Sigrid Paul: The Wall Through My Heart
Berlin: A Baby Between Two Worlds
In the noose of the Stasi: from Dommitzsch to the secret Stasi-Prison of Hohenschönhause
Simon Burnett, author of Ghost Strasse: Germany’s East Trapped Between Past and Present: “A terrific read. Sigrid Paul’s story, set in the shadows of cold-war Berlin, is a harrowing chronicle of one family’s tragic struggle against East Germany’s desk-bound tyrants, its Stasi secret police thugs, and its institutionalized stupidity.
The Berlin Wall kept me apart from my baby son
Sigrid Paul had just given birth when the Berlin Wall went up, dividing a city and – in an extraordinary sequence of events – separating her from her baby son. His first five years were in the west, while she was trapped in the east. Lena Corner reports In January 1961, Sigrid Paul gave birth to a little boy in a Berlin hospital. Her first child, it was a difficult labour and the baby was whisked away to intensive care. As she lay recovering, Sigrid had no idea that little Torsten, as she had named him, would become inextricably and cruelly caught up in cold-war politics. Eight months later, the Berlin Wall would go up, initiating, says Sigrid, „a sequence of events with consequences beyond our wildest imagination“. It’s the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Monday. Only now does Sigrid, 75, finally feel able to tell the story of how, nearly half a century ago, she and her son were trapped in a twilight zone between communist east and capitalist west. They were embroiled in a nightmare of petty bureaucracy and paranoid Stasi officialdom, in which Sigrid had to beg to see her son and ended up spending two years in prison just for trying to be a mother. The Wall separated Sigrid from her little boy for the first five years of his life, and when they were reunited he had no idea who she was. It all began when Sigrid arrived with her husband, Hartmut, at the Charité hospital on the east side of Berlin. Although the baby was in the breech position, there was a delay in finding a doctor. By the time an obstetrician arrived, one leg was already out“. Sigrid had an emergency caesarean section and Torsten was seriously injured during the process. His diaphragm was ruptured, his stomach and oesophagus were damaged and he had internal bleeding. It was touch and go whether he would live. Although the city was divided into sectors, Sigrid and Hartmut were able to cross to the west and take Torsten to a hospital better equipped to deal with his injuries. „The Charité didn’t have a clue what to do,“ she says. „But it wasn’t a problem at that time to go to a hospital in west Berlin. The doctors there operated and saved his life.“
Torsten was given an artificial diaphragm, oesophagus and antrum (stomach exit), and in July Sigrid was finally allowed to take him home. He was still fragile and needed medicine and special food, both only available in the west. Every Monday, Sigrid would travel across the city to pick up Torsten’s life-saving package.
Then, on 12 August, everything changed. At midnight, the police and units of the East German army were given orders to close the border. Barbed-wire entanglements were rolled out and the building of the Wall began. By the time Sigrid woke on the 13th, the route from east to west was closed. She applied for a permit to the west to obtain Torsten’s food and medicine but was refused. „Our baby food is good enough,“ was the reply from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) health ministry.
Within days, Torsten started coughing up blood and Sigrid took him back to the Charité hospital in east Berlin. There, a doctor named Schneeweiss did everything he could. He pumped Torsten’s stomach, but he got sicker and his temperature got higher. Sigrid was beside herself. In the early hours of the morning, Schneeweiss sent her home. „Years later, Dr Schneeweiss told me what happened,“ says Sigrid. „He realised that neither he nor any other doctor at the Charité could help. The only doctors who could help were on the other side of the Berlin Wall.“
Transferring patients across the Wall was now forbidden, with one exception – heart cases. Schneeweiss knew Torsten could die if he stayed in the east. He confided in another doctor and together they falsified Torsten’s papers and listed him as a heart patient. Schneeweiss had sent Sigrid home so he could illegally spirit her baby to the other side of the Wall. „That was the moment Hartmut and I were separated from our sick child,“ says Sigrid. „Torsten’s life was saved by a piece of benevolent deception schemed up by two doctors.“ The decision was to shape the rest of their lives.
While she and Hartmut will always be grateful to Schneeweiss for saving Torsten (he remains a family friend), the baby was alone in west Berlin and access to him was up to the ministry of the interior. „Every day I went from one authority to another to try to get permission to see him, even for an hour or two,“ she says. „It was futile. Every application was rejected. The uncertainty about whether we would see Torsten again was unbearable.“
After two months of blank refusal, Sigrid was unexpectedly granted a visa – on condition that she stay in the west for a few hours only and that Hartmut remain in the east as surety in case she decided not to come back. She arrived to find that Torsten had taken a turn for the worse: the visit had been arranged so she could attend his emergency christening. „I hardly had my feelings under control as thoughts swirled through my head,“ says Sigrid. She contemplated abandoning everything – her life, her husband and her elderly mother – to remain with Torsten. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. „Even though my farewell to Torsten was painful, I managed to find sufficient strength to return to the east. If I had known what was to come, I would have stayed.“
Sigrid returned to her job as a dental technician and to the process of applying for visas. Occasionally she would get one, but it was, she says, „trench warfare“ with GDR bureaucracy. „Negotiating the border controls cost enormous amounts of energy. For days afterwards I would be exhausted and trapped in wild mood swings.“
As Torsten approached his first birthday, the authorities cracked down. Sigrid was told that further attempts to get a visa would fail. She and Hartmut, who had seen his son only once during this time, decided their only option was to escape across the Wall. „I am not your classic resistance fighter,“ says Sigrid. „But I just couldn’t come to terms with the system any more.“
On one visit to the west, Sigrid had met someone who provided false passports for East Germans. So she, Hartmut and her mother made plans to catch a train north, escape via Scandinavia and fly back into west Berlin. They gave their valuables to relatives and sold their furniture, but just as they got to the station they received a message warning them not to board the train. The East German authorities had got wind of the escape route and closed it down. The three went home and burned their passports. „I was in despair,“ says Sigrid.
Sigrid had also met three students planning to flee the east and put them up in her flat for a couple of days. She was careful never to ask what their plans were. „The Stasi were almost certain to have bugged the house,“ she says, „and black limousines were often parked in front.“ After the students left, Sigrid discovered that they had walked into a Stasi trap.
Two weeks later, Sigrid was seized in the street on her way to work. „My husband was also arrested,“ she says. „I was brought to Normannenstrasse, the Stasi headquarters, and questioned for 22 hours. That is psychological torture. They asked me constantly about the three students.“
Sigrid was taken to Hohenschönhausen prison and became prisoner number 93-2. She was there for six months. „Life was hell,“ she says. „I was never charged with anything and I didn’t have a single meeting with a solicitor. All contact with the outside world was cut.“ Eventually put on trial in August 1963, Sigrid and Hartmut were charged with failing to reveal the students‘ escape plans and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
Meanwhile, Torsten remained in the Westend hospital in west Berlin. He still had to be fed through a tube. „Doctors and nurses fussed over him, in particular Sister Liselotte, who became a mother figure to him,“ says Sigrid. „They sang to him, taught him to talk and walk, and tried as much as possible to act as parents.“
The only news Sigrid received of Torsten was one letter from a nurse two months after her arrest and another from a doctor when he was nearly three. „I was always thinking of Torsten,“ says Sigrid. „What he looked like, if he could talk. I can’t put that kind of longing into words.“
Almost two years into her sentence, Sigrid was suddenly released. It turned out she and her husband had been ransomed by the West German Government. They were among thousands of political prisoners whose freedom was bought by the west in an arrangement which provided much needed hard currency to the East German coffers.But they still weren’t allowed to go to the west.
It was another 11 months, when he was four and a half, before Torsten was well enough to go home. „Torsten had to say farewell to Sister Liselotte – a painful experience for both after such a long time,“ says Sigrid. At the border he was transferred to an east Berlin ambulance and he and his parents restarted their lives together.
„Torsten was home at last, but it was not easy,“ says Sigrid. „Hartmut and I were both strangers. He didn’t know what ‚mother‘ meant. I was just an old woman in his eyes.“ It was only when Sigrid gave birth to a daughter, Ute, that Torsten’s mistrust began to disappear. By the time she gave birth to another daughter, Frauke, in 1966, Torsten was flourishing. Today, Sigrid lives alone in a two-bedroom flat in south-east Berlin. She and Hartmut have split up but he lives two doors away. Torsten, 48, lives alone, also minutes away. Although trained as a sound engineer, he has never been able to hold down a full-time job due to his health problems.
The fall of the Wall in 1989 was a moment Sigrid cherished. „It will always be an utter highlight of my life. I was exhilarated. Finally, freedom came to me.“ She has striven to come to terms with what happened. „I became obsessed with listening to stories from other victims of east German injustice. I needed what some might call closure.“ When a law was passed that allowed people to read the Stasi files, Sigrid and Torsten were among the first to apply. She was horrified to discover that the Stasi had tried to recruit Torsten to spy on his own family.
In 1992, Sigrid’s sentence was overturned and two years later she found the closure she needed. After retiring, she applied to work as a guide at the prison where she was held and now shows visitors the dank, bare cell she was locked up in and the rooms where she was relentlessly interrogated.
Her experiences have had a lasting impact on her relationship with her son. She has never found it easy to be separated from him; to this day, she does his shopping and cleaning, and the two are in touch constantly. „Torsten has been my Sorgenkind, the child I’ve worried about my whole life.“
Is she still angry about what happened? „Raging,“ she says.