Penitentiary Notes

As a rule, I do not publish other writer’s stories. But this time is special. Thilo von Debshitz, the co-author of Fritz Kahn: Man and Machine, came across this remarkable tale of persecution and expression in the GDR during the reign of the police state. He titles it Penitentiary Notes: A German Story. It is retold by Thilo von Debschitz with translation by Tom Rieke.

This email from Thilo caught my attention: “Early this year, I sat in the home of the father of a good friend of mine. I’ve heard before that this guy tried to escape the German Democratic Republic in the seventies, unfortunately without success. So I was curious and asked him about his attempt to break out. After he told me his moving story and gave me an insight in his Stasi (GDR secret service) file for the first time, he pulled out a little box. In the box were seven tiny  papers with microscopic small handwriting. I measured it – the type size is 4 point!

For me as designer and typo-guy, this little handwriting expressed the big injustice of the GDR regime within the narrowest space. I will not forget the moment when I held these papers in my hand and learned about their existence. I wrote down the story immediately . . . .

The image was taken by my collegue Tanja Nitzke. The team of my design studio marveled at the little papers when I opened the small box at a regular morning meeting in our agency. They could not believe how accurate one had written the text. And when I finished the story about the papers, it was very quiet in the studio for a long time …”

Finally. December 20, 1975. It’s time to leave.

“Keep your mouths wide open!” Hartmut Winkelmann orders his kids. “That way, they won’t hear you breathing if they inspect the inside of the car!“ The dentist from Fleetmark, eastern Germany, and his eight-year-old daughter squeeze into a tight hiding place beneath a bench seat in a VW bus converted to a camper van. His wife and five-year-old son crouch down under the bench on the opposite side. The driver covers the benches with seat cushions, starts the engine, and drives toward the border crossing at Drewitz. There is no way for the family to suspect that the driver‘s refugee organization has been under surveillance for a long time.

At the border, the car stops. Terrified, the family listens for voices. But the only sound is barking dogs. Slowly, the car starts to move again and follows a winding road. “We crossed the border!” Hartmut Winkelmann celebrates silenty. “We made it! The big payment to the refugee group was worth it. Now we will follow our friend Andreas to the west.”

Suddenly, the bus jerks to a halt again. The door opens. A narrow shaft of light slides into the family‘s hiding place. Rough hands raise the seat cushions, and the Winkelmanns stare wide-eyed into gun barrels and flickering flashlights. A loud officer shouts: “Everybody out! Your journey is over!” The VW bus is in a closed garage, surrounded by uniformed men with machine guns.

Immediately, the family is separated. The terrified kids are delivered to two homes for difficult children in the border zone of Sacrow. Later, they are retrieved by their grandparents, who agree to care for them. Because they attempted to leave the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), the parents are jailed in the pre-trial detention center of the Ministry of National Security in Potsdam. There, Hartmut Winkelmann is interrogated non-stop for 14 hours. On December 22, their anniversary, the couple is transferred to the pre-trial detention center of the Ministry of National Security in Magdeburg, where their interrogations continue for months.

For a long time, their interrogators refuse to answer their desperate questions about their children. Even worse: Gudrun Winkelmann (a respected kindergarten teacher) is imprisoned in a cell located next door to a school. During recess, the interrogators open the windows so she can hear the voices of playing children. They tell her that she can rejoin her daughter and son immediately, but first she must divorce her husband and promise never to leave the GDR. This terrible choice breaks her heart, but not her will.  She refuses and stays in prison.

After nine months of separation, the Winkelmanns are reunited at a pre-trial meeting. On November 5, 1976, eleven months after their attempt to escape, their trial begins in Magdeburg district cout. The charge: illegitimate abandonment of the GDR. The punishment: seven years in prison for Hartmut Winkelmann and four years for Gudrun Winkelmann. After an appeal to the supreme court, their sentences are reduced to five years and 3.5 years, respectively, on December 17.

Gudrun Winkelmann serves her sentence with murderers and burglars at the infamous women’s prison in Hoheneck, where her tiny cell is painfully claustrophobic. Her husband is sent to the pre-trial detention center of the Ministry of the Interior in Magdeburg, then to the penitentiary in Brandenburg. When a prison guard asks him to write cheat notes for a driving test, Hartmut Winkelmann sees an opportunity. Because he helps prisoners with their dental problems, he is not always closely observed by the guards, so he decides to document his arrest, trial, and imprisonment for friends and relatives in Dresden. Applying his experience with careful, detailed work, he writes in miniscule letters (about four points) with a sharpened pencil on seven tiny, numbered cigarette papers. When the story is complete, he folds the papers down to a package  about the size of a peppermint candy (0.8 by 0.4 inches) and wraps it with aluminum foil.

Soon afterward, a visitor is announced: his step-sister Sofie. He prepares for her visit by wrapping moistened chewing gum around the small paper package and placing it in his mouth. Before he enters the visitation room, the guards search his body and clothing, but his chewing gum does not attract their attention. Sofie enters the visitation room. The prisoner removes the gum with a quick pass of his hand in front of his mouth and, with a meaningful look, presses it into his step-sister’s fingers. She understands and casually slides the tiny package into her mouth. A few minutes later, she smuggles the single-spaced Winkelmann story out of the prison to concerned family and friends.

In most cases, people imprisoned for attempting to leave the GDR were released early. Gudrun Winkelmann was deported to West Germany on October 4, 1977. On February 10, 1978, her husband was also deported, and their children were allowed to join them. On February 25, the Winkelmanns were reunited after three years of forced separation. They were determined to begin again as a family.

The Winkelmanns live near Frankfurt now.  Photocopies of Gudrun Winkelmann’s “Stasi files” are preserved in a three-ring binder. Hartmut Winkelmann’s tiny but powerful story resides in a cardboard box lined with tissue. The couple maintains an admirable love of life despite the fact that those who tried to destroy their family were not penalized after Germany was reunified. But when Gudrun Winkelmann remembers the night when the Stasi abducted her children, her anger flares: “At that moment, I could have taken a machine gun and killed them all!”


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