In an unassuming former rectory in the eastern German city of Potsdam, Soviet spy catchers once tortured suspects to wring out confessions before executing their victims or dispatching them to Siberian gulags.
The jail on Leistikowstrasse was part of a large Soviet military complex during the Cold War, sealed off from the citizens of Potsdam by barbed wire and guards, and swathed in secrecy and rumors.
At first run by the counter-intelligence agency SMERSH -- an acronym coined by Josef Stalin that means “Death to Spies” in Russian -- it later came under the KGB.
The building, the only Soviet remand prison in East Germany still in its original state, is now open to the public with a new, permanent display exploring the crimes of Stalin’s regime and the suffering of the German and Soviet inmates who languished there, uncertain whether they would live or die.
“It’s a question of ensuring it never happens again,” 83-year-old Friedrich Klausch, a former prisoner, said at the opening this month. “We do have radical forces in this country. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure we can carry on living in peace and freedom.”
The jail is tucked away behind the gracious parkland of Cecilienhof Palace -- the scene of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, where Stalin met with the leaders of Britain, the U.S. and France to carve up Germany after the allied victory in World War II. Days after the leaders left town, the Soviets began imprisoning their first spy suspects.
In the postwar years, the inmates were mainly German. After 1955, they were almost exclusively citizens of the Soviet Union -- military deserters and dissidents as well as criminals.
Klausch’s story recalls the many other accounts of Germans imprisoned by Soviet counter-intelligence in the years of political paranoia after World War II. At the age of 18, he was arrested on his way home to Potsdam from a West Berlin cinema in 1948.
Interrogated over six months in the Leistikowstrasse jail, he was sentenced to 25 years for spying. After a spell in the Sachsenhausen labor camp in Berlin, he was deported to a gulag north of the Arctic circle to work in the mines. He didn’t return home for eight years.
The new exhibition includes the letter he was finally permitted to write to his family, seven years after his disappearance.
“It was only in 1955 that I found out there were two German states,” he said.
Behind the peeling facade of the former jail, visitors can inspect the tiny, dark and damp basement cells where prisoners were confined with no bedding and no ventilation. They were subjected to beatings and interminable interrogations, and deprived of sleep and food.
Women and children were among those tortured; the youngest inmate in the jail was 12.
Waldemar Hoeffding, who was a prisoner between 1945 and 1946, recalled the interrogation tactics and fabricated confessions in his memoirs of the jail.
“Some ‘fatalists’ sign their statement without even reading it,” Hoeffding wrote. “When I asked why they did that, I usually got the same answer, ‘There’s no point; they will do what they want anyway, and I will just lengthen my torture and possibly worsen my fate.”
It is still not known how many were confined in Leistikowstrasse -- so far, the fate of only 60 German and 10 Soviet prisoners has been recorded.
The exhibition features the biographies of 50 former prisoners. Some stories are heartbreaking: Sixteen-year-old schoolboys shot in 1946 on suspicion of insurrection because they skipped Russian lessons; a Ukrainian Red Army soldier jailed in 1970 for trying to escape to West Germany.
When the last Soviet troops left Potsdam in 1994, the building was returned to the church foundation that was its original owner.
An association including victims of Stalinism, protestant church officials and the regional branch of Amnesty International opened the house to the public and staged an exhibition about the jail’s past.
Members of that association complain that the state-funded exhibition that has now opened in its place is too soft on the Soviet Union. In a reminder that this is still living history, protesters at the opening formed a chain and handed out flyers.
“The dark dungeons and blocked and barred windows have mostly disappeared and the light-flooded cells give the impression of a normal prison,” the flier said. “Why is the exhibition trying to play down the crimes of the KGB?”
Guenter Morsch, the director of the Brandenburg Memorial Foundation which now runs the former jail, said he regretted the conflicts with the association.
“We hope that we can set these aside, in talks and in mutual respect, after the opening,” he said in a statement.
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