Franziska Vu


Sigrid Paul

Born in 1934 in Dommitsch near Torgau on the Elb River. She studied to become a dental technician, and in 1957 married Hartmut Rührdanz and moved to East Berlin. In January 1961, they had a child, but Torsten was born with medical problems due to errors made during the birth. Since doctors in East Berlin could not cope with the situation, the mother brought her son to the university clinic in West Berlin. After the Berlin Wall was built, the couple was denied an exit permit to see their ailing infant, so they decided to flee the country with forged passports. Unfortunately, their attempt failed. In February 1963, Sigrid Paul and her husband were arrested after they had let three students spend the night at their home. They had met the students during their failed attempt to cross the border. The three students had hoped to flee through a tunnel in Brunnenstrasse, but someone had tipped off the Stasi about their plans.

How were you arrested?
It was 14 days after the students tried to escape over the border. I was kidnapped on my way to work, in broad daylight. I went to the bus stop at around 7:30 am. On the way there, two men came toward me, grabbed my arms, and held me in an iron grip. Then a black limousine pulled up. I was pushed inside and taken away. Nobody knew where I was – I just disappeared. They took me to Normannenstrasse. That’s where the Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) was located.

Did anyone try to help you?
The bus driver saw the whole incident. He drove the bus up to the curb, stopped, and opened the door. Of course I did my best to resist and screamed as loud as I could, but I was no match for the two strong men.

How were you treated and questioned?
My first interrogation lasted 22 hours. I have proof; it’s all in my Stasi files. Questioning a prisoner for 22 hours is psychological torture. There were hardly any breaks. I was only allowed out of the room to use the toilet. When they were finally done, they took me to a cell. There was a bucket there instead of a toilet. And there was something to drink. But at first I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t eat or drink. Afterwards, they put me in a van. There was no window, no opening, no place where light could come in. I was driven somewhere and I had no idea where I was. Finally, I heard a gate screeching, and then the vehicle was opened and I was in a building. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that I was in the main jail of the Ministry for State Security in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen – at the headquarters of terror incorporated.

What did they ask you during the interrogations?
During the interrogations they focused on these three students who had spent the night at our home. “How did you meet them? Why did the young people come to you? Why did you put them up for the night?” I of course tried to play it all down. “We’re young – we share the same interests – we went canoeing and sailing together...” Of course I didn’t want to admit that I had met them while we were all trying to cross the border. That’s probably why the questioning took so incredibly long. Years later, we found out that the Stasi also suspected us of spying. But we did nothing of the sort. We had no contact with an intelligence organization, we weren’t spies.

What happened to your husband after you were kidnapped?
My husband was picked up at our apartment. The Stasi rang the doorbell and said their standard line: “We’d like to have a word with you to clear up a matter.” I very quickly found out that my husband had also been arrested.

How did you feel during questioning?
After 22 hours of questioning, you eventually get to the point where you are totally exhausted. But that’s not how I felt. My adrenaline must have been pumping because I was all wound up. After 17 or 19 hours, I suddenly sensed an inner strength growing inside me. After that, I decided not to say another word. And I could feel an imaginary wall growing inside my body. Higher and higher, stronger and stronger. This wall protected me from the unpleasant questions that I had been exposed to for hours. The interrogators worked in shifts of three to four hours. There were always three to four interrogators who fired off questions at the same time. In any case, I told myself: “I’m innocent; I haven’t killed anyone; I haven’t stolen anything. They have to let me go home. Don’t say a single word”. So I kept my mouth shut. They could have put me up against the wall and shot me, I wouldn’t have resisted. My decision to remain silent was working. As a result, one of the interrogators stood behind me and said loudly: “Your husband is also here!” I didn’t react. “You don’t believe us, eh?” I still didn’t react. “I guess we’ll have to show you some proof.” I showed no response. I had built my wall around me. Half an hour later, I found a note on my thigh. I recognized my husband’s handwriting: “Put the past behind you and one day we’ll start over again, Hartmut!” And then I knew that they had arrested him, too.

How long were you in Hohenschönhausen?
I wasn’t allowed to speak to my lawyer for half a year. After almost six months of jail in Berlin, we were transferred to the Stasi jail in Rostock. We were convicted and sentenced in August 1963. In the courtroom, we saw the three students again. They had also been arrested. In the end, my husband and I were sentenced to four years in prison for helping people to flee the country. Our conviction was not based on standard GDR laws, but rather on a special supplementary East German law. We were found guilty of “conspiring to support an illegal attempt to leave the GDR.” East Germany always sought the maximum sentence for an initial conviction, never the minimum sentence. My husband and I then had to spend roughly six weeks at the prison in Rostock. Then we were sent separately to the jail at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and put to work. After 19 months of confinement by the Stasi, the West German government bought our freedom. But even after our release from jail, we were still not allowed to travel to West Berlin to join our ailing son.

What kind of work did you have to do?
At first, I spent three and a half months in the “submarine” and worked as a member of the cleaning unit. We were woken at 2:00 am and had to clean corridors and interrogation rooms, rinse toilet buckets, and so on. We always had to work four or five hours before we were even allowed to eat breakfast. After the cleaning work was over, we could take a shower and eat breakfast between 7:00 and 8:00 am. After that I had to do sewing work in an attic room with no windows. Later on, they set up a dental technician laboratory for me in a basement cell in the new wing of the building. That way I could work in my profession. The Stasi had nearly all its services performed by inmates.

How did it feel to be working? What did you experience?
Working in the cleaning unit was not the worst part. I was actually glad to be able to work and get my mind off things. But the worst of it, and this has a lot to do with my personality, was that I had to get up at 2:00 am. That was something that I was only gradually able to overcome. As a dental technician, I was able to start work at a civilized time of day. The prison authorities made sure that I didn’t have to work more than eight hours a day, and I felt much better. My basement laboratory was right next door to two rubber cells.
While I was working there, I heard the screams of a man who was held in one of them: “We’ll never get out of here!” He screamed that night and day. He didn’t know when it was day and when it was night. After roughly three weeks, the Stasi removed this poor man from the rubber cell. I was immediately dispatched to clean things up. Although I was no longer a member of the cleaning unit, I was given a bucket and a brush. Then I had to clean blood and excrement from this rubber cell. That’s something you never forget. You can’t forget the screams, and you can’t forget the situation.

Have you seen any of your interrogators since your release?
Since the fall of the Wall in 1989, I’ve been looking for my interrogator. Now that we are all living in a free society, I would like to talk with him. He knows this, but he refuses to meet with me. A few years ago, I assumed that he was waiting until it all falls under the statute of limitations. I thought he was simply a coward, and that once he could no longer be prosecuted, he might come see me because he knows where I live. But a few weeks ago, I found out that my former interrogator is still not willing to speak with me. He’s stonewalling me. That’s how cowardly these people are. Now that everyone is free and we can speak as equals, now that I can ask him questions and he can’t dictate the topic of our conversation, now he’s too much of a coward to talk to me.

How do you feel about him?
The poor bastard – he has no character. When the Stasi had the power to humiliate us prisoners, they were without mercy. But in a free society they’re too afraid to talk with us. I don’t want to put a gun to his head. I’m not looking for trouble. That’s the furthest thing from my mind. But his behavior shows me that these are poor, confused cowards. They’re totally incapable of offering an apology, and I don’t really expect one. I just want him to at least explain certain charges in my indictment.

Were you informed of your son’s health during your detention?
I had no contact with my son while I was in jail. I also had no contact with my relatives or with my lawyer, and I wasn’t allowed to write any letters. Half a year after my arrest, I still didn’t know how my son was doing. Following the conviction, I spoke with my lawyer, and afterwards I regularly received mail. Once a month, I was allowed to write a letter with 21 lines. In addition, once every three months I was allowed to see a relative for 40 minutes.
We were brought to Berlin-Rummelsburg for the visits. These were of course occasions when I received information about the health of my son. To our great surprise, shortly before Christmas, we even received a letter from Torsten’s doctor describing the state of my son’s health.

How did you feel at that moment?
It was very difficult. When you ask me about my son like that, I just can’t keep back the tears. I can’t talk about it right now.

Were you in solitary confinement?
No, I always had cellmates, except for a ten-day period in Rostock, during the trial. I was placed in a cell where I was forced to stand. When I was in the cleaning unit, I lived in a cell with a number of women, in the infamous “submarine”. I often had contact with other women through my work as a dental technician, when I was held in the basement of the new prison wing.

Were you allowed to speak with your husband?
The Stasi had special visiting regulations for the four married couples who were in custody. Once a month, my husband and I were allowed to see each other for 30 minutes, in the presence of prison guards. We were not allowed to touch each other, but we could see each other for half an hour.

What was your worst experience?
I think I’m going to cry again. It’s hard to talk about. It was extremely hard when we received letters or information about our son’s state of health. When I didn’t receive any mail, my imagination started to run wild. Sometimes I was just intolerable, I couldn’t help myself. I still break into tears when I think about it. The thoughts about my son were the worst part about it all, not the sentence, not the situation, not the surroundings.

How do you come to terms with your ordeal?
Guiding tours through the memorial has helped me a great deal. It’s been a very, very difficult process. Being able to talk about it has helped me come to terms with what happened. I’ve also written down some things. I think that’s a way of coping.
Have there been consequences for your health?
I’ve never been asked that question before, but I’ll tell you something very personal. I have a beautiful bright apartment with windows on three sides. There are no doors in the apartment and no curtains in the windows. That is a direct consequence of my confinement.

What happened to you after your release?
I was extremely fortunate because my boss hadn’t fired me, neither after my arrest nor after my conviction. After West Germany paid for my release, I was able to go straight back to my old job as a dental technician in the GDR. But I still wasn’t allowed to travel to the West. When my son finally returned home in 1965, he was almost five years old.

What are your hopes for the future?
I don’t have any big plans for the future. For years now, I’ve just tried to live in the present. I always try to make the best out of life. For many, many years, people approached me about writing down what I experienced. After refusing for ten years, I finally relented and started to write about what happened. Now I’ve finished my text. It’s my hope, my hope for the future, that this manuscript will one day be published as a book under the title “Mauer durchs Herz” (“A Wall through My Heart”). My chances of publication look very good.


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