Lit-Mag #39 – Berlin
Klaus sat under the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in a mental stupor. The incessant buzzing, which he heard all day, and which ringed in his ears as he tried, in vain, to fall to sleep each night, numbed him. It stopped short any attempt at pleasant thoughts, of memories of his childhood growing up on the banks of the Elbe. Of lazy summer days, hot knoedelsuppe, and the warmth of his mother’s hug.
With the buzzing in his ears, all Klaus could think about was the time when it all began, twenty-two years ago, when he first stepped into his cell. The coldness of the cement floor, the hardness of the bare cot, and the glaring fluorescent bulb, which burned all day and night.
The buzzing could drown out the sound of laughter, which came to the halls of Hohenschoenhausen about as often the sun poking through the grayness of Berlin’s November. But that day laughter came to Hohenschoenhausen, and it came with gusto. It was not a kind of polite laughter, filling an awkward silence, or a joyful belly laugh of a father remembering his son’s first attempt at riding a bike. It was a conspiratorial laugh, with two parties parroting each other, feeding off one another.
It was this particular laugh that awoke Klaus from his stupor. He sat a little straighter at the information desk where he worked, and listened carefully as it came closer. This laugh he had heard before.
In the beginning, he had thought hearing his interrogator’s laugh was a good sign. That it showed he was human. He thought maybe the stories he had heard weren’t true – that they would ask him a few questions and he could explain to them it was a mistake. A youthful indiscretion. Then he could go back to where the air smelled like sunshine and cut grass, not peeling paint, cigarettes and disinfectant.
But Klaus soon learned that laughing did not make Udo, his interrogator, any more human. If anything, it was a reason to worry. The more Klaus suffered under sleep deprivation and endless interrogations, the more Udo would laugh. Sometimes it seemed like the laughter was all Klaus could remember from the interrogations. Or maybe it was all he allowed himself to remember.
And there he sat, faced with it again. He was a free man now, and had been for nearly twenty years. Twenty years since the Wall. He wondered how the passage of time could seem so long, and yet so short. Twenty years, more than half of his lifetime, and he was still at Hohenschönhausen. Now, instead of lying on his cot, staring at the bulb in the ceiling and waiting for news of the prison he’d be transferred to next, he sat at his information desk, handing out brochures to tourists. He gave them tours of the cells he and his friends once occupied. People would shake their heads in disbelief at his story, and that always gave him the encouragement to give more details. He was one of their most effective witnesses to history.
His friends questioned him all the time. How can you work there? Why do you stay? Do you have to live in the neighborhood where they all still live? Klaus’ friends had left Berlin long ago. Most never wanted to return. They moved back to the country near his hometown, or as far away from Germany as they could get. Tokyo. Sydney. South Africa. They were able to start new lives, to let the opened border free them from their cages.
Klaus wasn’t. The fall of the Wall meant his freedom from prison. It meant seeing his family again, without fear of repercussion. But it had not brought an understanding of why he was arrested. If anything, it confused him. If the system was weak enough to come down so quickly, and peacefully, how had they been strong enough to have him arrested in the first place and to keep him in prison for those years?
Klaus had never openly challenged anything in his life before that June day in 1987. Like all of the other boys in his village, he had joined the Young Pioneers. That’s what you were expected to do. He studied hard and was rewarded with a spot at the Technical University in Dresden. He would have started there the year of his arrest.
But Klaus’ one weakness was rock and roll. He had a cousin, Christian, in East Berlin who got records from the West. Klaus never asked how. He only thanked Christian for passing the records on to him when he was through with them. Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” The Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet.” David Bowie. Pink Floyd.
He would lie on his twin bed at night, with the orange corduroy bedspread neatly tucked under his pillow, and study the album covers. At first he would play the records at a very low volume, only late at night, after his parents had gone to bed. Then Christian got him a set of headphones and it made it easier. He didn’t want his parents to worry about his rock habit. They worked at a local porcelain factory and were members of the party. What was most important to them was that Klaus succeed in school.
And that was important to him, too, because he didn’t want to let them down. Still, he couldn’t say no when Christian invited him to Berlin to hear the concert. Three days of music, Genesis, David Bowie, and the Eurythmics, near the Reichstag in West Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. Christian and his friends said they knew a place where they could listen. They wouldn’t see Bowie, but they would be able to hear him.
So Klaus put on his blue jeans and a jeans jacket Christian had given him the year before and packed a change of clothes in a backpack. His mother tousled his sun-kissed hair when they said good-bye. She thought he was simply visiting his cousin. She wouldn’t seem him again for two and a half years. His father, who was at work when Klaus left for Berlin, died of a heart attack during Klaus’ second year in prison. His mother said it came most unexpectedly when he was at the factory. It was a good thing, she said, that it came so quickly.
Klaus rarely allowed himself to remember the first moments they got to the walled-off concert. He didn’t like to think about the pulsing beat, the cheers of the crowd, how he could feel so simultaneously free and so closed off. The feeling lasted only the briefest of moments until the vans came. He hadn’t noticed that others in the East Berlin crowd were chanting “Gorbachev, Gorbachev” though he was told later dozens of times that they were. Klaus was naïve enough not to understand the meaning of the vans at first, but he could tell by the dread on Christian’s face that it wasn’t good. Within seconds they were separated, thrown into the back of the windowless white vans. The kinds of vans used by grocers. The kind of vans used by the Stasi.
They drove more than an hour to get to Hohenschönhausen, even though, he would later learn, the drive should have taken half that long. The moment he stepped out of that van, alone, surrounded by plain-clothed agents was the beginning of the rest of his life.
And here, coming down the hall in his direction, was the man at the heart of it all. Here was the interrogator who so openly mocked Klaus’ innocence and naivete, who read from the Rolling Stones lyrics and tried to tie Klaus to what he said was their subversive nature. Here was the man who threatened Klaus that if he didn’t confess, his parents would lose their jobs, that they would lose everything.
Klaus knew that some of the old Stasi officers liked to tour the prison. It was a homecoming, of sorts, for them. A colleague of his, Gerhard, had seen his former guard this way two years before. When they came face to face, Gerhard froze. His guard looked him in the eye and Gerhard quickly glanced away. A faint smile had passed the guard’s lips, and he continued down the hall, listening as a young guide gave an earnest tour. A week later Gerhard drove his car at top speed into a tree on a two-lane road in Brandenburg.
Klaus vowed to himself he would not do the same. He would not glance away. He would not give Udo the satisfaction. Now it was his turn.
He stood up at his desk, pressed his gray pants down with his hands, and tried to be ready. “Will he recognize me?” Klaus wondered. In his mind he pictured himself from 1987. Tall, thin from hours of swimming, blonde, with teeth as white as the milk he drank each day for breakfast.
He didn’t look in the mirror very often anymore, but when he did, he had trouble recognizing himself. What is left of his hair was the color of ash, with white woven through the sides. His once open and friendly blue eyes were hidden by heavy lids and webbed with red veins from years of little sleep.
His once proud shoulders were now weighed down and rolled forward.
So it should not have been surprising that Udo Lack did not recognize his former captor on first glance. He was distracted, too, by his former Stasi colleague walking by his side and laughing about a prisoner who had wet his bed each night.
“Herr Lack,” Klaus said, his voice barely escaping his lips. Udo did not hear over his friend’s laughter.
“Herr Lack!” Klaus repeated. This time he was shouting.
Udo and his colleague stopped and gazed at Klaus with equal parts curiosity and annoyance.
“Ja,” he said, looking Klaus in the eye. He could still master a stare.
Klaus did not look away, even though he could feel the sweat start to pool at the base of his neck. It unnerved him to see Udo so calm and happy, and looking so fit. He was at least 15 years older than Klaus, but had no slumped shoulders or paunch belly. His skin was evenly tanned, even thought it was early May, and his chestnut brown hair appeared free of gray.
“Don’t you remember me?” Klaus said.
“No,” Udo said, still holding his stare. “Should I?”
“You knew me 22 years ago. Before the Wall fell.”
“I knew quite a number of people then,” Udo said, and he and his friend shared a smile.
“You knew me here. At Hohenschönhausen. My name is Klaus Heilemann.”
Udo looked at him some more, clearly not remembering.
“The David Bowie concert. 1987.”
“Oh, right,” Udo said. He laughed a hearty laugh, this time working himself up into a coughing fit so strong his colleague had to thump him on the back.
When he regained his voice, he looked at his colleague and began to explain. “There were many others here from that concert,” he said. “David Bowie, and some other bands. They played at the Reichstag, so close to the Wall we could hear. Of course, they planned it that way. They thought they could taunt us.”
“I remember,” the colleague said.
Udo pointed at Klaus. “This guy and his buddies go to hear them. They were really close. I don’t know how they got that close to the Wall. They thought Bowie gave them a free ticket. All he gave them was a free ticket here!” He laughed again and his colleague joined him.
“You ruined my life,” Klaus blurted out. It was a simple statement, but one he had dreamt of saying for years.
Udo’s smile faded. “No, you ruined your own life. You knew the risks.”
“No,” said Klaus. “I didn’t.”
“Well,” Udo said. “Then you are even dumber than I thought.”
Klaus curled his toes in his shoes and clenched his teeth in anger. “Why should it have been a risk, just to hear a rock concert? Just to have fun?”
He was shouting again and a small group of tourists had stopped to hear the exchange.
“Because that’s the way it was,” Udo said. “Those were the rules.”
“Well, fuck the rules!” Klaus shouted. A vein throbbed at his left temple and he rubbed it, trying to make the pain go away.
Udo scoffed. He took a pack of Marlboro reds out of his pocket, removed a cigarette, lit it, and took a long drag. When he exhaled, he did so directly at Klaus.
“You know, I saw the Stones in concert two years ago here in Berlin,” he said. “I took my son, and bought him a t-shirt.” Looking at his colleague again, he said: “It was a good show.”
Klaus felt his mouth drying out like the desert.
Udo stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray on Klaus’ desk. He reached into his wallet, pulled out a card, and handed it to Klaus. “You really need to move on,” he said. “If you ever come to Munich, call me, I’ll find you a nice apartment.”
Klaus looked at the card. It was for a real estate company, and under Udo’s name it said: “owner.”
“He’s the most successful broker in Bavaria,” his friend added, patting Udo on the back.
The two of them continued walking down the hall, leaving Klaus alone, standing there, staring at the card with the sound of the fluorescent bulbs buzzing in his ears.