyable for Rosycheeks because he loved kicking me in the ankles.
My drab existence plodded along. I pushed ring washers on bolts from morning until night, never earning more than 20 marks, and exercised before I went to bed. My outlook got worse and worse. I felt like a wreck physically and psychologically. There was a terrible pain in my eyes. What had I done to deserve this? I asked myself if the guards felt sorry for me being in this tiny, dank cell all day long, year in year out. The answer to this question, I could tell from their ice–cold, merciless stares that said: “We hate you! It’s our most fervent wish that you perish!” Every morning when the light went on, I hated myself for still being alive hearing Meckert’s terrible, gentle voice: “I demand a life sentence…”
I had always considered myself to be a hard man, but in reality, I wasn’t tough at all. There was no way I could survive this. The game was up. The communists had won and shown me how insignificant I truly was. They had me right where they wanted me. I was done! Nevertheless, I got up listlessly and dragged myself from one day to the next. I don’t know how, but time passed: spring, summer, fall and winter—it was my fifth year in Bautzen II.
There were the continuous provocations from the guards, but my feelings had been numbed, and I no longer reacted to every little injustice. However, once during this dismal time, something happened that made me laugh if only for a moment:
It was one of Italian’s habits to take my order for the commissary and bring the commodities a few days later. One morning, I gave him my bag asking to get the shopping done by midday. At mealtime, Italian told me as usual that my shopping bag “wasn’t ready yet.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m not eating before my shopping bag is here. You can take the food tray with you again.”
Italian looked at me indecisively holding the soup bowl in his hand. “Do you wanna blackmail me with a hunger strike?”
“I want my fucking shopping bag! That’s all,” I said.
“But that’s not my fault!” Italian said. “It’s the vendor’s.” Then he shrugged. “And besides, it doesn’t really matter when you get the stuff, does it?”
“OK,” I said even more resolved not to give in. “So that’s the way you see it? Does it matter to you when you get your stuff when you go shopping?”
“That’s hardly the same thing,” Italian said, then hesitated with a confused expression and added: “If you wanna go on hunger strike, go ahead! I don’t care if you eat.” He put the food tray on the floor between the gate and the door and disappeared. But he returned a few minutes later. “Listen,” he said. “I’m trying to sort this out, but don’t think I’m susceptible to blackmail… Are you going to eat now?” He stood there like a little boy.
My anger dissipated when I saw him like this. “Not until I have my shopping bag,” I said trying hard to keep a straight face. “How am I supposed to know you’re not screwing me over?”
“I won’t screw you over,” Italian said and added with a pleading undertone: “I promise.”
“All right, give me the tray then,” I said.
I have no idea why Italian was scared of me going on hunger strike. Maybe he just wanted to avoid the extra work it would cause when he had to explain the whole thing to Rooster. For whatever reason, he kept his word and returned 15 minutes later handing me my shopping bag reiterating that he wasn’t susceptible to extortion.
While lying in my bed in the evening, I had a good laugh about it. My humor soon faded, though, when I reflected on the gravity of my situation. I surely wasn’t in a position to laugh about anyone or anything.
It was my fifth year of solitary, and my emotional state was steadily getting worse. I didn’t understand the meaning of all this. Why was I separated from the other prisoners? Was I really so dangerous?
One day, I had another fit of rage against the indignities I had to suffer. Every fiber of my being protested against this injustice, and I decided to ask for a meeting with the prosecutor. I let Rooster know that I wanted to talk to him.
“Well,” Rooster said when he came after repeated requests, a few days later, “of course, every inmate has the right to talk to the prosecutor, even you. I’ll put your name down, but I’m not sure if this is going to help you.” The sarcastic undertone in his voice was unmistakable.
I didn’t expect anything would happen, but it was important that I tried.
I noticed that I had definitely become nearsighted. I never thought I would ever have to wear glasses, but it seemed unavoidable. I didn’t really have a problem with it because many people wear glasses, but one thing was sure now: if by some miracle I got released in the near future, I wouldn’t be joining the Foreign Legion.
Sometimes, the pain in my eyes was intolerable, and I was scared of what could happen if I didn’t get to see an optometrist soon. One and a half years had gone by since my first request. I had asked at least once a month, but they kept giving me excuses. I couldn’t take it any longer. Something needed to be done about it immediately. I decided to give it one last shot and asked to speak to Rooster. When he came a few days later, I asked him why I hadn’t been taken to the optometrist. Rooster pretended to know nothing about it, saying this was a matter for the medical center, but he would “look into it.”
I waited a few days again but didn’t hear from the medical center. So I stopped working and decided to use a hunger strike as leverage. Two days later, Rooster came with the news that I had an appointment with the optometrist the following Saturday. I began to work and eat again but stayed skeptical because I didn’t trust him any more than I liked him. Surprisingly, this time, he had been truthful: Saturday morning, they took me under heavy guard to the medical center. It was the first time in all the years that I was taken on this route. I climbed a few staircases and had the chance to take a brief look into the penitentiary. I could see up to the fourth floor. It seemed huge. There was one cell door after another. But these were just snapshots. My nearsightedness stopped me from being able to make out details. Apart from this, the guards kept such a close eye on me that I couldn’t look around.
I passed the waiting room and walked into the treatment room. The optometrist was sitting behind a desk. He gave me a friendly “good morning” and pointed at the chair beside him after I reported. The guards were spread out evenly in the room. There were two more in the waiting room.
I explained my problem. He examined my eyes and gave me a vision test. I had a diopter value of minus 1.9 which was according to the doctor nothing to worry about. He was very friendly. Nobody had treated me with kindness in years. It made me feel warm all over, and my incessant hatred briefly vanished. When I asked him why he had never sent for me, the doctor said he gets a list with the names of the prisoners who have appointments. My name had never been on this list. I held my anger in check. They had even denied me the right to see a doctor for one and a half years. It figured!
The doctor prescribed eye drops for the pain and said that my glasses should be ready in two weeks. He gave me a few tips on how to protect my eyes, and we said goodbye. I was happy to have talked to a nice person again after such a long time.
Two weeks later, I got my glasses. They were in the cheapest possible frame, but I didn’t care. They did my eyes good, and that was all that mattered. I could see clearly again, and I no longer had the terrible strain in my eyes.
What remained was the meeting with the prosecutor. A few months had gone by since Rooster allegedly had made the appointment. When I broached the subject again, he moodily said that I wasn’t the only inmate and should kindly wait my turn.
Another summer. I racked my brains thinking about what else I could do because I didn’t want to spend a sixth year in solitary. There was another visitation coming up. Maybe I could ask my parents for help? They could go to the authorities and request that my solitary confinement be terminated. It was a good idea, but it was tricky because I wasn’t allowed to talk about the conditions of my custody. What if I disobeyed this rule?—They would abort the visitation, of course, plus I wouldn’t get anything my parents had brought for me. But I could do without the presents. This sacrifice wasn’t too big. To prevent the premature termination of the visitation, I would say everything I needed to say at the very end. Rooster would raise hell and put me in detention again, but better two weeks of detention than another year of solitary. I couldn’t take it anymore and was determined to carry out my plan during the subsequent visitation.
I had totally given up on the prosecutor when one afternoon, my cell door opened, and a civilian stood in the doorway. Seeing the gray suit, I immediately thought of the Stasi.
“Is it not custom to report here?” the man said sharply.
“Custody room one thirty–two occupied by inmate Schneider. Nothing to report,” I rattled off.
He introduced himself as the prosecutor and rambled on for five minutes explaining that my custody was in full accord with the respective laws of the German Democratic Republic. I wanted to interrupt him, but he didn’t give me a chance to say a word quoting a couple of articles saying that “administrative segregation in connection with tight security measures can be applied in special cases for an indefinite period of time.” He ended his speech with the following statement: “It’s not possible yet to abolish the administrative segregation and special security measures because something inside you has hardened. That’s it, or do you have any questions?… No? All right then The door slammed shut.
I would have thought it was a dream except for the lingering aroma of aftershave in my cell. Everything had happened so fast. I hadn’t had a chance to come up with a single argument. This guy had talked me into the ground.
So something in me had “hardened.” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out what the dude had been referring to. I was so angry that I decided to go on hunger strike. It was a spontaneous decision without any prospects of success. Again, I was angry with the whole world. I did not care about my parents’ visit three days later; that they would come in vain; that I wouldn’t be able to tell them anything about my conditions and therefore couldn’t expect to get any help from them.
I refused to take my food at mealtime, telling the guard that I wouldn’t eat as long as I was in solitary. Strangely enough, none of the senior guards showed up to ask what was going on. Nevertheless, it was the same drill as usual: no newspaper and no recreation yard. However, this time, I didn’t care because my anger was stronger than everything else. Now, something had hardened in me.
I was a hundred percent convinced that they would cancel my visitation because of the hunger strike. All the more surprised I was when my door was unlocked, and Bobby appeared on that day. Ignoring the fact that I didn’t report, he looked at me with a friendly expression. “Ready for your visitation, inmate Schneider?”
I hesitated for a moment but then approached the gate and stuck my hands through the food slot to get handcuffed. So I would have the chance to put my original plan into action! Apart from the fact that I was being picked up at all, I found it strange that Bobby did it instead of Rooster. But I was sure the idiot was waiting in the visitation room. He wasn’t there, though.
The next surprise was Bobby sending the guards away and taking my handcuffs off. “I hope I don’t live to regret this,” he said.
Suddenly, all anger I had felt over the last days was gone. Good old Bobby! I felt like kissing him. “You won’t, lieutenant,” I said feeling a little guilty now because I was going to repay him for his friendliness with breaking the visitation rules.
My parents looked concerned when I entered the room. “You must eat, Andy!” my mother said.
I shot Bobby a surprised look whereupon he nodded.
“The officer said we have to take all the presents back home again because you’re not eating,” my mother said. “Why are you doing this?”
I considered a moment and then couldn’t help but blurt it out: “Because I’m in solitary confinement.” I swallowed hard being dead sure Bobby would terminate the visitation immediately. But nothing of the kind happened.
“Sol–solitary confinement?” my mother stammered in disbelief looking at Bobby, who confirmed with a nod that I was telling the truth. Then she turned to me again: “But… why?”
I still couldn’t believe that Bobby hadn’t exploded and hesitated to say more because I didn’t want to push my luck. But the surprises didn’t seem to end on that day. Now Bobby started to talk:
“Your son’s been in um… administrative segregation for the last five years. Of course, it can’t go on like this forever. At some point, things need to be changed.”
My mother’s face crumpled into a tearful expression. My father took her hand and tried to console her.
“I advise you to turn to the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” Bobby said.
“But why is he in solitary confinement?” my mother said between sobs. “Has he done something?”
“It has to do with the nature of his crime,” Bobby said.
My mother got out a handkerchief and blew her nose. Then she took a deep breath to calm herself. “Now you have to suffer so much for killing this policeman,” she said fighting the tears again.
“What are you talking about,” I said. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
Bobby nodded in confirmation.
“But they…” My mother stopped in mid–sentence; looked first at Bobby and then at me as if she couldn’t believe her ears. “You’re not a murderer then?”
“Hell no!” I said.
While Bobby nodded again, I could tell that this news took a load off my parents’ mind even though I didn’t quite understand why they had thought I killed the cop in the first place.
“I’m so happy, Andy,” my mother said with tears in her eyes. “I’m going to write a letter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs as soon as we get home.”
There was nothing else for me to say. Bobby had done the job for me.
When I was back in my cell, I had to digest all this. One of them had helped me! Was that fate? I started to feel better immediately. My mood improved dramatically, and my belief that my parents would obtain an end to this intolerable solitary confinement was resolute.
It was a day in October 1986. Rooster came in the morning with a junior guard. He was apparently in a bad mood. “Come!” he ordered. “I need you to report now according to the book. And don’t cause me any trouble again!” He led me into the office wing repeating his admonitions as he pushed the button beside an office door. After a few seconds, the door opened, and the three of us entered. There was a young–looking senior guard with the insignia of a colonel sitting behind a desk.
“Inmate Schneider reporting! Good morning Colonel!” I said.
“Good morning, inmate Schneider!” he said with a smile and pointed at the chair across from him on the other side of his desk. “Please, have a seat!”
The man looked at my handcuffs; then he turned to Rooster. “Take the manacles off!”
“Yes sir!” Rooster said and hurriedly executed the order. His behavior toward the colonel was as a subordinate. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the man behind the desk could only be the warden. After I was rid of the handcuffs, he began to speak as if he were repeating the following from memory:
“I’m informing you that your parents’ request with the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the suspension of your administrative segregation has been granted. You will be moved into another unit and integrated into a small commando immediately after this meeting. I’m emphasizing that this is a trial on our part. The old conditions will be re–established immediately if your conduct is not up to our expectations…”
It was hard for me to contain my emotions. I cleared my throat a few times and batted my eyes to stop the tears from running. For so long, I had been waiting for this moment. The colonel kept talking cautioning me about the consequences of infractions of institution rules. I had already stopped listening. I simply let the good news sink in instead. My heart pounded. I did it! The damn solitary was over!
“Are there any questions from your side, inmate Schneider?”
I could tell from the colonel’s tone that he was asking for the second time. I thought briefly and said: “What about the cuffs. Am I rid of them too?”
“They’re not called cuffs, but manacles,” Rooster corrected me looking apologetically over at the colonel.
“This rule will last for the time being,” the colonel said. After thinking for a moment, he added: “Of course, you won’t be wearing them in your new housing unit but during all movements within the house such as recreation and visitation time, doctor’s appointments and so on.”
After I signed a form, Rooster took me back to my cell. I could tell from the expression on his face how much all this displeased him. “Clean your custody room and pack your bags,” he said. “You’ll be moved after mealtime.”
I cleaned up my cell and packed my few belongings in a blanket. The time couldn’t go by fast enough. My thoughts raced. Mealtime!—But then another wait. I was fidgety and couldn’t sit still. Damn it! Why did this take so long? I paced.
At last! Commotion in the corridor: voices, jingling keys, unlocking. Rooster stood in the doorway. “Here we go! I got you a helper, inmate Schneider,” he said. His bad mood had gone. I couldn’t believe it. Rooster had called me by my name for the first time.
He turned around and beckoned. “Come on!… Come on, inmate!”
A tall guy with glasses entered my cell. “My name’s Michael,” he said offering me his hand.
I told him my name and we shook.
“What do you want me to take?” he said.
I didn’t need a helper, but I didn’t want to offend Rooster, so I said: “Just take the stuff that’s in the blanket. I’ll take the mattress and the bedding.” I took one last look at my old home, and then I stepped out of it. Nobody handcuffed me. Rooster was definitely in a good mood!
Michael led the way. We climbed one staircase to a wing labeled “isolation unit,” passed through a corridor and entered a unit that was separated again by a door and a gate. Rooster pointed to a cell. “This is you.” Then he gestured at Michael. “This inmate here will fill you in on the rest. He’s the brigadier.” After that, he and the guards left.
The first thing Michael did was going to a cell and unbolt the door. “You can come out, Mario,” he said.
A young man appeared. He stood indecisively in front of his door staring at me.
“He’s the new one. His name is uh… Andre,” Michael said.
I waved my hand to Mario, who seemed to be very timid. Then I looked around. There were three cells in this housing unit. I had the one in the middle. I spotted a TV on a cabinet in the corner. Music was playing in the background. It came from loudspeakers in the cells. The room I was standing in seemed to be a recreation area and workshop in one. A workbench was cluttered with work material and tools. I noticed a camera above the gate. The long window was made of frosted glass, so there was no way of looking through it. We looked at each other for a while; then Michael broke the silence: “What are you in for?”
“Terror,” I said. “Broke out of a holding center and took hostages.”
“What’s your sentence?”
“Life,” I said.
“How long have you been here?”
“I got thirteen years for attempted murder and rape,” Michael said.
I swallowed. “Uh–huh.” Then I turned to the other guy, who hadn’t said a word yet: “And what’s your story?”
“I’m in for murder,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“Life?” I said.
“Well, I guess I’m gonna whip my den into shape. We can talk later,” I said and stepped into my new home where I was confronted by a foul stench. I screwed up my nose and got to work.
After a while, Michael entered my cell. Watching me cleaning, he said: “That’s all Mario’s filth. He had to vacate this cell for you.”
When I was done with the cleaning, I went outside again. While Michael was quite loquacious, Mario didn’t say a word. Both of them had been in for two and a half years. They were in their mid–twenties as was I and also non–smokers. After a while, Michael turned the TV on. There was a music show on. Moving pictures again after five years! It was beautiful.
Later, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying that TV was allowed on both channels till 9:30 PM. An old German movie starring Hans Moser and Theo Lingen was on at 8 PM. I never thought much of these comedies before my time in prison, but after five years of abstinence, I found the movie great.
Rosycheeks, who was doing the evening shift on that day, came with a lot of backup for lights–out. He opened the door to our housing unit ordering me to go into my cell. After Michael bolted my door, Rosycheeks entered the unit with his men to lock our cells.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night. There were so many new impressions I had to digest. Even though I was relieved that the hard time of solitary was over, I would have preferred to be in a unit with more people. These two guys were weird. Michael, with his intrusive and unpleasant manner, was the kind of guy I would never have had anything to do with under normal circumstances. He was constantly trying to find something out, and his crime didn’t make him more amiable either. I couldn’t judge Mario yet. He—a slim person of medium height with dark blonde, curly hair—came from Berlin like Michael. He said he was in for murder. Maybe he had killed someone unintentionally? I didn’t want to make a judgment before I knew more. After all, I was also sentenced for attempted murder even though I had never tried to kill anyone. Why shouldn’t it be the same with him?—Anyway, I had accomplished my goal. I was together with human beings again. Getting along with them no matter the circumstances was in my own best interest. I could watch TV, listen to the radio and borrow books… I had always been a great music fan. How many new, beautiful songs had I missed? I had a lot to catch up on.
Our cells were unlocked at 5:30 in the morning. I was totally exhausted, but the music coming through the loudspeaker rejuvenated me. Although Mario and Michael’ cells were opened, the guard just unlocked my door. He didn’t push the bolts back meaning “Brigadier” Michael did that job after the guard left. Half an hour later was count. After that, we started to work. Michael instructed me. We assembled relays, which was a relatively easy job. The only thing you needed was dexterity, and that came gradually with practice. We had to fit four pins and one regulator into the plastic casings. Our tools were two screwdrivers and a device for pushing in the pins and regulators. Once you learned the ropes, it was easy to achieve one’s quota. Michael was spinning the screwdrivers around as if he had done it his entire life. Around 9 AM, the material transport took place. Michael locked me in for this. He and Mario carried the finished pieces outside and brought the boxes with the new material inside. The transport workers did the rest after our housing unit was locked again. When the meal buckets came, I was also locked in. Michael and Mario went out and got them.
During my first days on II/West, Michael was cracking jokes nonstop. I almost died from laughing at his gestures and facial expressions. He definitely had a talent for humor and should have become a comedian instead of a rapist. When he was telling his jokes, I kept thinking how happy I was. For the first time in ages, I could freely laugh again. I was still in prison and had a life sentence, but compared to solitary confinement this was paradise. I talked a lot with Michael even though his insatiable curiosity got on my nerves sometimes. Mario enjoyed listening to our conversations but rarely took part in them.
Rec time was around 2 PM. The procedure was the same as before in solitary: I put my hands through the food slot and was handcuffed. Then I had to step back behind a white line, and the gate was opened. When we filed down to the rec yard—the same one I had been using the previous five years—there was a guard at every corner. However one thing had changed: I was allowed to walk in a circle and to do exercises. Being handcuffed didn’t stop me from running and doing gymnastics.
There were no fixed working hours. We started directly after count in the morning and stopped as soon as we achieved our quota which was usually about when they took us out for rec time. Afterward, we each attended to our own business. I would sit with Michael in front of the TV while Mario went on working until late because of his lack of productivity during the first half of the day. He would have his breakfast for a solid hour and after that sit on his toilet for another hour stinking up the entire unit. After lunch, he would allow himself another long break. We weren’t supposed to turn the TV on before 4 PM, but Michael said the guards didn’t care if we did as long as there was no trouble. Crime movies weren’t allowed because they weren’t “educational.”
Michael and I also worked out together. He was extremely competitive, and one day he challenged me to a contest. The point was to find out who could do more push–ups, sit–ups, bodyweight squats and bicep curls. Mario was to be the ref. I took the challenge and was the one to begin.
The following Sunday, Mario came to my cell, counted and wrote everything down. Then he went to Michael’s to monitor him. When they were done, we met in the recreation area for the victory ceremony. Mario stood between us, holding our hands like after a boxing match. I was dead sure he would raise my arm but was very much mistaken. I had clearly underestimated Michael. He had given everything, while I stopped after a certain number of sit–ups and squats being sure he wasn’t able to match my performance. Since he kind of admired my physical abilities, he was as proud as punch to have beaten me. When Mario raised his arm, he broke free and jumped for joy all over the place. Even though I was a little disappointed, I was a fair loser and congratulated him on his victory. He didn’t have a prayer at the rematch though because this time, I took it seriously.
I settled in quickly and before I knew it, Christmas was just around the corner. My mother sent me a package. As usual, almost its entire contents were from my Oma in West Germany. This was the first time a complete package was given to me. While Rooster handed it over, it occurred to me that there were still articles from former packages in his office such as chewing gum, tea, aftershave and so on. “Can you bring me all the other things that are still in your office?” I said.
“I don’t have anything that belongs to you in my office,” Rooster said.
“Maybe not in your office,” I said. “But you still have a lot of stuff from my former packages.”
Rooster glowered at me. “Are you accusing me of theft?… I place no value on capitalist, western stuff!” Then he stomped off angrily.
Being an authentic Easterner and not having any relatives in the West, Michael was mesmerized while watching me unpack. He proposed that we give Christmas presents to each other hoping he would get face cream from me. I agreed to his proposal and told him I was going to give Mario a tube of toothpaste. He advised me against this and said he would explain everything to me when Mario was away for his visitation time, predicting I would be left speechless.
When Rooster came to pick up Mario for his visitation, he called me to the gate and gave me a box with chewing gum, tea, aftershave and so on. His face turned red, and in exasperation, he puffed himself up. “Are you satisfied?!”
I had a hard time stifling a snicker.
Directly after Mario left, Michael came into my cell with two mugs of freshly brewed coffee. I sat on my bed. He seated himself on the stool. “At last, we’re alone. That guy eavesdrops too much,” he said pointing his finger in the direction of Mario’s cell. “Do you know what he’s in for?”
I glanced at him in surprise. “Um… for murder. Isn’t that what he said?”
“That’s right,” Michael said. “But I also guess that’s a little understated.” He paused to test the impact of his words.
I shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“He’s in for double murder,” Michael said. “This guy killed two children.”
I swallowed. “What did he do?”
Michael repeated what he had said.
I shook my head in disbelief, but on second consideration my thoughts turned skeptical. “How do you know? Did he tell you?”
Michael hesitated, then said: “No, not directly… I just know it.” It seemed he wanted to tell me something but didn’t know how to begin. “We’ve known each other for a few weeks now, and I think you’re an OK guy.” He stopped and thought about how to continue.
I didn’t have a clue what he was driving at. It was an uncomfortable situation. Was he gay and going to tell me that he had the hots for me? If so, we should get it over with. I took a deep breath and said: “Stop stalling. If you have something to tell me, just spit it out.”
“All right,” he said with his eyes downcast. “I’ve been… with the Stasi.”
I almost dropped the coffee mug.
“I know everything about your case,” Michael said. “There was a special meeting in our house a few days after you guys broke out. What you did made massive waves. It had never happened before in the GDR, and new security standards for all prisons were established to prevent something like that from happening again. A day before you came here, the Stasi contact sent for me. He—”
I interrupted: “An old man with a bald head?”
“Um… yeah,” Michael said.
I gestured to him to go on, which he did:
“He ordered me to write weekly reports about you and to inform the guards immediately if you mentioned even the slightest ideas about breaking out.” Michael reached for his coffee. Sipping it, he looked at me over the rim of his mug expecting me to say something. “What do you think of me now?” he said when I didn’t.
I thought he was a goddamn asshole, but I said: “I think you’re an OK guy. You’re no longer with the Stasi, right? So why should I have anything against you?”
Happy about the compliment and encouraged by my feigned sympathy, he started to rant: “These pigs destroyed my life, but what goes around comes around!”
“Who are you talking about?” I said.
An expression of disgust crossed over Michael’s face. “My former comrades who I thought were my friends. But as soon as I was in trouble, they turned their backs on me. These bastards!” The mere thought of his ex–colleagues seemed to make him sore. It took him a moment to calm down again.
“Tell me,” I said. “What exactly does a Stasi agent do? Is it exciting to be one?”
“It can be,” Michael said. “Especially when you’re on operational duty.”
“Security at big events, spying on people in bars and discos; harassing those who applied for an exit visa. Stuff like this.”
“After my second escape attempt, I had a feeling of being watched and followed,” I said. “There was this guy. I hadn’t seen him in years, and suddenly I met him everywhere.”
Michael nodded. “Sounds familiar. I’m sure he was one of us. That’s standard procedure. He was set on you in case you tried to escape again.”
“For how long were you doing this?” I said.
“For about two years. Then I was transferred to the holding center in Hohenschoenhausen. There, I worked for three years. When my wife got pregnant, my father–in–law got me the job in the holding center in Potsdam.”
“Is your whole family Stasi?” I said.
Michael shook his head. “Only my wife’s family. My ex–father–in–law is a bigshot. He knows Mielke personally. I met the old man too.”
“What’s he like?” I said.
“He’s one of the old school,” Michael said. “You know that he killed two policemen in 1931 and then fled to the Soviet Union?”
I shook my head.
“He made short work back in the days,” Michael said. “I bet if it had been up to him, you and your buddies wouldn’t be alive anymore.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. We sipped our coffees.
“Why did your father–in–law transfer you to Potsdam?” I went on.
“It was more convenient for me,” Michael said. “Working there saved me the long trip to Hohenschoenhausen every day. The idea behind it was that I could spend more time with my wife, who was pregnant at the time. But that was a total nuisance.”
“Why is that?”
The same disgusted expression he had when he was mentioning his former colleagues flashed over his face. “The bitch refused to have sex with me from day one of her pregnancy. It’s safe to say that she drove me to do what I did… I mean, a man has his needs.”
“What exactly happened?” I said.
He thought for a moment as if to reconsider if it was wise to confess. Then he said: “I also dealt with female inmates at the holding center in Potsdam. Since I couldn’t have sex with my wife anymore, I took a peek at them from time to time when they were washing up or using the toilet. I think it’s only natural for a man.”
“Through the peephole?” I said.
He nodded. “When you’re totally quiet, the inmate doesn’t notice. Of course, you can’t jerk off right there, but I kept the pictures in mind and did it later on the toilet.
I kept a straight face and didn’t show what I was thinking.
“One day, this woman was transferred to my cellblock,” he continued. “She was in her late twenties—incredible figure, beautiful tits, long dark hair, Mediterranean type. Something else for a change.” He grinned. “What do you prefer: blonde or brunette?”
“Oookay,” he said and slugged my arm. “Redheads are hot too. But honestly, I don’t care as long as they have huge tits… Anyway, looking at this bitch makes you all horny, and then you come home only to be rejected by your wife! Isn’t that terrible?”
“It is,” I said. “What was she in for?”
He shrugged. “Beats me. They wouldn’t tell us. I guess it was the usual: either espionage or aiding someone to escape.” He stared off and smiled, lost in memory. “She wasn’t like the others. This bitch was playing with me. She knew for sure I was spying on her. Sometimes I had a good mind to unlock the door and give it to her… It went on for a few weeks. One night, she put on a real show for me and played with herself making me jerk off right in front of the cell door. I was about to come when one of my colleagues interrupted me.”
My smirking made him think I thought he was a great guy. It’s incredible how much you can get out of a person when they believe you sympathize with them.
“She made me so horny I couldn’t think straight anymore,” he went on. “I kinda had a permanent erection the whole night. If my wife hadn’t been such a selfish bitch, I would have gone home in the morning and vented on her. I mean, that’s what marriage is for, right?”
“Uh–huh.” I nodded. “What did you do instead?”
“I took the S–Bahn into Berlin right after my shift was over. At Ostbahnhof, I got out and bought a bottle of Goldbrand to get myself Dutch courage.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Then he sipped his coffee again and scrutinized me.
I shrugged. “You don’t have to tell me. I mean… you started the whole thing.”
“No, no. It’s OK,” he said. “I’m gonna tell you. I’m not proud of it, but I did it. Guess when you deal with criminals every day, it rubs off on you eventually.” After another pause in which he seemed to collect himself, he inhaled sharply and released the air slowly and then told me the story: “I went on the train again and got off somewhere in the northern part of the city. I walked the streets aimlessly. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but at some point, the alcohol made me overcome my inhibitions. After I took the last swig from the bottle, I walked toward a house entrance and browsed through the nameplates. ‘Barnowski’ attracted my attention. Chicks with Polish surnames are usually good–looking, so I climbed up to the third floor and rang the doorbell. But guess who opened up?”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”
“An old man!” he said and went on laughing: “‘Fuck!’ I thought. I told him I had rung the wrong bell and got the hell out of there. I moved on and pushed another doorbell. This time, an older woman opened up. I hesitated but then walked on. I mean, I was desperate for sex, but not so desperate! I could always come back if I didn’t find anything better.”
I thought that he was a fucking asshole while we were laughing together.
“So I went on and pushed a few more doorbells, but nobody answered,” he said.
“I guess most people were at work,” I said.
He nodded. “You got it. But eventually, I was lucky.” He fanned his hand in front of his nose: “I could smell the odor of her shampoo. Her hair was still wet. She must have just gotten out of the shower.—Exactly what I’d been looking for.”
“Patience pays off!” I said. “What did she look like?”
“Just awesome,” he said. “Blonde, maybe in her mid–thirties?” He drew enormous curves in the air. “And huge tits. I could see her stiff nipples through the fabric of her dressing gown.”
“So I say: ‘Good morning! I’m with the DEFA. We’re planning to shoot a movie around here. But first, we need to find the best camera angle. In order to do that, we’re taking a look at different apartments in the neighborhood.’”
“She didn’t buy that, did she?” I said.
“You bet,” he said and went on imitating her voice: “‘I gotta leave for work.’ But then she looks at her watch and says: ‘But I guess I can give you a minute.’ She smiles and invites me in. ‘It’s not very tidy, though.’—‘Not a problem!’ I say and enter.”
“How did you come up with that DEFA idea in the first place. That was brilliant!”
“Well,” he said. “They teach you how to handle situations like this. It was part of my training… So I pretend to check the ‘camera angle,’” he said making air quotes, “but in reality, I’m inspecting the apartment. She follows me with a coffee cup in her hand. There was a king–size bed in the bedroom—unmade. Two people had slept in it. She says: ‘So, how’s the camera angle?’, and I say: ‘Pretty good as far as I can tell. Where’s the bathroom?’—‘This way!’ she says, indicating the direction. The bathroom was empty, the shower cabin still foggy. Bingo! She was definitely alone in the apartment.” He paused to sip his coffee. Then he looked at his watch.
“What’s the time?” I said.
He gave me a dismissive wave. “We have another half hour before he comes back.
“So what did you do?” I said.
“I was debating if I should take her right away or try it the soft way first?” he said. “Then she gets talkative: ‘So you’re a movie director blah blah blah?’ That’s when I decide to try it the soft way first. I tell her we’re gonna make an Emergency 110.—‘With murder and everything?’ she says.—I nodded and told her I could tell her more over a cup of coffee. She looked at her watch again. She was interested, but she also had to leave for work. Finally, her curiosity got the better of her, and she asked me to follow her into the kitchen, which I did. She poured me a cup of coffee; then we sat at the kitchen table kitty–corner to each other, chatting. She had it coming. I mean, what woman lets a stranger into her apartment just like that? You should have seen the way she held her coffee mug with both hands. She had beautiful hands—red nail polish. I love that! She worked as a waitress in a hotel. That, I learned at the trial later… ‘Who stars?’ she asks giving me a curious look with her blue eyes. ‘Peter Borgelt,’ I say feeling my cock grow. ‘That’s clear,’ she says. ‘But who’s the bad guy?’—When I tell her it’s Fred Delmare, she says: ‘Really? Can’t imagine him as a baddy. What does he do?’ Then she purses her lips and hooks her hair behind her ears. Damn! She looked so incredibly hot. She was definitely flirting with me.”
I nodded. “I know the type.”
Feeling reassured, he went on: “So I make something up; tell her it’s a relationship drama. His wife is having an affair. He kills his rival blah blah blah. I can hardly control myself anymore, and she keeps asking me questions about that fucking movie: ‘So it’s a crime of passion?’”
He looked me in the eyes. “You know the word ‘passion,’ right?”
“Um… yes?” I said, not quite getting his point.
“She didn’t say it the way you and I would say it,” he said. “She kinda breathed the word and gave me a provocative look… I mean, wouldn’t you see that as an invitation?”
I scoffed. “Everybody would!”
He nodded and swallowed. “So I say to myself, it’s now or never, and put my hand on her hand. ‘I guess you’re married. Have you ever two–timed?’ She pulls her hand back and suddenly acts weird. All friendliness disappears from her face. ‘Are you off your head?! You aren’t with the DEFA!’ and stuff like that. I considered it some kind of game like she was playing hard to get. I get up, stand over her and move a hand into her cleavage. I say: ‘Don’t make such a fuss. I just wanna have some fun. You’ll like it.’ She jumps to her feet, pushes me away and heads for the apartment door. I rush after her and block her way.”
“When did you notice it wasn’t a game for her?”
“When she started yelling,” he said. “‘Get out of here! Now!’ But I had already reached the point of no return. The way she looked now made me even hotter: Her pale face had turned red and her big boobs were heaving. She says, ‘My husband’s around!’ But I knew it wasn’t true. I had checked everywhere. Nice try, though. I grab her and kiss her. But this bitch fights me tooth and nail screaming her husband’s name. When she didn’t stop, I punched her in the face, and she went down whimpering.” He stopped.
“What?” I said.
“You sure you wanna hear the rest?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, she wasn’t totally innocent, making you hot like that.”
“That’s what I’m saying, man!… You understand me.” He grinned and went on with his story: “I opened my fly and got my cock out. But,” he sighed, “it wasn’t good for anything, just a wobbly piece of flesh. I lie on her and thrust to excite myself. It doesn’t really work, though. Then I rip the dressing gown open to suck her nipples, but I’m too fucking nervous to get a hard–on. The bitch keeps thrashing around, screaming her husband’s name. So I hit her again. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to.I don’t know if it was the alcohol, but I was determined to pull this one through. I pressed her head on the floor with one hand; with the other hand, I pushed back her hair from her face and kissed her. I tell her I love her and really try to be nice, but she just screams and tosses and turns and my cock just won’t get stiff.”
“Must have been the anxiety,” I said.
“You got it,” he said. “So I’m giving it one more shot: I straddle on her chest and try to push my cock into her mouth. But she presses her lips together and turns her head away. And you know what she does then?”
“She um… gives you a blowjob?”
“No!” he said. “That would have been nice… She laughed!”
“No shit!” I said.
He nodded with a disgusted expression. “She laughed,” he repeated. “It was a tearful laugh, alright, but a laught. She called me ‘limp–dick!’ and screamed again her husband’s name. That was when I realized it wouldn’t work with her. I knocked her unconscious and went to the kitchen to get a knife.”
“Stop!” I said. “What for?”
He swallowed and gave me that look like: “Do I really need to explain that to you?” He did it anyway: “She had seen my face. She had heard my voice. She would have been able to recognize me.” He shrugged an apology. “I couldn’t let her live… I mean, it wasn’t my fault, was it? She wanted it that way. She only had to play along, but no, the bitch scratched and bit and… and laughed at me! She brought this on herself!”
He sat up straight and folded his arms, then stared off like a sulking child.
“What happened next?” I said.
“As I said, I rifled through the drawers in the kitchen. Couldn’t find a single proper knife in this fucking home! So I had to make do with a bread knife. In the meantime, she regained consciousness. She whimpered when I bent over her. It was like I was watching myself. I stabbed her till the blade broke. Then I threw the knife away. There was blood everywhere. At some point, the apartment door opened. Someone dragged me away from the woman. I didn’t fight back. He was the husband and the superintendent of the building. He had heard her screams.”
“They only sentenced you for attempted murder,” I said. “That means she survived?”
He nodded. “But she’s handicapped…” He shook his head pensively. “Still, 13 years is way too much. I mean, I had already changed my mind when the husband entered the apartment. I didn’t want to kill her anymore. After the blade broke, I didn’t get another knife from the kitchen, did I?”
“You didn’t,” I said.
“See? That’s why my sentence is totally unfair,” he said. “Of course, I have to take responsibility for the attempted rape. But they can’t pin an attempted murder on me when I gave up my original plan to kill her before the husband intervened, can they? It was aggravated assault.”
“Your sentence is too harsh,” I said thinking the exact opposite. What struck me was that he had no feelings of guilt at all. His perception of women was totally messed up. How was this possible? Was there a wire in his brain not properly connected? If I had disliked him before, now I found him revolting. However, I didn’t show what I was thinking. As repulsive as I found him, I needed a fight with him like I needed a hole in my head.
“They put me in the holding center in Hohenschoenhausen,” he said. “A lot of my former colleagues were still working there.”
“That must have been awful,” I said hardly able to conceal my schadenfreude.
“There was one guy I had helped to renovate his apartment,” he said. “Now he pretended not to know me. They all did. But these dirty pigs will pay one day!”
“You must know a few guys in this prison here when you used to work in a Stasi holding center?” I said.
“Not just a few,” he said. “A whole bunch of them.—Why do you think I’m in an isolation unit?” He set down his coffee mug and checked the time. Then he got up and motioned for me to follow him. “Come on! I told you not to give the Blend–a–med to Mario as a Christmas present. Let me show you why.”
The stench in Mario’s cell was vile. The sink, the shelf under the mirror, the mirror itself and the toilet bowl were filthy dirty. Mario hadn’t cleaned the cell once in the entire six weeks he’d been in there. The strange odor I had noticed from him had settled all over the place. Michael showed me the toothbrush cup. There was a thick layer of dust at the bottom. “Does this convince you?” he said triumphantly. “The guy never brushes his teeth. And he doesn’t wash either.”
He had me convinced. Never before, had I seen such a pig.
Michael took a dust covered can with face cream from the shelf and opened it. It was mildewed. “He’s had this one for as long as I’ve known him. And that’s two years.”
The distant sound of jingling keys told us that the guards were bringing Mario back. We left the malodorous den.
Lying in bed in the evening, I thought about the conversation with Michael. Why had he told me about his Stasi past and everything connected to it? It wasn’t hard for me to find the answer to this question because I knew him a little by then. His two most evident traits were instability and lack of willpower. I guess that was the bottom line. He hadn’t told me all this out of friendship or sympathy. Far from it! He had told me because he was too weak to keep it to himself. I was convinced he would tell me everything his Stasi contact said. On the other hand, he would report everything I said back to him. I needed to be cautious. As for Mario, I decided to follow up on sounding him out after Christmas. I would also address the issue of his hygiene because it wasn’t strictly a private matter. It was beyond my comprehension how an adult could let himself go like this. In the end, we could get lice and who knows what else in our housing unit.
I gave him a bar of chocolate and a few packs of chewing gum for Christmas. He gave me a ballpoint pen in return, and Michael gave me stationery. We watched TV and played cards over the holidays. Considering the circumstances, it was a fantastic Christmas for me, the best one I had had in years.
I made a few New Year’s resolutions. I had discontinued learning English during the chaos of the last years, and I decided to take this up again. I also decided to learn the basic vocabulary and grammar of French and to read more again. Apart from that, I wanted to keep my cool in every situation and get along well with Michael and Mario.
Michael had problems finding his rhythm after New Year. He was overcome by fatigue after lunch and would retire to his cell and sleep until rec time while Mario and I continued working alone. This was my chance to have an undisturbed conversation with Mario. It was hard to make him open up, but I succeeded after a few attempts. The dude wasn’t that uncommunicative; I only needed to keep asking persistently. He would start talking sporadically and become almost talkative after a while. I began with his general untidiness and lack of hygiene. It didn’t take me long to convince him that it was essential to wash and brush one’s teeth daily. He promised me he would do this from now on, and I gave him the toothpaste I was going to give him as a Christmas present. During the following days, I shifted our conversation more and more in the direction of his crime, which wasn’t easy because he didn’t want to talk about it. Realizing that indirect questioning got me nowhere, I asked him pointedly: “What exactly are you in for, Mario?”
“I told you,” he said in his high–pitched voice. “For murder.”
“Who did you murder?”
“Somebody you don’t know,” he said.
“How old was he or she?”
“The one you killed. Stop bullshitting me!”
“As old as I was back then,” he said.
This tactic wasn’t working, so I tried another angle: “Listen Mario. The three of us need to get along here in II/West whether we want to or not. I think I have the goddamn right to know exactly who the people are that I’m in here with. You know why I’m here, and I wanna know the same about you. I think that’s only fair. Or… are you scared to tell me about it?”
Mario continued working quietly. But I could tell from the expression on his face that he was struggling with himself.
“Are you scared to tell me about it?” I repeated my question.
Mario sniffled, which was one of his habits. It meant he wanted to say something and was searching for the right words to begin with. He finally found them. “I wouldn’t say I’m scared,” he said. “I’d call it being careful. I’ve had some bad experiences.”
“All right,” I said delighted that he finally buckled. “Everything you tell me will stay strictly between us. I promise I’m not gonna change my behavior toward you. I just wanna know what happened.”
He thought again for minutes and finally said: “All right. Come over after rec time and I’ll tell you everything.”
Michael worked for about half an hour after rec time; then he disappeared into his cell again because he was “under the weather.” As soon as he was gone, Mario and I stopped working too and retired to have our conversation.
I was surprised when I entered Mario’s cell because the stench was pretty much gone, and the place looked tidy. Apparently, he had taken what I said about order and cleanliness to heart. After he made coffee, we came to the point. He reflected again for a long time, which really got on my nerves, but one had to be patient with him. I almost believed that he had changed his mind and wasn’t going to talk when he finally sniffled and started to speak: “I told you I was in for murder. That’s not the whole truth.”
I looked at him expectantly while he paused. His Adam’s apple jumped up and down as he swallowed. It was obvious how difficult it was for him to say what he was going to say. He did it after another sniffle: “I wasn’t sentenced for one murder but multiple murders.” He paused again and looked at me to check my reaction.
I didn’t show any. According to Michael he had killed two kids, so it was no news to me.
“For five murders,” he said.
This time, I showed a reaction. I swallowed hard and shook my head in disbelief. “F–fivefold murder?” I stammered. I couldn’t and wouldn’t conceal my horror. “Why?… I mean, who… were those people?” I said after I regained my composure.
“The first one was a 20–year–old guy. I stabbed him while he was sitting drunk on a park bench.”
Mario shrugged. “It was a test run.”
I wanted to ask for what, but Mario continued directly:
“About eight months later, I killed a twelve–year–old boy, which was actually what I was after. Then I did two brothers. One was ten, the other one twelve. A year later, I killed another boy of the same age.”
I stared at him.
He averted his gaze and said, “You wanted to know.”
I believed something like that only happened in horror movies. Now such a psychopath was sitting right in front of me. But it was true: I had asked him to tell me about his crime. “Sure,” I said. “So you’re into little boys?”
He thought for a long moment, sniffled and said: “I guess it’s a bit more complicated. But there’s definitely something wrong with me. I—” he swallowed, “I wouldn’t get anything out of it if I had sex with them the usual way… I mean, having sex with little boys isn’t normal, I know that, but I’m trying to explain it to you from my point of view. A sadistic component has to be there. I only have an orgasm when I see their pain–contorted faces. It turns me on when they fight back in despair; when I smell their blood; when I see the dying look in their eyes and… then the last convulsions.” He shot me an apologetic glance.
“They always say things like this have a background,” I said. “Did anything happen to you when you were a child?”
He nodded pensively. “My stepfather. He made me do things with him… terrible things.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “But… he didn’t kill you, right?”
Mario held my gaze for a few seconds, then looked down and shook his head hardly visible.
“What about your mother? Didn’t she do anything? I mean, she must have noticed.”
“She’s a nurse. He did it when she worked the night shift.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?” I said.
Mario shrugged. “I was five or six. He said he would hurt her if I ever told her. That’s why I didn’t… I don’t know, maybe she found out because one day he was gone. She never mentioned him again.”
We sipped our coffees. Nobody said anything for a while until Mario broke the silence again: “It started when I was a kid. First, I pulled wings and legs off flies, then I inflated frogs with a straw, and finally I poured gasoline over living rats and set them on fire.” After a short pause, he added: “You cannot imagine how strong a little boy can be when he’s fighting for his life.”
“So this 20–year–old… Did you do something… sexual with him too?”
Mario shook his head. “Not with him, I didn’t. To me, it was the first step to experiencing the ultimate kick. I had planned to kill somebody for years but never had the right opportunity or the courage to do it. Sometimes the urge was stronger, sometimes weaker. There were even times when I thought I was cured. But then it came back. That night, I saw him sitting there and nobody else was around. It was the perfect moment. I just wanted to experience how it is to kill someone; how it feels to end a life. It could have been anybody. This poor guy was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. I sat beside him. He reeked of booze—was totally drunk and helpless. When I addressed him, he slurred something like ‘leave me alone’ and went on sleeping. He was the perfect guinea pig. I took a last look around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I was scared alright, but the urge to do it was irresistible. It was now or never. I pulled the buck knife out of my pocket and stabbed him. I drove the blade all the way into his stomach twisting it. He jerked and coughed. Blood came out of his mouth. Then he slumped sideways. I got up and ran away. At that time, I didn’t even know if I had killed him. Only a few days later, I heard the rumor that somebody had been murdered in the town park. After that, I didn’t dare leave the barracks for weeks. I was paranoid. I thought everybody was staring at me and expected to get arrested at any moment. But time went by, and nothing happened. I became more confident than ever and planned the next murder.”
What Mario told me was horrific, but at the same time fascinating and exciting. Not everybody has the chance to talk to a real murderer. He was sick no doubt about it, but he wasn’t like Michael. Unlike him, Mario was aware of his sickness, which made it easier for me to deal with him. I tried to get deeper into his twisted mind: “Did you get anything out of this first murder?”
He nodded. “Experience. Once you overcome this inhibition threshold, everything is different. You don’t have this fear of getting caught anymore because it’s only this fear that makes you make mistakes. Suddenly you realize how easy it is to commit murder.”
“But… don’t you feel sorry for this guy?” I said. “He didn’t do anything to you.”
Mario shrugged. “I told you there’s something wrong with me.”
“How and when did you kill the boys?” I said.
“I would roam the woods around Neubrandenburg when I was off duty. Sometimes I would meet a boy and engage him in conversation; take his picture. I had to wait for the right moment. It came eight months after I killed the guy on the park bench. I was hiking on a forest trail, and he came along on his bicycle. There was no one else around. I dragged him into a bush and…” He paused.
“What did you do to him?”
Mario shook his head. “You don’t wanna know.”
“OK,” I said. “Maybe you’re right… Just tell me how you did it. With a knife? Or… did you strangle him?”
“I killed all of them with my buck knife,” he said.
“How long till the next murder?”
“About half a year,” he said. “Two brothers. They were playing cowboys and Indians in the woods. I joined them.”
“Then there was a gap of a year,” he said. “The urge to do it again disappeared for a few months. But then it came back stronger than ever, and I roamed the woods again. There was this boy I had singled out. I met him a few times but never had the chance. One day I learned he had moved somewhere else.”
“Lucky boy,” I said.
“You can say that again.”
“How come they didn’t catch you? I thought the People’s Police were so good.”
Mario shrugged. “Guess they investigated in the wrong direction. They probably couldn’t imagine a career soldier being responsible for all this. I mean, my life in the barracks was a perfect cover.”
“So you killed one more boy after a year?”
“What I don’t get is why they brought you here to Bautzen?” I said. “You were a member of the People’s Army and not of the Stasi. I thought there were only political prisoners and former Stasi here? And why do they keep you here in II/West in isolation?”
Mario smirked and said: “To hush the whole thing up. Nobody can know about it. There are no serial killers in the GDR. That’s a capitalist thing.”
I nodded because that was plausible.
While Mario was sitting on his bed, I sat on his stool facing the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lid of the peephole being pushed aside. There he was again— the old Stasi guy snooping around! I pretended not to notice and continued my conversation with Mario, “How did they catch you?”
“It happened when I was collaring number six,” he said. “I made a mistake. I was on home leave with my mother in Berlin and took the S–Bahn out of town into the countryside. There, I met three boys who were playing soccer on a field outside a village. One boy left, and I kept him company. When I wanted to grab him, he broke loose and ran away. He told his parents, and they sent out a search party. They all stick together in these small villages. I didn’t get out of there in time. They took me to the community policeman—a total idiot. He interrogated me and called my superior at the barracks, and I almost managed to squirm myself out of it. He was about to let me go, but his deputy wasn’t an idiot. He took a closer look at my diary.”
“What was in there?” I said.
“Everything,” Mario said. “That was the mistake I made.”
“Why did you keep a journal in the first place?” I said.
Mario took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell anybody, so I wrote everything down. It was part of the whole thing… Anyway, this guy read the diary and at one fell swoop, five unsolved murders were solved. He probably got the Karl–Marx–medal for it.”
Suddenly the door opened, and Michael entered the cell. “Are you guys keeping any secrets?” he said looking around.
There wasn’t much more to say. I had heard enough. I got up, squeezed by the baffled snoop and went to my cell.
What Mario had told me made my blood run cold. Lying in my bed that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about his victims. I saw their petrified faces distorted with pain and was so disturbed that I couldn’t sleep. When I finally did, I had nightmares seeing Mario playing cowboys and Indians with the two brothers and binding them. I saw the ghastly fear in their eyes when they realized that this was no longer a game and that they were in the hands of the devil…
I worked, read, improved my English and French and exercised. Another spring, summer, fall and winter came and went. Life in II/West became routine for me. The elation I had felt after my liberation from five years of solitary was long gone. I wanted to be truly free.
It bugged me that my parents were practically in the dark. They had no clue about what happened back in Frankfurt. For five years, they had thought I was a cop killer. Neither did they know any details about my prison conditions. It was time they learned the whole truth.
I had been thinking for a long time about sending them a secret message. The problem was I couldn’t smuggle anything out myself because the guards made sure I didn’t get too close to my parents. When Michael told me that he was allowed physical contact with his visitors and was even left alone in the room with them from time to time, I got an idea. The two of us got along well, and I trusted him to a certain extent—at least so much that I decided to take a shot. When I asked him if he would smuggle out a letter for me, he didn’t think twice and said yes.
Since I didn’t want to walk right into a trap, I gave it a test run first. I wrote one page full of nullities, mostly about my prison conditions after the transfer and that I would never try again to break out of prison. It was stuff that could not be held against me in case the letter fell into the wrong hands. As a sign that my parents had received the letter, they were to send me regards from a girl I had been in love with in school for a long time. My parents would know who I meant. I gave Michael the letter before he was picked up for his visitation. When he came back, he said everything went fine. However, soon I started to doubt it because I waited in vain for a letter from my parents with greetings from that girl.
One day, I confronted Michael with my suspicion that he hadn’t forwarded the letter, which he denied. Our argument became pretty heated. When I didn’t stop calling him a liar, he got so angry that he could no longer control himself. “Do you really think I was gonna smuggle out a letter for you?” he yelled. “I gave it straight to the Stasi contact in exchange for a few months off my sentence.”
I felt like punching this asshole, but I knew better and disappeared into my cell. I had given him the benefit of the doubt, but it seemed to be true: once a Stasi guy, always a Stasi guy. Even though the letter wasn’t compromising, I was sure to hear from the Stasi. But nothing happened. They probably thought they had everything under control.
One day when we were alone again, I asked Mario if he was allowed physical contact with his mother, who was the only person who visited him. He said he was, and I slapped my forehead: Why hadn’t I asked him first?
Mario had difficulties shaving because of his sensitive skin, so I proposed a deal to him: My mother had sent me a razor with a swivel head from Wilkinson. I offered him the razor in return for smuggling a letter out.
“Why do you want to smuggle a letter out?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,“ I said. “I’m not planning a prison break. I only want my parents to know the truth about what I did. You know that I’m not allowed to speak about it during visitation.”
He considered, sniffled and said, “Yes.”
This time I decided to take a chance without a trial run. Somehow I trusted Mario.
I wrote a detailed account of the prison break, the trial and my conditions in Bautzen II—ten pages in total. I asked my mother to write me a letter on her old typewriter in response. I carefully hid the thick envelope, so the guards wouldn’t find it during their searches and gave it to Mario just before he left for his visitation time. For the next hour, I was uneasy. If he handed the letter over to the Stasi contact, I was fucked, meaning they would send me straight back to solitary. When Mario came back, he told me that everything was all right. His mother had taken the envelope without saying a word. However, I was still skeptical because Michael had told me the same.
I was being kept in suspense for another week. Then I received a letter from my mother that was written on her old typewriter. The character “e” was displaced, which was the proof for me that she did receive my letter. I gave Mario the razor, and the deal was settled. The fact that my parents were aware of everything now, made me feel much better. I also had the satisfaction that I had outwitted the Stasi.
On June 17, 1987, something unexpected happened. First, the radio was turned off; then the guards came and took our TV away. Shortly afterward was lockdown. Nobody knew what was going on. At 8 PM, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker: “Attention all inmates! Once the custody rooms have been unlocked, proceed to your respective muster point!”
It wasn’t the first time the guards were doing controls after count, but this seemed to be different. There was a flurry of activity all around the place. All the doors were being unlocked. Something peculiar was going on.
About half an hour later, we had to leave our unit and line up in the corridor in front of the detention cells beside our unit. A few detainees clad in sleepwear were already waiting there. Our isolation was no longer of importance. The guards didn’t care if the three of us from II/West talked to the other detainees. Nor was I handcuffed. The same guards who used to make sure that I never got too close to them seemed to be no longer afraid of me.
We prisoners whispered regarding each other with curiosity. After a while, a senior guard, whom I had never seen before, entered the corridor and read out an announcement:
“On the orders of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic, there is to be a general and comprehensive amnesty in the German Democratic Republic. The administration of this penal institution asks all inmates to continue taking part in the work process and behave themselves according to institution rules until their release. You’ll find detailed information on the conditions of this amnesty in the newspaper tomorrow. Now, go back to your custody rooms for lights–out.”
We were dumbstruck. That came completely unexpectedly and was too good to be true. Of course, we had talked and speculated about the possibility of an amnesty but agreed it wouldn’t be happening anytime before the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR in 1989. This here was completely inconceivable. I looked over at Michael and saw that he had tears in his eyes. Since the guards locked us in right away, we had no time to talk.
I paced up and down in my cell for hours. Would everything be over now? Should I really be so lucky and get released? Somehow, I couldn’t believe it, but upon recalling the words of the senior guard, I became hopeful again. His announcement had sounded as if all prisoners would be going home. I didn’t sleep that night, but I wasn’t alone. Every few minutes, the toilet flushing went on over at Michael’s, and I heard the floorboards creaking in Mario’s cell.
The next day, the amnesty was the first topic on the radio news, but no terms were given. We waited impatiently for the newspaper, which came at midday. The information on the amnesty took up the entire first page. I read it, and immediately the disenchantment came because there were too many ambiguities. The death penalty was abolished; life sentences were reduced to fifteen years. But murder, espionage and war crimes were excluded from the amnesty. We didn’t get it: Which long–termer could possibly benefit from this, because anyone with a life sentence had been convicted of committing war crimes, murder or espionage? After we read everything, things were no clearer than they were before. We wavered between hope and fear and waited for the decision we would get from Rooster.
Over the following days, our conditions and the daily routine remained the same. I received a letter from my mother who was convinced that I would be released soon. Even though I wished that would be true, I wasn’t overly optimistic. Rooster didn’t show up, and we didn’t get any information. After two weeks, Michael asked for a meeting with a senior guard, and contrary to custom, Rooster came by the same day.
“There’s been an amnesty announced, lieutenant,” Michael said. “We would like to know if it includes any of us.”
“Off the top of my head, I don’t know,” Rooster said leaning casually against the door frame, his arms crossed. “I have to check the papers.” Looking at me, he continued: “I can say for sure though it doesn’t include you inmate Schneider… But I think that’s a no–brainer.” The expression on his face reflected his schadenfreude. He seemed to enjoy this. He turned to Michael again: “With you, I have to check as I said. And uh…” With a faint grin on his face, he looked at Mario. “What were you in for again?”
This moron knew exactly what Mario was in for, and he also knew that he was the last person to whom the amnesty would apply.
“For murder,” Mario said softly.
“Well, let’s see then if we can’t get you down to fifteen years at least,” Rooster said fighting the urge to laugh. “I think we can do that.” Then he clapped his hands, turned around and locked the door.
I realized that none of us had a chance of being released under the terms of this amnesty, in marked contrast to Michael. He said he hadn’t noticed anything strange in Rooster’s behavior and believed that he would be going home in a couple of days. It took him about a week to get that the idiot wasn’t “checking” anything and had just played his usual game with us.
Time went by. I turned twenty–seven. The days, weeks and months were no longer distinguishable. I could no longer tell if an event had happened three weeks ago or three months ago. The memories of the time before my arrest seemed like from a different life. Even though I yearned for freedom, I was also apprehensive about it now and could no longer imagine a life outside of prison.
Michael encouraged me to put in a request to do rec time without handcuffs, which I did. To my amazement, it was granted.
Michael was almost happier about it than I because from now on, we could play table tennis. That was what he had wanted for a long time since he considered himself an expert: Finally, there was an event where I had no prayer against him.
Inspired by the Olympics in Seoul where the “small, good GDR” was in front of the “big, evil USA” in the medal table for the first time and his firm belief that he was the better player and communism was superior to capitalism, Michael suggested a tournament between the two of us. He represented communism while I was to represent capitalism. Yes—we were adults, but we were also in isolation, and under these circumstances, you can have the strangest ideas… We made a schedule. The season was to last a year and at the end, it would be clear which system was better. Mario was to be the referee.
Michael started extremely well, beating me soundly with his offensive style. Considering I hadn’t played in seven years, I was good but not good enough. My strong suit was defending, but my problem was that I only reacted and never controlled the game. Since I lost every single match of the first half of the season, the first match of the second half of the season was already a decisive one. If Michael won, he would have won the tournament.
Both of us were nervous during this important match but Michael more than me because I had forced him into extra sets at the match before. I had definitely improved. At the first match of the second season, I scored my first victory, and my winning streak lasted. I perfected my defensive skills and also learned to play more offensively. Eventually, Michael was scared to smash the ball because it would come back at him at an even greater speed. I won the entire second half of the season, so a deciding match was a must. We set a date but then postponed it for an indefinite time because something much more important came up.
Not only did we get the party paper “Neues Deutschland” for free, but also the voice of the junior communists, “Junge Welt.” By the summer of 1989, the style of reporting in the latter changed suddenly. There was no longer suppressing of facts. How I approached the paper changed completely. Previously I had ignored all articles about domestic policy and read only world news. Now it was the exact opposite. What was happening in the world had become boring compared to the events in East Germany because the entire country was in an uproar, and the communist authorities were losing control. I learned that many people were fed up with the communist regime and did what I had tried eight years prior. Some traveled to Hungary and crossed the green border to Austria, from where they could easily get to West Germany. Others fled to the West German embassy in Prague and waited there for their exit to the Federal Republic. The more I heard about these events, the better I felt, hoping that they would cause the end of the GDR or at least a radical change within it. Mario played the neutral observer while Michael considered the people who raised their voice for freedom and democracy as counter–revolutionaries who needed to be eliminated. He was still an avowed communist. His basic philosophy was that the West was evil and the East was good.
One Monday evening, I was in my cell with Michael listening to the live report of the Monday demonstration in Leipzig. Suddenly, the chants grew louder despite the fact that none of us had changed the volume of the loudspeaker. We looked at each other in surprise. Michael got up and opened the door. Suddenly the noise was really loud. “They’re demonstrating right in front of the prison!” he said.
We rushed out of the cell. Of course, we couldn’t see anything through the frosted glass window in the recreation room, but we heard a mighty chorus of voices demanding the release of all political prisoners and the detention of the Stasi and party members. On that evening, I was convinced that my time in Bautzen II would soon be up.
On November 10, we learned that the border had been opened the night before. I was ecstatic, asking myself when the upheaval would spread to the prisons, but for the time being everything stayed calm. Was it simply the calm before the storm, or was there something going on that we didn’t know about because of our isolation?
Just before the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, an amnesty was declared for people who had been sentenced for attempting to escape from the country. This announcement brought the other prisoners into the arena. There were the first reports of riots in Brandenburg, Bautzen I and other penal institutions. The prisoners made statements demanding the reversal of all sentences. Many stopped working and went on hunger strikes to emphasize their demands. As happy as I was to hear the news from other prisons, I was even more disappointed that everything was still quiet in Bautzen II.
At the beginning of December, however, the wait was over. One day, as Michael and Mario attempted to carry the boxes with the finished relays outside, the guard stopped them, explaining that it was pointless because the commandos were on strike.
AT LAST! I leaped for joy when I overheard the conversation from my cell. I stopped working immediately. Michael and Mario were practically forced to do the same because we were running out of material.
The next morning, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker: “Attention, attention! This is the prisoners council speaking. Please stay calm and disciplined. Our first goal is to open up the isolation units. The prisoners council is currently negotiating this with the prison administration. We’ve agreed on a security partnership to avoid an escalation of the tense situation. We’ll keep you posted on the current status.” The voice stopped. There was a lot of background interference; then the mike crackled and was shut off.
This announcement raised our hopes immensely. Even though Michael wouldn’t renounce his communist conviction and still considered everything that was happening a counterrevolution, he saw a chance to get out of prison. That’s why he agreed to support the prisoners council, and so did Mario, who always followed the majority.
There were hourly announcements over the loudspeaker. The prisoners council informed us that they had mapped out a ten–point plan, which they would try to put into action after negotiations with the prison administration. The main points were the opening of all cells and housing units and the commencement of a news conference.
By the next morning, there was no change. Our unit stayed locked. But then events came thick and fast.
Two members of the prisoners council came in the afternoon. The guards gave them one hour to talk to us.
The two men informed us that the prison administration had balked at everything concerning me. We also learned that the council had secured the suspension of Rooster, Rosycheeks and a few other guards because their presence would have exasperated an already tense situation.
It was a big deal for me to see other faces again after years of isolation. The two men didn’t have any doubt that the majority of Bautzen II inmates would be going home before Christmas. The one hour the guards had granted us was almost over when there was a commotion in the corridor. We heard a babel of voices; then the door opened. I saw Trixi, Bobby, the warden and about a dozen civilians. There was a flurry of camera flashes.
“There are just ordinary criminals in this unit,” I heard Trixi explain and understood the situation immediately: The prison administration was giving some reporters a tour of the facility. When I saw that Trixi wanted to close the door, I stormed up to the gate shouting: “My name is Andre Schneider. I tried to escape from East Germany in 1981 but was arrested. Three other guys and I broke out of the holding center to try again. A special unit captured us. I got a life sentence and was taken here to Bautzen II, where I spent my first five years in solitary confinement. I didn’t see any other prisoner, and they treated me like shit.”
Trixi scoffed and shook his head suggesting that I was deranged. He wanted to close the door, but a bearded journalist stopped him. “You just said ordinary criminals, but he’s saying he tried to escape.”
Trixi rolled his eyes suggesting again with a gesture that I wasn’t playing with a full deck. As he tried again to close the door, another journalist said: “You also told us solitary confinement does not exist in GDR prisons?”
Trixi and the warden exchanged nervous looks. “You’re right,“ Trixi said. “That’s what I told you because it’s true. But he’s a special case, and it wasn’t solitary confinement but administrative segregation.”
“What’s the difference?” someone in the background asked.
“Look! Um…” Trixi glanced at his superior seeking help.
The warden blushed and cleared his throat. He was about to say something, but I was faster. “They’re fucking lying,“ I said and addressed the bearded guy directly: “I can show you my old cell. Wanna see it?”
“You bet!” he said and turned to the warden: “Can he show us the cell?”
The warden shrugged with a look of resignation and motioned for Trixi to unlock the gate, which he did reluctantly.
I led the whole group one floor below to my old cell, one thirty–two. There, I demonstrated how I had to put my hands through the food slot when they took me out for rec time, and how I paced for five years the three and a half steps back and forth. It was an unparalleled vindication for me. The only thing Trixi and the warden could do was stammer.
A senior guard nicknamed Canon picked me up for my visitation time the next day. Before we left, he took Michael aside and talked to him. Canon, a slim guy, didn’t handcuff me. He hadn’t brought another guard either. I wasn’t surprised because it was consistent with the current circumstances. Arriving at the visitation room, we chatted, which I had never done before with a guard. Eventually, the expression on Canon’s face became serious. “The news conference that’s been demanded by the prisoners council is starting in a few minutes.” He paused looking timidly in the direction of the door. Then he continued in a voice so low that I could hardly understand him: “You can imagine certain influential people like the fact that your visitation time overlaps with the news conference.” He smiled.
I smiled back.
“I suggest you and your mother talk for just 20 minutes,” he went on. “After that I’ll take you to the news conference. I’ve already told your cellmates to save you a place. I bet that might upset certain people.” He looked at me as if he expected me to say what a great guy he was, which I didn’t. I just nodded asking myself if he really thought that five minutes of feigned friendliness could make up for eight years of psychological terror and humiliation. Sure, he had never done anything to me, but only because he had been responsible for another housing unit.
The door opened, and my mother came in. I hugged and kissed her. It was the first time in more than eight years that we had any physical contact. My mother cried, and I also found it hard to hold back my tears. After we sat down, I wanted to explain the situation to her, but Canon cut in: “Your son and I have agreed on shortening the visitation today.”
My mother shot me a puzzled glance.
“The reason is,“ Canon continued, “some people want to prevent your son from attending the news conference. But I want him to go. It’s your last visit here anyway. Most of the prisoners will be going home before Christmas.”
After 20 minutes my mother and I said goodbye, and Canon escorted me to the cinema hall, where the news conference was being held. I could already hear loud voices in the staircase. Entering the third floor, we saw the first prisoners. They were standing outside the cinema hall listening to the lively discussion.
The hall was packed to the rafters. Some people had even climbed onto the windowsills. Canon carved our way through the crowd. The audience comprised every age group. Seeing so many people was strange for me. Of course, the one thing I had been spared for the last eight years happened immediately: Everybody stared at me. I heard the words “Negro” and “African.” A few murmurs also crisscrossed the crowd. They weren’t hostile, though, but rather expressions of surprise.
I spotted Michael and Mario at the back and fought my way through to the seat they had saved for me. Michael filled me in: The civilians sitting at the conference table at the front were representatives of the New Forum and the Bautzen Citizen’s Committee, two priests and a lawyer from Berlin. A few journalists from local papers were sitting in the “audience.” The discussion about the psychological terror that had been used against the prisoners had just begun. It was quite an embarrassing situation for the officers of the prison administration. They were backed into a corner and had no idea how to respond. Only one person was supposed to speak at a time because there was only one mike for the audience, but the debate was so heated that many people kept interrupting.
I also wanted to have my say but didn’t get a chance since someone else always had the floor. When the mike was close by, I snatched it away from a man after he said a few sentences and drowned out the shouting: “I’m asking for silence. I have something important to say!”
Everyone turned around to look at me. There were a few astonished remarks about the fact that “a Negro could speak German,” but I ignored them and concentrated on what I wanted to say. “I was arrested in August 1981 because of 213. A few weeks later, three other guys and I broke out of the holding center in Frankfurt. We wanted to escape to West Berlin. During our escape, a cop was shot. He died a few weeks later in the hospital. After we holed up for several hours in an apartment in a high rise, a special unit was sent in. They captured and arrested us. Three of us were sentenced to life, one to 13 years. After they took me here to Bautzen II, I was immediately put into solitary. I was in total isolation for five years and subjected to exceptionally severe treatment.” There was a murmur when I said this because a member of the prison administration had just denied that solitary confinement was practiced in East German prisons. I continued telling my story leaving nothing out. I was amazed at myself because I was speaking so eloquently and without anxiety. Most of the events I retold happened years ago, but at that moment I could remember them as if they had happened to me only yesterday. My speech became more and more passionate. The bitter memories reemerged with every detail I recalled. The cinema hall had become completely silent. Everybody was listening attentively while I talked for about 10 minutes. Most of the audience applauded and gave me a look of approval when I was done. I didn’t know anybody in the hall except Michael and Mario but could still feel the empathy of the crowd.
I had barely taken my seat when the senior guards were barraged with questions. They were to comment on what I had said. Trixi, who until recent events had such a tough guy façade, stammered incoherent sentences, which was mocked by the sardonic laughter of the audience. Nothing remained of his former self–confidence. He sat there like a babbling idiot. If I hadn’t known him personally, I might have even felt sorry for him. A journalist asked if he actually did threaten to have me killed. It had been almost eight years ago, but I remembered perfectly. “…If it happens, I’ll have you killed beforehand,” were his words. In a letter to my mother, I had dared to express my hope that the GDR would soon collapse and that we would get even with the communists then.
After a few sarcastic questions asking if he had perhaps lost his voice, he started to speak slowly, “I have no recollection of that.” He said it so timidly that his voice was hardly audible despite the fact that he was speaking into a microphone. After a few requests, he continued a little louder: “But I apologize if it was the case that I said it.”
The audience burst out laughing.
Warden Alex, who had recently been promoted to colonel, was just as pathetic a figure. At minimum he was responsible for everything that happened during his term in Bautzen II, but I never had anything directly to do with him. I only knew the man from the one time three years ago when he informed me that my solitary confinement was over, and he was relatively friendly then, so I couldn’t really personally hate him. He was in the position of having to explain how it was possible that I had been in solitary confinement if no such solitary confinement existed in his prison. His incoherent response was simply one big stammer, exactly the same shit as the day before when I showed my old cell to the reporters. Again, it became a matter of semantics: “He wasn’t in solitary but in an intensive management unit.”
After my case had been discussed, I listened to the stories of the other prisoners: There was a man from West Berlin who got caught trying to smuggle his East German girlfriend across the border in the trunk of his car. He got nine years for white slavery and espionage. There was a former district party secretary who had met his West German relatives in Hungary. After returning to East Germany, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years for treason and making illegal contact. There was a marine who had locked up the rest of the crew below deck and tried to reach West German waters. There was a firefight on the patrol boat; grenades exploded. The young man got captured. He only escaped capital punishment by the skin of his teeth. All these people who simply wanted their freedom had been reduced to criminal and terrorist status by the East German justice system.
Alleged war criminals spoke. They had been blackmailed by the Stasi for years and were sent to prison after their usefulness was over. It was an effective method to save the money for their pensions. There were married couples that had been busted trying to escape from East Germany. It was heart–wrenching to see them embracing and kissing over and over again for the first time in years. Some people lost their composure and started to cry when they explained what had happened to them during their prison time.
There had been several suspicious deaths in Bautzen II over the years. All these casualties were prisoners sentenced to long terms for espionage. The prisoners council asked for a thorough investigation into these cases.
At the end of the news conference, the representatives of the church and the other organizations took the floor. They assured us of their maximum support and asked us to remain patient. The warden took the floor once more and informed us that as of now all special procedures were abolished and all units would stay open until further notice. He pretended it was his decision, but everybody knew that the guards had lost all their authority, and their only chance was to compromise.
After the news conference, we prisoners worked together until the evening. We prepared a letter to the government demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners and review of all sentences. To strengthen our demands, we agreed to go on hunger strike. The letter was faxed to Berlin. After the security agreement between the prisoners and the guards was reaffirmed, the meeting broke up. It was almost midnight by then.
For years, I had daily social interaction with only two people, and now so many people wanted to talk to me. All this stimulation was too much for me. I needed a rest after a while and sauntered through the house—just like that. Alone the fact that I could do this was incredible to me. I couldn’t orient myself although I had spent eight years behind these walls. There were so many units, corridors, gates and cells. I was seized by a strange melancholy. Seeing these thick, ugly, gray walls, I asked myself how much suffering, harm and misery they might have witnessed in the course of the years. At the same time, I was happy and proud. Something was going on that happens only once in a lifetime. History was in the making, and I was right in the middle of it.
There was an endless stream of journalists going in and out over the next days. Especially representatives of foreign media were interested in me. I gave an interview to ABC’s John Laurence. It wasn’t very long, but I had the chance to say a few sentences in English and to show him the cell where they kept me in solitary for five years.
Most prisoners were released within two weeks, but a small group was left behind. Unfortunately, I belonged to them. According to the media, everyone who was still behind bars was an ordinary criminal and exactly in the right place. I had no explanation for why I of all people was still in prison. My parents tried to help me. They wrote to the East German Supreme Court and asked for clemency. The answer was long in coming. It finally arrived in April and was frustrating. It said that a pardon was out of the question because of the severity of my crime. The judge advised my parents to suggest to me that I reconsider my crime and draw the correct conclusions, and then put in a new appeal in a couple of years. This was beyond me. The red gang was gone and the East German state soon to be relegated to history, but I, who had tried to escape from this country eight years before the fall of the Wall, was still in prison.
It was a small comfort that prison life had changed entirely: Isolation no longer existed. Every prisoner had a TV in his cell, and visitation was virtually without monitoring. Relatives and friends could also be on the visitation list now. It was an indescribable feeling when I saw my brothers again. I had last seen them when they were kids. Now, two young men were sitting across from me. Tears were running down our cheeks as we hugged for the first time in almost nine years.
While these changes could be checked off as normal, others couldn’t, because they were totally unusual for a penal institution: We were allowed to watch videos as we liked outside working hours—not just any videos, but everything we liked. I guess there’s no need to explain what kind of videos guys who have been imprisoned for years want to watch most. And the guards went to the video rental stores and got them for us. Furthermore, we had unrestricted access to the gym because the doors and gates were open during the daytime.
The demeanor of the guards had changed completely. They left us pretty much alone and no longer told us what to do. Either their guilty conscience made them act like that, or they were afraid to make a mistake because none of them could be sure of being kept on in the new system. It was an exceptional situation for everyone.
We were about twenty prisoners left—mostly war criminals and men who, before their convictions, had been in some way or other closely connected to the security forces of the GDR. There was one guy who had murdered his wife and thrown her body into a lake. He was an officer in the army. Another guy who had also murdered his wife claimed that he was innocent and that the Stasi had framed him. There was a guy who had broken into homes and raped women. He also was a former member of the armed forces. One guy had killed somebody in a bar fight. He had been sentenced for second–degree murder. He was an ex–soldier too. Then there was a guy who was in for anti–social behavior, meaning he was too lazy to work, which was punishable in the GDR. His concurrent sentence was 15 years. And there was this “terrorist” who wanted to escape from the GDR together with a friend by hijacking a plane. The friend, however, got cold feet and didn’t show at the meeting point. Instead, the police were waiting there. There was a shootout in which two cops were killed. The man said they were hit by ricochets… There were a few other murderers of whom nobody knew who exactly they had murdered. All these guys, except my “fellow terrorist,” were criminals, and they probably deserved not to be released because the crimes they committed had nothing to do with the social system. These guys were a threat to every society. But I had nothing in common with them and should have been released right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t get it!
Of course, there were group formations, but I kept pretty much to myself though for a time I was friendly with one of the war criminals. He was in his mid–seventies and had snow white hair. Even though bowed down by age, “Edmund” was still pretty tall. We often did our rounds together in the recreation yard talking about anything and everything. Edmund had been in Bautzen II 23 years, and all his desires were reduced to one single wish. “I just want to see the beautiful deer in the woods one more time before I die,” he would say. I always felt sorry for him when I heard him talk like this even though I had quite some years behind me myself. But this number “23” was just incomprehensible to me because it was almost three times as much as I had served. I was sure that both of us would be released within the next couple of years, but while I was still young and had all my life ahead of me, Edmund, this nice old man, had no prospects and nothing to live for anymore. His wife had divorced him many years ago, and he never had any visitors… Although we spoke about everything, he would be vague about his crime. When asked, he would just say, “I’ve been sentenced for war crimes.”
Edmund never bellyached like all the other old geezers who wouldn’t stop complaining about how unjust the world was. Sure, they had done what they were charged with and sentenced for. Yet “all this” happened in a war. They were forced to do it, or otherwise they would have found themselves in front of a firing squad. Here is where I have a problem. I’m surely not an expert on this, but as far as I know you signed up voluntarily for the SS; so it’s safe to say that they prompted the situation themselves. Anyhow, as I said, Edmund never complained and never talked about his past. I still have this mental picture of him: always clean shaven and perfectly side–swept bangs. In the cold season, he would wear his felt blue overcoat and in summer his brown work jacket. In the rec yard, he would always wear this ridiculous kepi on his head, which was part of the dress regulations but also disregarded by the rest of us. Even on the hottest day, Edmund wouldn’t open the top button on his shirt. He would carry out any order of a prison officer without hesitation. He had this strange accent. He was German alright, but I guess the corner of the “Reich” where he came from belongs to Poland or Russia now.
One day, another TV crew came to Bautzen II again. I met them when I was wandering through the cell block. But they ignored me. They were only interested in interviewing war criminals. They had talked to a few and Edmund was the last one on their list. One of them disappeared into his cell. When he came out again after a few minutes, he was all excited. I overheard him speaking to his colleagues: “This guy is a big shot! He’s a former Nazi judge. He handed down who knows how many death sentences against deserters and agitators. After the war, he took on a different identity and worked as a judge in the GDR until his exposure. Unfortunately, he’s not going to talk in front of a camera.”
The members of the TV crew were disappointed because this story would have made their day. Another guy went into Edmund’s cell, obviously to try to change the old man’s mind. But to no avail. He came out again just a minute later, shaking his head with a disappointed expression.
I was shocked at what I had overheard. So this old bastard had been a Nazi judge. But not only that! After the collapse of the 1000–year–Reich, he just changed sides and worked for the commies. That was actually the point that made me really angry. How can a Nazi suddenly turn into a commie? Probably because they are not so different at all…
I ignored Edmund when he addressed me the next day. Funnily enough, I had immediately the feeling he knew that I knew. That was the end of our friendship. We never spoke again.
At some point, about a dozen prisoners from other penal institutions were transferred to Bautzen II, most of them skinheads from Berlin. Normally, one would think there should be friction between them and me. Far from it! It was a similar situation as in the juvie, and I handled it without a problem. For obvious reasons, these Nazi pricks and I were not on the same page, but nevertheless, I got along well with their leader, and his puppies followed his lead. I guess it was sports that made us ignore our differences. There were six of us who spent every free minute in the gym. It wasn’t long before I weighed 90 kilos—let it be understood pure muscle mass. One day we voted on who had the best body, and guess who won?—Right! And that despite their racial prejudices. In prison, there is only one way you earn respect, and in the course of time, I had to be violent once or twice. But that was it. The whole situation there wasn’t remotely as extreme as it had been back in the juvie.
In fall 1990, the prison administration organized a table tennis contest against a table tennis club from the city of Bautzen. I got as far as the semi–final. The loser of the second semi–final was my “old friend” Michael. The two of us were to play for bronze. After we left II/West, I hadn’t spent much time with him for obvious reasons. He was actually pretty much isolated because the other prisoners also knew that he was a former guard and didn’t want anything to do with him. Even though we didn’t say it out loud, both of us knew that we weren’t just going to play a match for third place in this tournament. There was this unsettled score from the year before that we had left off in a draw. While it was definite that socialism had lost, Michael couldn’t accept it yet. He seemed to want this duel really badly, and it was like war. We fought for every ball. In the end, however, capitalism triumphed beating communism by two sets to nil. Michael was so frustrated that he smashed his paddle…
But all this didn’t help me: I was still in prison, and it almost drove me nuts. To take my mind off things, I started to write my story. Mario, who was an expert on the typewriter, typed it up for me. Also in those days, a detective from Dresden interrogated me a few times wanting to know the details about how the two Stasi agents poisoned me back in ‘83. I identified the spokesman and his sidekick in the photos he showed me. Their real names were Voigt and Brenneke. After a while, however, I was notified that the investigation was dropped due to lack of evidence.
One and a half years after the fall of the Wall, life behind bars became interesting for the public again. A Bavarian TV team came to Bautzen II to shoot a documentary. When they found out about me, they asked me for an interview, which I gave. The reporter, who couldn’t believe that I was still in prison after she learned my story, promised to help me. When I saw her documentary on TV a few days later, I felt confident again that my release was imminent because the whole film was a plea for my freedom. I expected to get released any day now, and a letter from my mother strengthened this belief. She wrote:
“Last week, Vati and I were at the District Court in Potsdam where we had an appointment with the attorney responsible for your case. He showed us a pile of documents—altogether eleven files that contained everything connected to the prison break. We had a long talk, and the friendly old man found that your sentence was much too high, especially since you were still juvenile back then. He told us what the problem was. It’s that there are hardly any courts fit for work, and the few that are, are totally stretched at the moment. When I asked him if you’ll have to spend even your 30th birthday in prison only because no court has the time to deal with your case, I was under the impression that he cared and wanted to help. What I’m trying to say is that Vati and I had a good feeling when we left. I don’t miss a single Monday demo in Neuzelle. The peace prayers there give me a lot of strength, and I firmly believe that God is going to help you. I think he already is because there are articles about you in the paper; they report about you on TV, and people send you greetings over the radio. We’re getting letters from strangers who identify themselves with your case. Hang in there, Andy. You’re not alone. I’m convinced it won’t be long until this nightmare is over.”
May 8, 1991, was a Wednesday. It was the day before my 30th birthday, and it started uneventfully. I was looking forward to tomorrow’s extra long visit and the surprise my parents had promised me. Despite all this, I was dismayed that I was to spend yet another birthday in prison. In the afternoon, I worked out with my buddies as usual. Around 4 PM, a guard entered the gym and asked me to follow him to the warden’s office. Hm, why would the warden want to see me? That was unusual. Maybe because of the movies? That was the only reason I could think of. I was the “inmate responsible for culture” at the time, which meant I made out the order lists for the video rental store. To be honest, we prisoners had been asking ourselves for quite some time how much longer we would be allowed to rent porn and ultra violent action movies because things were slowly going back to normal. I was sure the warden was going to tell me that these times were over now.
When we arrived, the warden was on the phone, so I had to wait outside his office. His voice, however, was so loud that I couldn’t miss hearing some pieces of his conversation:
“It’s from the district court of Frankfurt (Oder)… It says he is to be released today. That means… of course… of course… of course. I only wanted to check with you… Because the day is almost over… Sure, now I’m on the safe side… I’ll take action immediately. No, no he’s already waiting in front of my office.”
At first, I just heard the words. They didn’t mean anything to me. Besides my mind was occupied with mulling over the potential restriction of our choice of movies. I didn’t care about the porn movies, but no more Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris? This could be a problem… Then my brain must have processed the information I overheard, and it hit me: The warden was talking about a prisoner who was to be released today. Could that prisoner be me? I swallowed and tried to push the thought aside because it would have been too good to be true. If I built up my hopes now, I would only be disappointed later when the warden was just going to discuss a trivial video rental store matter. However, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. The guard’s and my eyes met. He gave me a friendly smile.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
The guard shrugged. “Beat’s me. He only told me to go and get you.”
I nodded. Suddenly I realized that there was something odd about this day. Every morning, I had gotten up with the unwavering belief that today would be the day. But on that day, I hadn’t thought of my release at all. Things always seem to happen when you least expect them. Wasn’t that a saying? Optimism gained the upper hand again.
Finally, Trixi, who was the warden by then, called me in. He cut right to the chase: “Mr. Schneider, I received a fax from the district court of Frankfurt (Oder).” He lifted the paper for me to see. Then he started to read it out loud. It said that the court had reconsidered my case. I took note of the strange circumstance that my new sentence had been rendered in accordance with GDR law. The new verdict was ten years of juvenile custody. The remaining three months for the completion of the ten years were suspended. I didn’t quite get it. But the heart of the matter was that I was to be released effective immediately.
“Why was I sentenced according to GDR law when the entity doesn’t exist anymore?” I said after Trixi was done reading.
“Um…” he shrugged. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I’m ordered to release you, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Trixi was right. Only one thing mattered now: This chapter of my life was over!
“Do you want me to inform your parents so they can pick you up or something?” Trixi said.
I thought for a moment but then shook my head. “I’d like to surprise them.”
“Understood,” he said with a smile.
I think it was the first time. I had never seen him smile before.
“Um… listen, Mr. Schneider,” he started hesitantly. “You’ve been here ten years. That’s quite a long time. We’ve had our disagreements, and in case I ever did you wrong, I… I’d like to apologize.” He swallowed and tried to hold my stare but then looked away. There was an awkward pause because I didn’t respond. I didn’t do it because I was angry with him. On the contrary, all my hatred was suddenly gone. I was “hate–free” for the first time in ages. I even loved Trixi at this moment. It was just that I was trying to digest my overwhelming happiness.
“That’s okay,” I finally said repeating this one sentence in my mind, “You’re being released effective immediately!” I understood the meaning of it intellectually but couldn’t take it in emotionally. I was going home today! It was over. In a few minutes, I would be FREE, FREE, FREE!
“Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Schneider?” Trixi said.
“You can call me a taxi,” I said.
“Done!” He offered me his hand.
I hesitated but then accepted, and we shook.
On the way to the property room, I kept pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop crying tears of joy.
Before putting on the new clothes my parents had sent me a few months earlier, I took a look at my old jeans and the T–shirt I was wearing when they arrested me a decade ago. Both were way too small for me now. Was I really wearing white sneakers back then?—My God!
I received my money and with a cardboard box under my arm, I walked the route a prisoner usually only walks once. I didn’t turn around when the last door closed behind me. I didn’t want to know what the building looked like. At the time, I had spent a third of my life in there. This episode was over and done with, just water under the bridge. The rest of my life lay before me. I was still 29 years old and had all the possibilities in the world.
There was a taxi waiting for me. It was a Mercedes, a “West–auto” as they used to call them in East Germany. I couldn’t help but smile when I thought of the irony: I set out for the West 10 years earlier. Now, the West had come to me.
The diesel motor was nailing. It was the most natural sound, but I hadn’t heard it in a decade. All these little things…
The taxi driver was an old man in a suit. He had a heavy Saxon accent. He frowned when I told him the destination. “Streichwitz? Never heard of it before.”
“Do you know Eisenhuettenstadt?”
“Y–e–a–h?” He stretched the word probably because he hadn’t expected such a long ride. “That’s quite a fare,“ he said giving me the once–over.
“Don’t worry. I have enough money,“ I said and showed him a few hundred mark bills.
A smile flashed across his wrinkled face. “Alrighty!” he said and hit the gas.
“I thought they closed the celeb jail in December 89,” he started the conversation.
“Well, you’ve been informed incorrectly,” I said looking at the town I had been “living in” for the last ten years. “As you see, it’s still open.”
“How long were you in for?” he said.
I told him.
“Wow!” He whistled. “What did you do? Kill somebody?”
“No,” I said. “Attempted flight from the Republic.”
“Really?” He took his eyes off the road and shot me a doubtful glance. “I thought…” He started but then changed his mind. “However, then you’re entering a whole new world. Before the collapse of the wall, I drove a Volga. Now I drive this.” He pointed at the Mercedes star in the center of the steering wheel. “That’s what I call a car. But you have to be fair. Not everything was bad in the GDR. I know a lot of people who want the old system back because they lost their jobs. I mean, what was the rent back then?—Twenty marks. And now the rents are going through the roof. Some people have to pay ten times as much as they used to. They can’t cope anymore. I mean, it’s nice that the shops are full and that we can travel abroad. But what good is it if you don’t have the money? And let me tell you something, I’ve been over there a couple of times, and I have to say they treat us like we are second–class citizens.”
I listened but made no comment. I hadn’t been to the West yet and didn’t know if an East German was treated like a second–class German there. If it was true, I couldn’t care less. I actually liked the idea because now they knew what it was like… I knew it was schadenfreude and mean thinking, so I expelled the thought. It wasn’t the time to have a grudge against anybody. Now was the time to rejoice. And that’s what I did in my mind.
Since I didn’t react to what he said, the old man stopped talking at one point. For the best part of the two and a half hour’s ride, I looked out the window feeling great as a free man. When we turned from the highway into the narrow, bumpy road leading up to Streichwitz, I got a sense of home. There were the woods where I used to play cowboys and Indians with the other kids and the hills where I skied in winter. Scenes from my childhood were running through my mind. I thought of how much I hated this sloping road when cycling home from the hard training in the sports promotion unit, all worn out and hardly able to keep myself on the bike. I saw the twelve–year–old confidently cycling down the hill on his way to the entrance test for the physical education college in Frankfurt (Oder). He was picturing himself as a great athlete who one day would win gold medals for his country, the GDR. I saw him coming back in the afternoon, exhausted, pedaling up the hill with tears in his eyes… I was about to tell the old man but then thought, “Forget it, he wouldn’t understand.”
The first thing I noticed when getting out of the taxi was the silence. It was only broken by the barking of a dog and the distant sound of a circular saw. It was classic Streichwitz! I heard my heart pounding when I rang the front door bell of my parent’s house. When nobody answered, I took a step back and looked over to the house my parents had bought for my brother. It was about a hundred meters away and still looked like a building site. I flinched when I heard somebody yelling: “They’re in Frankfurt to pick up their granddaughter.”
I turned around and saw Frau Behlke, the biggest gossip in the village. My, my! Still well informed, but her eyesight didn’t seem to be the best anymore. When I walked over, the old lady recognized me. “Is that you Andy?!” she exclaimed. “Oh God, it’s so terrible what they did to you! I didn’t know that you were out. How long have you been in there?”
I told her and she shook her head in disbelief.
“Your daughter is such a pretty thing,” she said. “She’s the spitting image of you. Come on! Let me show you where your parents hide the spare key.”
We walked over to our house, and she showed me.
“Anything else?” I said when I was about to insert the key into the keyhole since she made no move to leave.
“Oh!” she said getting the message. “Maybe you wanna come over later?”
“Maybe,” I said watching her leave.
Entering the house, I couldn’t help but smile. There was the typical odor I hadn’t smelled for ten years, a mixture of cat and dog. I opened the living room door and banged it shut again. What the fuck! I took a deep breath. Of course! Old Lando had been dead a long time. My parents had a new dog now, new to me that is. This one was a mixture of Spitz, German Shepherd and a few other breeds. Of course, he couldn’t know that I had a right to be in this house. The snarling and barking continued on the other side of the door while I was taking in the shock. I cracked open the door again to take a second peek. He went for me immediately. He wasn’t very big but nevertheless seemed determined to defend his home.
I thought. What could be done? Was this dog going to stop me from entering my parent’s living room? No way! As the saying goes: His bark is worse than his bite. I was ready to take my chances. I looked around the hall. The best weapon I could find was a carpet beater. Armed with this, I pushed the door open and entered the living room. The dog kept barking but was retreating. So the saying was correct.
I took a look around. The living room looked entirely different. The old tiled stove was gone. There were radiators under the windows now. The new space was used as a sitting area. Accompanied by the barking of the dog, I inspected the rest of the house. The whole place had been remodeled. There even was a second bathroom upstairs. I liked it.
After I’d seen everything, I made myself something to eat. Eventually, the dog stopped barking, but he kept a watchful eye on me. As soon as I moved, he would start barking again though with less intensity than at the beginning. When I tried to offer him friendship, he snarled. Obviously, we weren’t close enough yet to do this. However, there was some sort of armistice.
After I ate, I left the house for a walk. I did a tour through the village only to find out that nothing had changed. When I was in front of my brother’s house and about to knock on the door, I heard Frau Behlke’s voice again: “They’re all at Harry’s place. He’s having a birthday party.”
“Okay!” I said and waved at her. I didn’t really know Harry. His family had moved to Streichwitz after I moved to Eisenhuettenstadt. Nevertheless, I headed for his place. My brother didn’t believe his eyes when he saw me enter. He was there with his girlfriend. I had seen her a few times in Eisenhuettenstadt back in the days. I was immediately the star guest. I drank and talked and had a really nice time.
I went back home around midnight. Nobody was there yet. I waited and passed the time watching TV. I was about to fall asleep in front of the TV when I saw the reflection of headlights in the window. Car doors slammed. Then I heard my mother’s voice. “The door’s open. Didn’t you lock it?”
My father said something I couldn’t hear over the noise of the barking dog. The front door opened. Then the living room door cracked open. My mother winced, then gazed at me as if I was a ghost. Probably because it was a physical impossibility to her that I was in her living room. She moved one hand to her mouth and covered it in a gesture of desperation. “Don’t tell me you broke out again!” she said and swallowed. I could tell from her pleading expression what an awful notion this was to her.
I laughed, walked toward her and took her in my arms. “No Mutti, everything’s all right. I am officially released!” I kissed her.
She wasn’t able to say anything. There were just tears of joy running down her cheeks.
Then my father entered the living room holding the hand of a little girl. It was my daughter. She was to come along and visit me the next day. She was the surprise. She was 11 years old and had never knowingly seen me before.
I approached her, bent down and pulled her into a tight hug. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I was free, and my loved ones were around me. I still couldn’t believe it. The night before, I had slept in the bed in my tiny prison cell, and now I was here all of a sudden. Images of me pacing in my cell flashed through my mind. So many times I had been at the end of my tether and on the verge of giving up, but somehow I never did, and this was my reward, my reward for pulling through. I looked at my daughter, and my eyes welled up. I saw a long, straight highway in my mind. It was my future. I had no clue where it led, but I had a damn good feeling.
I met Andreas again. He was released right after the collapse of the wall in December 1989. Seeing him, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Had I stolen eight years of his life? I remembered the terrified expression on his face when I opened the door to get him out of the cell. Not in his wildest dreams had he believed that I would fulfill my promise. He hadn’t been prepared at all to come along and yet he did. My parents had been in contact with his parents over the years. That’s why I knew he had had a very hard time. I even heard he was on the verge of committing suicide. However, he didn’t seem to hold a grudge against me. We went for a drink and talked about everything under the sun except the prison break and our time behind bars. Now he was living somewhere in southern Germany. He said he was doing well. I was happy to hear this. The other two, Joerg and Burkhard, I never saw again. I learned though they had been in Bautzen I and Brandenburg respectively and were released the same day I was.
I returned to the place of my misery, which is a museum today. The people in charge there were pleased to meet me. They gave me the keys so I could do my own round. Faded memories reemerged when I saw the isolation unit and my old cell one thirty–two. There were plates with pictures and short CVs of their former inmates beside some cells. My name and picture weren’t there. It didn’t bother me. It only left me wondering. Apparently, you are only presentable as long as you don’t use violence when trying to escape from a dictatorship…
I asked for Edmund and got some information. He was released in the early 1990s when Bautzen II was finally closed for good and turned into a museum. He was dead by now. He had spent the final years of his life in an old folks’ home in Bautzen. So his dream did come true: He had enough chances to see the beautiful deer in the woods, in marked contrast to the people he once mercilessly sent in front of the firing squads.
Visiting Bautzen II was only one part of my program for the day. For the second part, I drove out in the country. My navigation system led me through a rolling landscape. It was a strange feeling. I pictured Bobby taking this route to work every day while I languished in my solitary cell. I had tracked him down a few weeks earlier. There were a few questions in connection with the research for my book that I wanted to ask him. It was a long shot, but I tried it just the same. His wife picked up the phone. I gave her my name and asked to speak with her husband. After a long pause, I heard Bobby’s voice, “Is that you, Andre?”
I couldn’t believe it. I had been so sure he would hang up once he heard my name. But he took the call and even addressed me by my first name, almost like we were old buddies.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “I’m writing a book, and I’d like to ask you a few questions if it’s okay with you.”
“Sure,” he said. “How’s your mother doing? Is… she still alive?”
“She’s doing fine,” I said, wondering why he asked. Then something crossed my mind that had never occurred to me before: The first one and a half years, Bobby was extremely hostile toward me, just like everybody else. That changed after my mother visited me for the first time. I’m just guessing, but my mother was only 42 and pretty attractive back then. Besides, she didn’t speak the Brandenburg dialect the Saxons hate so much. In fact, she is from Saxony herself. So Bobby fancied my mother and let me “feel it.” Was that it? Wow!…
“You can call me by my first name, Christian,” he said. “So what do you want to know?”
“There’s one thing,” I said. “Do you remember that general who came to my cell back in ‘82?”
“Hmm… that’s a long time ago?” Bobby said. “Why do you want to know?”
“It’s not that important. I’m only wondering who he was?” I said.
“82, 82,” I heard Bobby thinking out loud. “Honestly, I don’t remember. It might have been major general Lustig.”
“Who was he?” I said.
“Chief of the department of corrections,” Bobby said.
“Okay. Thank you,” I said.
“That’s it?” Bobby sounded almost disappointed.
“For the time being,” I said. “Can I call you again when I have more questions?”
“Sure. You can even drop by when you’re in the neighborhood. I’d like to see you again.”
And there I was now in the neighborhood. I was looking at a tenement. It wasn’t very pretty. His wife answered the door. She seemed to know who I was. She got Bobby, and he welcomed me heartily. There wasn’t much left of his massive frame. He had become an old man.
“Andre, I never had anything against you because of the color of your skin, believe me,” were his first words.
I didn’t get it. Why would he say something like this? It could only suggest that the other guards did.
As if he wanted to prove that he was telling the truth, he proudly showed me a photograph of a beautiful mixed–race child. “That’s my granddaughter.”
We sat in his living room. Bobby’s wife served us beer. On doctor’s orders, he could only drink alcohol–free beer.
“So how are you doing?” I asked trying to start the conversation.
“Not too well,” Bobby said. “You know I’ve been tried for mistreatment of prisoners?”
“No!” I said, surprised to hear this.
“Some ex–prisoners came forward,” he said. “Guys I had allegedly beaten. I got away with a suspended sentence. But what really hurt was the punitive fine. It was a real farce. The witnesses were bought. Nothing happened the way they described it.” Bobby looked at me as if he expected some kind of support or at least sympathy. But I didn’t say anything. I was sure though the allegations were wrong or at least blown out of proportion. I mean, there were a few asshole prisoners who had it coming in Bautzen II. But I can say from my experience that the guards only got physical when someone totally refused to follow their orders. But that’s the same in every prison in the world I guess. As for Bobby, I knew that he was tough. He didn’t take shit from anybody, but he wasn’t a thug. Rosycheeks was. He was someone who took pleasure in bullying prisoners, but not Bobby. But I guess they needed to punish someone. So they chose Bobby as a scapegoat even though he was just a little cog in the big wheel. It was ridiculous because the ones to blame were the ones in power, the leadership of the Soviet–backed communist party. And a lot of them got away scot–free.
There was one thing I always wanted to know, so I asked him: “Has anybody else spent such a long time in solitary?”
Bobby took a swig of his alcohol–free beer and thought. “Yes,” he finally said. “There was one guy when I started back in ‘62. I think his name was Hertinger. He was the former foreign minister of the GDR. I only dealt with him for a few months. He was released then. But he too was in solitary and total isolation, even ten years if I remember correctly.”
I got my phone out and googled the foreign ministers of the GDR. Bobby was right. He had only mixed up the first letter of the man’s name. It wasn’t Hertinger but Dertinger.
“How are Rosycheeks, Rooster and Trixi?” I said.
“I don’t know about Rosycheeks and Rooster,” Bobby said. “Trixi works in Bautzen I now. He’s not in a leading position, though.” The way he answered my question suggested that he didn’t want to talk about them. They were his former comrades after all. I understood. But I had another question regarding Rooster who started working in Bautzen II in ‘83. He had the same rank as Bobby but was obviously younger and still seemed to be his superior. “How come?” I said. “Was he transferred from Bautzen I back then?”
Bobby shook his head. “He came straight from a training center in Moscow.”
Okay! That explained a few things. Now I understood where he got his ideas about reorganization from.
“And what about the former warden?”
“He sells insurance now,” Bobby said. “Most of the younger colleagues were transferred to Bautzen I. We used to meet for a drink from time to time, but now I can’t do that anymore.” He pointed at his alcohol–free beer. “When I listen to their stories, I’m happy I’m retired. Nowadays prisoners do whatever they want. There’s no more discipline. Corrections are going downhill in Germany.”
Bobby asked me about my life, and I told him over another beer. He said he had seen a documentary about me on TV. We had a real nice conversation, like old buddies indeed. “Do you remember what you said to me when I first arrived at Bautzen II?” I asked.
Bobby thought, then shrugged.
“You cause any trouble in here, and I’ll beat the living shit out of you,” I said and laughed.
Bobby didn’t laugh. Instead, he swallowed and averted his gaze. I felt a little sorry for him.
“I wouldn’t have a beer with any other of your former comrades,” I said. “I’ve always appreciated your fairness—apart from the very beginning of course.”
Bobby stared off and worked his jaw. After a long moment of silence, he looked me in the eyes and said: “Your lot was hard enough. There was no need to add to it.”
Thank you for reading my book. I hope you enjoyed it and gained some inspiration from it. The extent to which you identify with the extreme measures I took is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fact that racism, both hidden and open, together with having to live under a dictatorial regime can drive people to extremes.
I have written my story to point out certain things. Some might shrug their shoulders at the problems I describe, but I’m sure there are people out there too who are facing or have faced similar difficulties. Let’s be honest, even though what I experienced dates back a few decades, certain things haven’t really changed. Considering the current situation for foreign–looking people like me in Germany (triggered by the debate about refugees), I’m even inclined to say society has taken a step backward. The only thing that has changed is that “we” are free to leave now… But it’s an extremely complex problem; I admit that.
I never in my wildest dreams thought that one day I would write a book. But books gave me so much comfort when I was in prison. They were my only friends and literally saved my life. And it was there and then that I decided to become a writer. I think writers belong to the most influential people in the world, and I believe what George Bernard Shaw once said is true: “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.”
I would be very grateful if you took the time to leave a review on the respective platform. Reader’s opinions are important to me and invaluable in spreading the word about a book.
Bonn, August 2016
In this true story, the author describes his life as a biracial boy and young man in the German Democratic Republic. Even though racism contradicts the communist ideology, the author was confronted with it, hidden and open, from childhood on. He lets the reader know how difficult it was for him to cope with this situation, and the high price he had to pay when his response was aggressiveness and violence.
After a failed escape attempt to the West and a following prison break, he was hit by the full sharpness of the law. Being imprisoned in notorious Bautzen II, he learned the hard way how the communist justice system treated prisoners who they considered as enemies of the state and that the Stasi wasn't done with them after they had been sentenced. The reader sees the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of the author and their impact on his life.
- Author: A. Schneider
- Published: 2017-05-04 01:05:14
- Words: 81223