Dizzying day in Berlin as we went from the former Stasi prison to Berlin’s City Hall to the largest remnant of the Berlin Wall that remains. It really was from prison to freedom.
We spent several hours on the morning of our second day at the oppressive Hohenschönhausen Memorial. It was at a location that was once a mystery, and unknown to Berliners. If you want to see what it looked like and how it worked, watch the movie “The Lives of Others.” I watched it during the week before my trip with the RIAS Commission.
We were led through the halls and cells of this place with an animated, yet strict, German. “And now, ve vill goooooooooo to visit the cells so dark, so light- and air-less the prisoners knew it as the ‘submarine’. Arrrrre you reaaaaaady?” For emphasis, he would draw out the syllables of words for seconds on end.
If the intention was to make us fearful and tense and hemmed in by the walls and cells, he succeeded. I wanted to tear out my hair by the time we got back to the outside courtyard. Where, even when the prison was operating, had a bed of beautifully tended red roses.
And now to freedom.
After a quick stop at Berlin’s city hall – we were bused to the East Side Gallery. There we met Kani Alavi, an artist of Iranian descent who lived right next to Checkpoint Charlie when the Berlin Wall was first torn down in 1989. That night, he hatched the idea to get artists to paint on the remaining parts of the wall. 180 artists from around the world joined him – and the remnant of the wall they painted upon is now known as the East Side Gallery.
To meet Alavi, a very charismatic man, was to meet a little piece of Berlin history. We visited his studio in West Berlin, every inch covered with pile after pile of paintings, ink drawings, postcards with pieces of the wall (only 5 Euro) (yes, of course, I bought one). In his private space: a very traditional – albeit somber – painting. The only piece of art he has left from Iran.
The Iranian government burned all the rest of my paintings, he told us. This is all that survived.
From Prison to Freedom, indeed.