A few years ago, I sat down to watch a German TV movie, without even the slightest suspicion of what this would set in motion within me. The protagonist, a woman, had been jailed as a political prisoner in an East German (GDR) women’s prison, where she was subjected to solitary confinement, blackouts, and the administration of psychotropic drugs. Years later, she recognized a doctor as one of her former tormentors, and a psychological thriller developed from this scenario, one that resonated with me for days afterward.
Had there really been such a secret women’s prison in the GDR, the country in which I had spent my entire childhood until I was sixteen? I did some research and was appalled by what I discovered. The prison actually had existed, operating within Hoheneck Castle in the small Erzgebirge town of Stollberg, only a few hundred kilometers from my home city of Dresden. I found a huge array of articles, books, documents, and oral histories from the former inmates, who were – and still are – trying to work through the horrifying experiences they had had in this place.
It was a sunny October weekend, when I joined several other interested visitors at the gates of Hoheneck Castle for a tour. (Fortunately, the former women’s prison is preserved today as a memorial site.) From the early 1950s until 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, over 8,000 women were jailed at Hoheneck on political charges. One of the primary reasons for their incarceration was that these women had intended to flee or had been caught while trying to escape their country. They were locked within these walls as political prisoners and were treated like human scum, of less value than even the murderers who were also kept here.
Over the next two hours, we were led through the spaces within the walls: the old cell blocks, where the women had lived, one on top of the other; the cellar, where the blackout and water chambers were located; the dismal prison yard; the work blocks, where the women had been forced to work under adverse conditions. By the end of this tour, I felt a sudden, undeniable urge to write something about what I had seen and learned.
What, if? kept running through my mind after what I witnessed this day. What if a former inmate coincidentally crosses paths with one of the worst guards in the prison, many years after her time at Hoheneck? What if she has the chance to avenge what happened to her? What would happen? So I wrote a story that begins in a graveyard. With two women in mourning…
“Snow Flurries” is my story about the legacy left behind by the country in which I lived until my sixteenth year. I had a lovely and happy childhood in the GDR, I had a good education. I was able to complete my Abitur after Reunification and to go to college to study law. Today I am an author, and I live in the western part of Germany, near Hamburg. Not because I wanted to leave my home in the former GDR – but rather because of love and because I could. Without reprisals, without an indictment, without imprisonment. I am free to make my own decisions, but many people in the German Democratic Republic were not as fortunate. They were done a great injustice, and this is why I have tried to tell some of their stories in my own writings.
Photographs courtesy of Romy Fölck