Category Archives: Stasi

Veiling History at the Leo Baeck Institute

What Has Happened to the LBI ?
The Seven Veils of Irene Runge
Something was amiss from the start.  The venerable Leo Baeck Institute of New York, home for much scholarly research and documentation of German Jewish history and culture, invites to an evening with Irene Runge (Aug. 28, 2013):
“Irene Runge … was born the daughter of German-Jewish emigres in Manhattan in 1942.  In 1949, she returned to Berlin (East) with her parents, committed Socialists who wanted to help build a different kind of Germany in the newly founded German Democratic Republic (GDR).”
Committed “Socialists” who wish to live in Stalin’s “German Democratic Republic”  ?  The correct description for these folks is Communists, Stalinist Communists.  And “Communists,”  indeed, is the term used in the German press to describe Ms. Runge’s parents.   Why does the LBI engage in this bit of obscurism, of veiling, of not telling how it is ?  As we shall see, there were quite a few other things that Ms. Runge and the LBI organizers of this event chose to veil.  
I attended the evening with my daughter Rachel.  The event was co-sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, an agency of the German Left party.  (This Foundation is known for its anti-Israel agitation worldwide.)  Of course there was no mention of what the martyred Rosa had thought of her Jewish roots, although, surely, I could not have been the only one in this audience of aged Jews who knew about it:
In 1917 she wrote her friend Mathilde Wurm a harsh response to the latter’s concern about pogroms. “I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering,” Rosa declared outright. “Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa… I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.” (From Sarah Honig)
Runge’s speech was meandering and only rarely touched on the autobiographical themes that had been promised.  The totalitarianism of the GDR in her childhood was never mentioned, nor did the subject of Israel come up in any sustained way.  Runge took some sideswipes at what she considered Israel’s bad position in regard to the immigration of Russian Jews to Germany.  She also complained that an Israeli journalist in Berlin, a critic of Israel, was not given an adequate hearing by the community.  But this theme was not emphasized.  Nothing of a political nature was emphasized.  Her tone was light-hearted and joking, much to the pleasure of her many friends in the audience.
But there was an elephant in the room which nobody wanted to notice.  I had written an email to the LBI leadership about the proboscidean earlier in the day, but had not received a reply.  The problem which nobody at this meeting mentioned is that Ms. Runge had been a secret spy for the Stasi for seventeen years, and, for that reason, had been dismissed from her East Berlin university after the fall of the Wall.  There is a record of at least one of her Stasi accomplishments.  It seems that a family of her acquaintance was planning to flee East Germany.  Ms. Runge reported this to her Stasi handlers, and the family in question was sent to prison.  Ms. Runge received a special financial reward for this work at the time, as well as a special certificate of merit.
Much of Ms. Runge’s Stasi background can be found here.  But in a recent interview, Ms. Runge complains that it is she who has been victimized by being dismissed from the university.  In any case, if she has any regrets for her Stasi work, these have not come to light in any of the statements of hers that I have seen. On the contrary, she remains stridently unapologetic.
Back to the meeting at the LBI.  An octogenarian operative of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee took the floor during the discussion period to praise Ms. Runge’s efforts on behalf of Russian Jewish immigrants to Berlin after the fall of the Wall.  After the meeting ended, I took the opportunity to chat with this gentleman.  “Yes, yes, I know all about her,” he told me.  “In fact, I myself have been reported to the Stasi by her.  But with all that, I like this woman.”  And everyone in the room — I being the only exception — was charmed by Irene,  this loquacious, witty, charming Berliner.

Hohenschönhausen

A place you need to see in Berlin. Even if you hadn’t planned a trip there at all, you need to pick yourself up and go there, soon.

I spent six days in Germany last month. I went to witness the neo-Nazis’ (“Nationaldemokratische Partei”) participation in the provincial legislature in Schwerin, capital of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It was worth the trip. The six neo-Nazi members of the legislature performed right on cew, denouncing foreigners in Germany and what they thought were signs of German regret for the Holocaust. But most of all they denounced all the other political parties, who, they maintained (as their Nazi precursors had done in the Weimar period), were part of a vast conspiracy of “the system.” It was my impression, as it had been before I made the visit, that the other parties are behaving well in resisting any sort of collaboration with this NPD.

But the highlight of my visit, by any measure, was my visit to Hohenschönhausen in Berlin. It is the site of the former interrogation prison of the Stasi, the secret police of the former East German communist regime. The installation had originally been built in the Nazi period as a food preparation center for the Strength Through Joy organization. After the war the Soviet secret police turned it into a detention center for political prisoners and then turned it over to its East German counterpart, the Stasi, which ran it as its notorious central interrogation center. After the Communist regime ended in 1989, former inmates began to turn the place into a memorial site and to conduct tours. (Most tours are of course conducted in German, but it is possible to arrange one in English. Click on the link above for details.)

The West has known about the horrors of Soviet interrogation techniques at least since the publication of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” in 1940. I read that, and many other accounts since, but nothing prepared me for the immediacy of the experience of my visit to Hohenschönhausen: seeing the interrogation cells, I could feel the psychological sadism of the interrogators (who worked only at night, every night), the terror of the solitary confinement that lasted for years in some cases, the degradation of man by man. It was a life-changing experience for me to visit this site.

Last year the German film maker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck released, to great acclaim, his movie “The Lives of Others.” The movie revolves around Stasi’s spying on its citizens in the former East Germany. All those of my friends who saw the movie were greatly impressed. I thought that it was good, but I also thought that parts of the plot were contrived. Now that I watched some clips from it (see below), I notice that Hohenschönhausen gets a mention in the movie. The movie is in some ways unsparingly realistic, but it is of course fiction. My guide at Hohenschönhausen pointed out that one aspect of the movie is completely counter-factual: not a single case has come to light in which a Stasi operative attempted to aid a victim of the regime.

On the contrary, some of these former Stasi members are now engaged in a campaign of vilification against the memorial effort at their former torture site. The site is an official government installation and receives Berlin city subsidies. But for some years the city Senator in charge of museums, and thus of Hohenschönhausen, was a member of The Left, the successor to the East-German ruling party. His name is Thomas Flierl, and, if we trust German press reports about him, he cannot quite make up his mind whether he is in sympathy with the former Stasi or their victims.