Memorial centre Leistikowstrasse Documenting a commemorative site

Since the middle of the nineteen nineties the former Soviet remand prison in Potsdam has been open to the public. In the historic building and in the new part of the memorial centre founded at the end of 2008 a permanent exhibition has just been opened offering visitors a deeper understanding of this chapter of Potsdam’s history. The organisers want to document the inhumane methods of the Soviet secret service and also commemorate the prisoners that were held here.

In the clutch of the KGB

Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstraße Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstraße | Photo: Peter Neusser The KGB prison was part of the Soviet military town No. 7, a sealed-off area for officers of the secret service and their families. The building was used as a central remand prison of Soviet counterintelligence. This is a place where people of different nationalities and with very different backgrounds were imprisoned during the period from 1945 up until the nineteen eighties. Just after the war this also included young Germans who were suspected of having belonged to the national socialist guerrilla movement “Werwolf”. Between 1949 and the mid fifties, besides Soviet civilians, the detainees were mostly Germans who were accused of spying. During the final phase, that extended into the nineteen eighties, it was just Soviet military personnel and civilians working for the Soviet troops who were detained behind these walls.

Taking the wrong way home could land you in prison

Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstraße Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstraße | Photo: H. Immel Ines Reich, head of the memorial centre, explains that the actual site, the former prison, was the starting point for formulating three questions to be addressed in the exhibition: “Who was responsible for this place? Who fell into the clutch of Soviet counterintelligence and how did it happen? And how harsh were the conditions?“ The exhibition documents the history of altogether fifty victims. Also of the metalworker Friedrich Klausch, who, when just 19, was on the way home inside the Soviet-occupied zone when he was detained and accused of being a spy. He was held in the Leistikowstrasse prison for almost six months and then moved to the special camp No. 1. This was a very typical example of what went on, and for many prisoners Potsdam was just the first step along a path that ended in the Gulags or East German prisons.

Summer clothing throughout the winter

Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstrasse Documenting a commemorative site Leistikowstrasse | Photo: Peter Neusser In video interviews former prisoners talk about the horrific and harsh conditions. This is where the building speaks for itself. The horrors of the past can be almost relived inside the punishment cells or in forced-standing cells called “Stehkarzer”. This is a locked cell in which there was practically no fresh air supply. In these cells the prisoners had to stand without food, water or sleep until they collapsed of exhaustion. The main objective was to make them talk and confess. Women taken prisoner during summer months were not given any warm clothing for the winter, let alone hygiene items. The extremely rough and sharp plaster inside a cell situated on the ground floor made it impossible to lean against the wall, rest or give any signal to others by knocking.

Architecture serves as a document

The carefully implemented structural conservation work of the architect, Wolfgang Brune, has left all traces on the walls intact, including inscriptions that describe the prison conditions. “The best architectural contribution is to leave the building as a document that can be read and interpreted”, Brune explains. The idea behind the architectural concept was to just frame the site and the immediate surroundings. This resulted in a hedge and an entrance building that now clearly mark out the area. The sober new building serves as a transition area between today’s modern townscape and this historic site. It is a place to listen to one’s thoughts and focus on the topic at hand. Perception is intensified, enabling the attentive visitor to read the traces left behind by prison inmates, sometimes scratched into the walls using their bare fingernails. Here it is possible to identify those areas that have been left in their original condition and those parts of the building that have been carefully preserved.

Stories told by old floor plans

The architect and his team also carried out research work on the old floor plans and the previous history of the interrogation prison. At the beginning of the 20th century the building was home to a Protestant relief organisation for women. “I wanted to show the building’s mutation from a social institution to a terror cell and a place of terrible crimes“, Brune added. The offices, tea kitchen and packing room, for instance, had been converted into entryways and prisoner shower rooms, with holes made in the walls for observation purposes.

Through the mirror of art

It was also Wolfgang Brune who encouraged artistic involvement with the site. The photographer Peter Neußer superimposed different views of rooms on each floor using multiple exposures. He created spatial irritations by blurring incidences of light and wall openings. The artist Katharina Gaenssler broke up individual walls by capturing these on a one-to-one scale in countless close-up shots. Later she reconstructed each wall using these fragments, marking the edges as intentional breaking points.

This artistic approach that is presented in a special exhibition is also devoted to remembrance and is therefore in full compliance with the concept of the centre. “It is important to us”, says Ines Reich, “that the site is also seen as a place of remembrance for those who suffered here under the harsh and catastrophic conditions of the former prison.“