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A cell in Hohenschoenhausen prison
Former Stasi prisoner Harry Santos regularly takes visitors through his pastImage: DW

Stasi past

September 13, 2010

When he's not in his Berlin studio, artist Harry Santos leads tours of a notorious prison run by East Germany's secret police. Once a prisoner, he's now helping make a documentary of the place.


In the eastern Berlin district of Hohenschoenhausen, there is a sprawling complex featuring high walls, steel doors and barred windows. It's not a welcoming landscape, and never was meant to be, since it was a pre-trial detention center run by East Germany's secret police, the Stasi.

Today, it's a memorial, and Harry Santos wants to help make sure people never forget its history. Santos, once a prisoner here, now shows people the interior of the place and explains how prisoners were treated once they arrived. And along with his son, he's making a documentary so that a wider public can see how the East German regime dealt with many of its own people.

"I thought about my own death here," he said while taking a group of visitors through the cells in which prisoners were kept. There's a wooden cot in the cell, covered with a thin foam mattress. The other furnishings include a table with a chair, a toilet and a sink.

Just after the end of World War II, during the Soviet occupation and shortly thereafter, prisoners had it even worse. They were kept in the cellar, in pitch-black, tiny, dark cells, where they were often beaten or tortured.

"That didn't happen anymore when I arrived," he explains, but makes it clear that fear was the primary emotion among prisoners here. They often didn't know where they were or what they could expect. Interrogations went on for hours, or even days, and having recourse to a lawyer was simply unthinkable.

A desire to leave

The Stasi Hohenschoenhausen jail
The Hohenschoenhausen detention center was often the first stop for those who ran afoul of the GDR regimeImage: DW

There were lots of wide eyes and astonished looks on visitors' faces as they followed Santos through the former detention center and hear his story. He explains how it all began when he decided he wanted to leave the GDR and settle in West Germany.

His girlfriend was in the West and wanted him to join her, so he submitted several applications for an exit visa. They were all denied.

So he and a friend planed an escape, but the authorities discovered their plans and both landed in prison. Santos was sentenced to two years in jail. But he was lucky; he didn't have to serve his time. West Germany bought his freedom and on August 4, 1983, he left the GDR and moved to West Berlin.

But life in the West was not all roses, he said. Among leftist circles, his critical comments about the communist regime didn't get a sympathetic reception. There was a lot of admiration for the workers' state among those on the left.

Even when the Berlin Wall fell, Santos had mixed feelings.

"I had to fight for my freedom while others got theirs for doing nothing," he said of his emotions during that time. Soon enough, his unease soon turned into a sense of joy and triumph.

"We were right," he said, "We always said you can't live without freedom. And in the end, we were the victors."

A Berlin studio, a Berlin film

Today, Santos has a small studio where he paints and designs art objects. While he leads visitors through the former Stasi prison two days a week, he insists his experiences there do not color his entire life.

When he leaves Hohenschoenhausen to take the tram home, he can leave that nightmare behind, and his head is mostly occupied with other matters. That includes his art, which he describes as apolitical.

Harry Santos in his studio
Harry Santos says his art is largely apoliticalImage: DW

Still, he will never completely forget that part of his life, and together with his son Paul he has shot a film about the prison in which three former prisoners tell their story. In between interviews, there are scenes in which Santos plays a prisoner himself.

The two shot the film in only two days, although it took them two weeks to assemble and edit the material. The result is a half-hour of intense and compelling footage that father and son hope finds its way to German television sets.

Santos' son Paul, a tall young man with an open face, is the same age as reunified Germany. He knows about the GDR and the activities of the Stasi only from his father's stories. For him, freedom is something he takes for granted.

Next year, he'll apply to the film academy in the city of Potsdam, near Berlin. It's on the other side on the former Wall that once cut the city of his birth in two.

Author: Bettina Marx (jam)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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