By MAIKE HICKSON
(Editor’s Note: In this three-part article, Dr. Hickson details the life of the late Erwin Jöris, a prisoner of totalitarian regimes, and explains how his life offers lessons for us today. In the conclusion, part three, she comments on how his experiences show the need to resist gradual violations of our privacy and freedom of thought and speech, before they are further eroded or effectively destroyed.
(Maike Hickson holds a doctorate in French literature from the University of Hannover.)
+ + +
Erwin Jöris stayed with his parents, even though they lived in the Eastern Zone of Berlin which was, of course, taken over by the Soviets. This was a great threat to him, and as an outsider, it would have seemed more prudent to move to a Western part of Germany, or at least into the Western part of Berlin, inasmuch as he was already on the lists of potential enemies of the Soviet Union.
Jöris, however, tried to survive in postwar East Berlin, with starvation and chaos, and it is understandable that after all of his trials during the past ten years, he was not open for a completely new situation. He loved the quarter he grew up in, and he knew everyone.
Finally, he also met the love of his life, Gerda, who had fled from a more distant part of Eastern Germany, together with the two youngest sons of her sister, who had died during the war. In August of 1949, Erwin and Gerda were to marry.
Jöris put it this way:
“I had so much dirt behind me, that I thought when I leave now, I am again a nothing, and will have to sleep again in one athletic hall or other. We did not have our own apartment, but had a place to stay, our own bed. Gerda had lost everything on her flight. I could not ask her to start all over again. She put so much hope in the business of my father and in the [promised] little piece of land that we might one day inherit” (390 — all quotations come from the Jöris biography by Andreas Petersen, Deine Schnauze wird Dir in Sibirien einfrieren. Ein Jahrhundertdiktat. Erwin Jöris, unless otherwise noted. Translation and comments in brackets by M.H.).
Harder to understand was Jöris’ decision in 1946 to sign again up as a member of the newly formed SED (Socialist Unity Party), the party that came about from the forced unification between Communists and Social Democrats. After all of his experiences with Communism, how could he still in any way support the Communists? The Soviet occupation worked from the beginning unto an establishment of a Communist state, and soon the persecutions of the political and cultural opposition began anew.
Jöris commented: “Russia was no model any more. But I did hope that there would be in Germany now a way against war, against the exploitation and against the National Socialists [But not against the International Socialists?]” (359). He hoped that something new could be established upon the rubble of the war. Yet, shortly after the unification of the two socialist parties, the German Social Democrats were persecuted and put into camps far away in Russia: 100,000 of them had to flee the Russian zone of Germany.
Jöris’ own resistance and alertness grew when he saw how the new Communist Party reached out to his former enemies — the National Socialists — and tried to gain them for collaboration and party membership. Comparably few National Socialists were sentenced and punished for their criminal behavior, in strong contradistinction to what happened in the Western part of Germany. The Communists did not have many moral scruples or ethical principles in choosing their temporary allies. Due to their lax attitude toward former National Socialists, the latter were soon to be found as party members and among the candidates for political offices.
In August of 1947, the de-Nazification of Soviet Eastern Germany was terminated. Jöris comments: “Just as the Communists had turned into National Socialists [after Hitler came to power in 1933], now the National Socialists became Communists” (371). As Petersen reports, the Communist Party had the highest percentage of former National Socialists among the political parties in Eastern Germany. Victims of the National Socialist regime had to keep quiet, despite their own just indignation, about this bitter fact. They, together with the victims of the Soviet system, had to be silent; they could not speak the truth. They were effectively forced to participate in the “conspiracy of silence” (Petersen).
A Lack Of Guilt Feelings
Erwin Jöris himself shows — at least in my eyes — not only a weak political understanding about the situation of 1946, but also a lack of moral formation in his personal life. In the middle of the scarcity of food and other goods, it happened that he stole food from a woman who had invited him for a good meal that she herself had acquired in unjust ways from a pastor who had explicitly sent it to Berlin for the little children in need. Jöris even goes so far as to steal money from his own parents, who were so stingy with their own hard-working son.
Looking back on these events, he does not seem to have any bad conscience about his acts, at least in Petersen’s report. But, as was once more widely held: “Thou shalt not do evil that good may come from it.” And: “Thou shalt not steal” (Seventh Commandment). These important moral laws seem unimportant to him, even when giving the interviews to Petersen in his high age and after much reflection and retrospection.
However, because Jöris refused to be part of this “conspiracy of silence” and continued to speak his mind out loud, his parents and his brother and neighbors started to warn him. “You will soon disappear!” He responded: “At least someone has to speak when you all are silent!” And: “Nobody will forbid me to speak!” (374).
In one conversation with a Communist, he called the official Communist newspaper Neues Deutschland (“New Germany”) simply and bluntly the “Red Völkischer Beobachter” (The Völkischer Beobachter was the newspaper of Hitler), implying that the former Nazi newspaper had just turned red.
After he had unexpectedly met one of his former accusers and truth twisters from his time in the Soviet Union, who himself had just come back to Germany as well, Jöris knew that he would have to flee to West Germany. He and wife had planned the flight for the day after New Year’s Eve in 1949. But, less than two weeks before that planned date, Jöris was again snatched away by Russians who had been alerted by his old above-mentioned enemy from Russia.
An Infamous Method
This was the last tragic moment of his life that brought him again into prisons and hunger and exhaustion and near death. He was again accused of merely invented violations and conspiracies, and was marked as a fascist who tried to undermine the Communist state. The Russian prison, which was now on German ground, was run similarly to the Lubyanka in Moscow: inhuman life conditions, little food, no hygiene, forbidden even to rest any moment during the day. Instead, the order was to sit straight all day long.
Even though he was beaten at times during his imprisonment, Jöris thankfully was spared the cruelest methods of torture that often were applied to many of the supposed “enemies of the state”: standing for days in ice-cold water, repeated beatings, and the breaking of teeth.
Yet, Jöris was not much intimidated even here. The officer who was charged with his case had shown some respect toward him, and even for his outspokenness. In one conversation, Jöris challenged the Russian interrogator with the reminder that he once learned in his Communist political classes that one has to insist before court trials that one is innocent until proven guilty!
However, Jöris even felt some sympathy for his interrogating officer and thought that he also had to fulfill his own duties or otherwise would fall under suspicion himself.
Erwin Jöris spent some time during this period in the prison of Hohenschönhausen in Berlin, which is now a museum and where one can see the terrible conditions under which the political opponents of the Communist system had to live.
The author of these lines was able once to visit this place. I still remember well the dark, small room without light, where there was a bench upon which victims were put, head down, with a pot with water hanging down from the ceiling which was releasing constantly a drip of water upon the head of the targeted person. It was an infamous method of torture to break the will of the prisoners.
In the prison cell which Jöris shared with a few men, he took the role of a counselor. He had already acquired quite some experience and knowledge about Soviet methods, and he gave his comrades in suffering many hints and recommendations on how to protect themselves best during the interrogations. Later, he was accused of fascist activity in his cell, because one of his comrades had passed on to the oppressors what he was saying. He was therefore then sent into another cell.
Among the accusations against Jöris was the claim that he had betrayed the names of former Communist comrades to the Nazis. Jöris refused to sign any of the documents with which he would thereby admit to being guilty. And he never did sign, unto the end. In April of 1951 — more than a year after his latest imprisonment — he was found guilty of all these invented accusations without any proof, and he was again to be sent to one of the stricter prison camps.
While waiting for his final fate, he read Russian books out loud to his cellmates. Among some of his cellmates it so happened that he met one of his former watchmen from the concentration camp at Sonnenburg, and indeed it was a painful meeting between victim and oppressor (this man was known for his commanding tone and cruel orders), these many years later. Now both of them were regarded as enemies of the state.
During all these years of imprisonment, Jöris got to know the tragic lives of many innocent people with whom he shared this fate. He later acknowledged their heroism and sacrifice, even though they were never honored by the public. In May of 1951, Jöris was sentenced by the Communists to imprisonment for 25 years. “Nobody can survive that” (422), was his first thought. Then, his comment, while still in the courtroom, was: “They can go to hell!” A sentence which was overheard by another prisoner who later, in an interview with Andreas Petersen, repeated it again and again, because he was so impressed with Jöris’ courage and dangerous boldness.
Most of the cases where people were imprisoned and even put to death by the Soviets in these years — more than 100,000 Germans — did not even find their way into the courtroom: Many victims were swiftly judged and put into prisons without any trial. On his way eastward to Siberia, Jöris passed the villages where he as a young man had made propaganda in favor of a Soviet Germany. “And now this ‘Soviet Germany’ brought me into a camp for 25 years” (425). The cynicism and the moral evil of such history!
Moreover, Jöris’ wife, Gerda, as well as his parents and brothers, tried to find out something, indeed anything about Erwin and his whereabouts. Not one institution would help them, from the lowest to the highest ranks. That the father — Jöris’ Communist father — had fought in the Spartacus fights, along with Rosa Luxemburg in the 1920s in Berlin, was of no help. “Twice, he [Erwin Jöris] had entered the same Party. Twice they imprisoned him” (440), comments Petersen.
Gerda, who had just been married to Jöris for a few months, was to suffer for years without his presence, not even knowing whether he was still alive. She stayed loyal to him all those years, worked in the business of her father-in-law and waited (even though she was offered better life conditions if she were to divorce her “criminal” husband, that “Traitor of the State”).
A neighbor, a deeply faithful Catholic woman, took a dangerous initiative and accompanied Gerda to an organization (Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit — Combat Group Against Inhumanity) over in West Berlin which tried to help the bereft family members of abducted people. This Catholic woman herself put her life at risk by doing so, inasmuch as even to travel to the Western part of Berlin in those days could be looked at as a disloyalty to the Communist State. (Not too many years later, in August of 1961, the Berlin Wall was built, so as to interdict such communications with the free West.)
Later, in an interview with Andreas Petersen, Gerda describes, laughingly and with warmth, how Jöris at his arrival home in 1955 from the Russian camp suddenly stood in front of her and just said: “Here I am.” As if he just came home from a walk!