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From Stasi prison to parliament and back again

Visitors on a tour of the former Stasi prison might be lucky enough to come across Vera Lengsfeld, whose life story is so compelling that Hollywood snapped up the movie rights.

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Photo by Craig Hull

Visitors on a tour of the former Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen might be lucky enough to come across Vera Lengsfeld, a woman whose life story is so compelling that Hollywood snapped up the movie rights.  

Vera Lengsfeld works as a tour guide at the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, formerly the main Stasi prison. Here, her warm smile and kind face contrast sharply with the dismal surroundings. Though she is 59 years old, Lengsfeld looks substantially younger, and you’d never guess that underneath the blonde bob, chic black dress and stilettos is a woman whose bold struggle helped topple the GDR.

The title of her new book explains her motive perfectly: Ich wollte frei sein – I wanted to be free. Lengsfeld’s story is so packed with drama that Hollywood agents considered turning her life into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

When she first arrived to Berlin-Hohenschönhausen after being arrested in January of 1988, Lengsfeld thought she’d be quickly released as she had been after previous run-ins with the Stasi. “I thought they would have to release me after 48 hours at the most,” she said. “I didn’t realise that this time, it was more serious.”

Dissidence in the GDR

Lengsfeld was born the daughter of a Stasi intelligence officer and raised to believe the system in the GDR was just, fair and exactly what the country needed after the abomination of the Third Reich.

That was until adolescence piqued her spirit of rebellion. “I began to see a society ruled by a dictatorship that forbade freedom of expression,” she said. When she studied philosophy at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Lengsfeld met like-minded people and in her mid-twenties, she befriended many well-known writers and musicians who publicly said what others could not.

“Prominent people were less likely to be arrested, so they felt obliged to speak out,” explained Lengsfeld. This didn’t work for very long because all of them, sooner or later, got passports and immigrated to the West.”

Those like Lengsfeld who were left behind decided to do something themselves: “We discovered that the only free space in East Germany were the rooms of the Lutheran church.” In 1981, when she was 29, she jointly founded the Friedenskreis Pankow (Pankow Peace Circle).

In the local church, the group organised discussions, exhibitions and theatre plays and published small newspapers and leaflets, all of which opposed the regime. It was then that Lengsfeld, an atheist at the time, became a born-again Christian and married poet Knud Wollenberger.

Although the Stasi couldn’t interfere with what happened in the church, they gathered information and harassed people organising activities there. Lengsfeld’s father lost his job as a Stasi officer even as he attempted to thwart her actions.

“I myself lost my job as a philosopher in the science academy in 1983,” she said. “I was not allowed to travel to other socialist countries, and my flat was frequently searched.” She was taken into custody several times but always released.

As the years passed, the group decided to leave the secure rooms of the church and be active in the open. In January 1988, Lengsfeld joined an official state demonstration with a banner that read, “Every citizen of East Germany has the right to express his opinion freely and openly.”

She recalled: “This verse was article 27 of the GDR constitution, so I was certain that they could not arrest me. I joined the demonstration alone, because I knew that if there were more than four of us, it would be considered unlawful assembly. But they arrested me and charged me with unlawful assembly anyway, saying that because I thought about getting other people involved, I was guilty.”

The prison that never existed

As far as the residents of East Berlin were concerned, the prison at Hohenschönhausen, in the district of Lichtenberg, didn’t even exist. It was not spoken about and could not be found on any maps. The people living in the surrounding area all worked for the complex in some capacity, as guards, personnel or interrogators.

“The prison itself was in a huge closed zone surrounded by walls and watchtowers,” said Lengsfeld. “The world for most East Berliners ended there. Every child learned that they should not ask what is in the closed zone and for an adult to ask such questions would be espionage.”

However, Lengsfeld knew of the place and was well prepared for it. A friend, the psychologist and author Jürgen Fuchs, had written a book about his detention there, published after he escaped to the West (Vernehmungsprotokolle, 1978). “I had read it years before,” said Lengsfeld, “but it all came back very vividly when I myself became a prisoner.”

In his book, Fuchs analysed the psychological torture used by the Stasi. “So I knew what they were trying to do and I think I was a very hard case for them to crack. That’s probably why I was only kept there for one month.”

To this day, Lengsfeld remembers a situation in which she was able to steal a small triumph over the Stasi intelligence. On her initial interrogation, the Stasi officer demanded she say her name. “I said, ‘Well, if you don’t even know who you arrested, I’m not going to tell you.’ He said, ‘To start the interview you must state your name. These are the rules, and we must obey the rules.’ I told him he might have to obey the rules, but I didn’t, so I refused to give my name. We sat in silence for an hour or so until he finally said we could begin without me stating my name. It was a tiny victory.”

During the first years of its use, the prison in Hohenschönhausen was run by the Soviets to detain enemies of the state. Conditions were tough and physical torture was daily routine. With the arrival of the Stasi, those methods changed.

“The main form of torture was psychological,” said Lengsfeld. “The advantage for the torturer being that a destroyed soul leaves no marks. The main method was isolation. There were up to 100 prisoners there at any given time, but no prisoner ever saw another or ever had contact with the outside world. It was total isolation of the human being; you were given nothing to read, there were no windows in the cell, you did not know if it was night or day. The guards even wore special shoes so they could not be heard walking the halls. It was very hard to endure.”

To cope, Lengsfeld tried to remember all the poems she had learned, sing all the songs that she knew and repeat all the theatre plays she had seen. And there was another tip she remembered from Fuchs’ book: “During his prison time, he started to write a page of a book in his head, and he learned the text by heart. Then he wrote the next page, and so on. When he was thrown out of the country and moved to West Berlin, he had only to sit down and type the pages that he had memorized during his prison time. This is how his book came about.”

Exile and reunification

After one month of imprisonment, Lengsfeld was also finally thrown out of the country, but she refused to go to West Germany.

She was told there was an invitation for her from England. “This was a lie, but I went to England anyway,” she said. “I brought my two children with me. I was a very well-known dissident, and the authorities wanted to get rid of me, but I said I would not go without my children.”

In England she enrolled in a course on philosophy of religion at Cambridge. She kept her GDR passport and was told that she could return one year later. “I wanted to go back to show solidarity with fellow dissidents,” she recalled.

But as fate would have it, Lengsfeld returned to East Berlin on November 9, 1989. A few hours after her arrival, as she walked towards Bornholmer Brücke, the Berlin Wall came down.

“Two young men came down the street shouting, ‘The Wall came down 10 minutes ago!’ It was incredible. Really incredible. We went over the bridge, which was closed for East Germans for 28 years, and on the other side there was a bus stop. A bus came along and the driver asked, ‘What is going on? Why are all these people here?’ We told him, ‘We are East Berliners. The Wall has just come down.’ He made his passengers leave the bus and told us to get on. ‘I will give you a tour through the city,’ he said.”

New beginnings, old ghosts

Back in her now-reunified city, Lengsfeld resumed her work as a civil rights activist and served as a member of the Constitutional Commission on the reunification of West and East Germany.

In 1990 she was elected to the GDR parliament until its dissolution in November of that year. Her professional and private life seemed to be going perfectly until the following year, when she received a shattering phone call that revealed a heinous betrayal.

“An old friend of mine who published a weekly called Die Andere called me one night to tell me that the next day it would be published in his paper that Knud [Wollenberger, her husband] had been a Stasi spy.”

For most of their marriage, Wollenberger, whose code name was ‘Donald’, had told the Stasi not only details of his wife’s opposition to the government but also intimate details of dinner table conversations and even their sex life. She divorced him in 1992. This is a part of her life that Lengsfeld doesn’t like to dwell on. (A decade later he wrote to her begging her forgiveness, which she gave.)

Outside of her dissidence and private life, Lengsfeld is perhaps best known for a 2009 election campaign poster. Running as a Christian Democrat (CDU) candidate in Kreuzberg, she produced posters featuring enhanced photos of her cleavage beside Angela Merkel’s with the slogan, “Wir haben mehr zu bieten” – We have more to offer.

The posters were not up long on the lampposts; people eagerly took them down to keep as souvenirs. They were even featured on Japanese television and newspapers around the world.

“I agreed to run as a candidate for the CDU only on the condition that they let me do my own campaign. No one would listen to the usual Christian Democrat campaign, especially not in Kreuzberg, so I came up with that poster,” recounted Lengsfeld. “We only put half on the lampposts and put the other half on Ebay to fund the campaign. The highest selling price for one was £287. It was a huge success. I even know of four different dissertations about this poster – one in Vienna, one in Munich, one in Frankfurt and one in Riga.”

Although she was not elected, votes for the CDU dramatically increased in the area.

Back to Hohenschönhausen

Now Lengsfeld has left her political career behind and spends her time writing and giving English- and German-language tours through the former Stasi prison where she was detained, which has been a memorial site since 1994.

Since the vast majority of the buildings, equipment, furniture and fittings survived intact, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial provides an authentic picture of prison conditions in the GDR. Yet some visitors have found the memorial difficult to track down.

“A lot of people who once worked for the prison are still living in the area,” explained Lengsfeld. “A woman who was on my tour today told me she asked two people for directions to the prison, but they told her there was no such place. Still people try to deny its existence.”

Does Lengsfeld see the tours as therapeutic for herself or other former prisoners? “I don’t believe in this type of therapy. If you keep opening a wound, it will never heal. I did my first tour as a favour. If it had been difficult, I would never have continued. But I enjoyed it, so I chose to do it again.”

To take an English-language tour of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, visit www.stiftung-hsh.de or call 030 986 0823 032.

Ich wollte frei sein. Die Mauer, die Stasi, die Revolution came out in German on Herbig in July, 2011.