Chapter 37: THE SCENT OF MY SWEAT
There was no answer at first. They knocked again before another man opened the door.
“Komm herein.” We were invited inside as if expected. I was led through a series of rooms, all decorated in a very basic way: a couch, a table, a desk. It was not for living, but some sort of occupational space.
The small room I was taken to, had no furniture.
“Unlock her cuffs.”
“Yes, sir.” The officers obeyed. Relief flooded through me as the tight restraints were removed, and I rubbed the raw, red flesh of my wrists.
“You are dismissed.” The man waved the officers off as he retrieved a chair for himself, his face like a stone statue—no emotion or expression. The only movement came from the wiggle of the pencil in his right hand. A folder rested casually on his lap. The silence was unnerving. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, my whole face felt wet from tears, sweat, or both.
Time passed, how much I didn’t know. He continued to watch me, a minor distraction from the aches that had developed in my muscles from standing so long. I shifted my weight to my other leg, wondering how long before they would buckle beneath me.
“Sir? May I sit?” Silence. My eyes narrowed in on a face that started to appear familiar the more I stared. An older man with a heavy build, his full face bore thick eyebrows that almost seemed to connect in the middle, contrasting a small mustache resting on his upper lip. His commanding officer’s uniform had a patch that identified him as a Captain.
It was hard to know exactly how much time had passed, but I knew it would not be long before my body would succumb to fatigue. The only sound was the continual scribbling of his pencil against the paper, until suddenly it stopped. Finally, he spoke, his voice serious and monotone. “What is your name?”
The throbbing distracted me.
“What is your name?” he repeated.
“Ella,” I whispered. “Ella what?” “Kühn.” Then I realized I’d made a mistake.
“Sorry, my given name is Adela Kühn, but I’m called Ella.”
He kept his face down to the papers. Another few minutes went by.
“Where do you live?”
I hesitated, frustrated over how I was being treated. I felt the rebellious gene inside me stir. “Why do you ask?”
He ignored me. “Answer the question.”
“Why am I here?”
I could sense his growing agitation, “Answer the question, Fräulein
Kühn . . . Where do you live?” “Treptow,” I obeyed.
I realized he could be the only one who stood between me and freedom.
“Your full address.”
“Rotherstraße 34 Treptow, 1012 Berlin.” He silently scribbled.
“Do you live alone?”
“I . . . I do not.” My lips started to tremble.
“Who do you live with?”
“I live with an elderly woman, Frau Genau, and her daughter
“With whom do you associate?” “My friends?” He nodded.
“I don’t have many.”
I was instantly unsettled. This was the one subject I knew too well. I had overheard conversations at the Frankes’ where the officers spoke freely of their interrogation tactics including coercion for more names. It was never a good thing when you gave the secret police more names. My mind instantly went to Christoph.
“I really don’t have any sir, I mostly keep to myself.”
The Captain seemed like a patient man, but for how long I did not know. My mouth closed tightly. His eyebrows rose.
“Their names, Fräulein Kühn.”
A strand of hair had come loose from my braid, and I nervously pulled it behind my ear and wiped my forehead. What should I do? My mind spun . . . was he talking about Stefan, Lena, and Johann, or Fritz, Simon, and Klaus? Did he know about the escape attempt?
I remained silent. I hadn’t had any water since yesterday. My throat was strained.
My interrogator stared at me carefully.
“Names, Fräulein,” he asked again, only there was something different in his tone, almost cautionary.
My breathing elevated. I knew I had little time to answer but could not bring myself to form words. Several more minutes passed in silence.
“Gentlemen . . .”
The Captain called for the officers to enter the room once again and with a flick of his wrist, the motion was made for the restraints to be returned.
“Miss Kühn will be going to the remand room. Please see to her removal.” His voice remained calm, but the word “remand” should have warned me. As the cold steel once again pressed into my flesh, I felt my throat tighten. Fear smothered me but not enough to give up the names of people I cared about. Better that I am the only one to suffer. I had less to lose.
The officers led me to a windowless room with peeling white walls splattered with dark red paint in different directions. It was an odd combination. The closer I got to the sides I realized it was not paint after all. My chest swelled anxiously, my lungs stretching as I attempted to take a deep breath, but choked. I instinctively covered my mouth as my eyes frantically spun around the room. A large metal basin stood in one corner while various sized ropes and chains hung from the ceiling. I bit the inside of my cheek to stop me from crying. If they saw me weep, they would know they had gotten to me. I need to stay strong.
The polizei set me down on the only chair in the room, positioning my clasped hands directly under my bottom and securing a thick belt attached to the chair around my chest to prevent mobility. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. I was confused. With all they could use in this room to force me to talk, this seemed like the least invasive. I glanced around, the two ropes above me had been tied into knots as if to clench hands or possibly a head. I shivered.
“Sir,” I whispered, as the officers entered again with two small bowls. “Please,” I pleaded to the Captain.
His chin raised sternly. “Had you been more compliant, Miss Kühn . . .”
I watched anxiously as the bowls were placed on the ground directly beneath my arms. My body continued to tremble. What was their purpose? Are they going to bleed me out?
“I’m not who you think I am.” A tear escaped and slid down my cheek.
“I will give you some time in here to think about your cooperation.”
“Please, please,” a final petition ignored as the door sealed shut behind him. Blackness swallowed me in, nothing—not even a crack under the door—offered relief. Only the sound of my heavy breathing could be heard until an unearthly moan in the walls awakened. A groan as if something abnormal stirred. My breathing accelerated as a swoosh of air was released through nearby vents. It wasn’t until the thick, hot air reached me that I realized the noise must be a very large furnace. The scorching air continued to burn and sear against my face and body as if it was on fire. Moisture coated my skin and pooled on my lap. I could no longer hold back the tears, yet I somehow knew this was not going to be the worst of it.
I didn’t know how much time had passed when the whispers started. Even as my eyes adjusted to the blackness, I saw shadows and movement and voices. I remained seated in the position they left me, but jerked rapidly, opposite to the sounds that shot out from behind, above, and what seemed right in front of my face.
My terror grew with each passing moment. The perpetual blast of heat winded me, allowing perspiration as the only source of wetness on my parched lips. My drenched hair weightily stuck to my face, and the salt stung my eyes. When the whispers paused, I heard a steady drip of fluid. It hurt to think. Where is the water coming from? I assumed it was a faucet on the tub then realized the sound was much closer . . . the bowls. With my hands still positioned underneath my body, liquid easily rolled off my skin . . . they were collecting my sweat.
I read once that the Stasi found an escapee because they turned their dogs onto the scent they had collected from interrogation. Now it all made sense . . . but why me? I had no intention of running away . . . at least not lately. I could not possibly be a threat.
The noises would start and stop randomly. Hours must have passed—possibly even a day. I no longer had feeling in my hands. They were numb to the touch. The whispering continued, ghostlike voices repeated over and over that I was guilty, and I would be punished.
By the time the door finally opened again, I was barely coherent. I was unable to lift my eyes against the bright light that filtered in. I had no idea how long it had been. Someone stood before me, and I felt the weight of their eyes but could not look up to see who it was. The Captain’s voice resonated.
“Are you ready to comply, Fräulein Kühn?”
I nodded yes. I wanted this to be over. Every part of my body was sore, stiff, and weak. My eyes remained closed. I heard the officers enter once again and the bowls scraping against the floor as they removed them from beneath me. A significant amount of liquid sloshed as they carried them out.
Upon their return, the lights were turned on. The strain was more than I could bear; I kept my head lowered and my eyes shut as they removed the body restraint. Still bound at the wrists, men on each side of me gripped my arms tightly and forced me up into a standing position. My legs wobbled. I couldn’t find the strength, and my body fell weakly to the floor. I was dragged upright again, but my arms and legs were practically useless. The metal restraints cut deep into my skin with each movement. Finally, they left me on the floor. My chair was taken and the deep sound of the Captain’s voice continued.
“Your friend’s names, Fräulein.”
I sobbed as blood began to move through my arms again—the sting was unbearable.
“Their names.” His tone bore no sympathy.
“I—” my voice cracked, “—I work with a butler by the name of Johann. He is Russian.” I coughed, but it felt like I had fabric in my mouth, it was completely dry.
“Continue . . .”
“There are three other maids; Lena, Heidi, and Eva. I believe they are all German.”
“Where do you work?”
Depleted of strength, my muscles protested as I used my shoulder to brush aside some of the hair that had stuck to my face. “Captain?” I whispered. His heavy breathing halted. He seemed surprised I knew his rank. “I am a simple maid. I have no political ties to anyone. I only clean and serve. I don’t understand why I’m here. I’ve done nothing wrong.” Silence.
My eyes blinked rapidly. I was finally able to crack them open.
“Sir, I have done nothing wrong.”
“Whose home do you serve?”
“Herr Koen Franke,” I whispered. “He and his son, Stefan, run the mortuary in Pankow. He has many friends in the Government, do you know him?”
The Captain’s face flinched just enough to confirm that he did. He was an intimidating man, but there was something about him that didn’t seem too threatening to me. Maybe it was the way he reminded me of Herr Krzinsky, or maybe he was the age of a father, but he was sure I had information he needed.
Could it be possible that Herr Franke was the target, and they wanted information on him? I could only describe his visitors, I didn’t know many names. I tried not to even listen to the conversations and most of the time I was excused from the room.
Then it occurred to me where I had seen this man before. “Wait, I remember you.” I squeezed my eyes tighter to clear my sight. Even though the hot air had ceased, I continued to sweat profusely. “I remember you.” I was sure of it now. I adjusted my position and licked my cracked lips with an equally dry tongue. “You brought the two People’s Police officers to the Frankes’ for a meal . . . the day they were honored.”
He remained silent. I could tell my words affected him. He kept his head down and continued to write.
“I served you. The officers spoke of an incident which involved a man at the Teltow Canal. Stefan Franke was your host.” I was wasting my breath. My words were completely ignored. The little hope generated from this connection slowly disappeared.
I was tired and worn. I scanned around the room defeated. I knew there was a great deal more that could be done here to get answers, answers they believe I possessed, but I knew nothing of worth. I could die for nothing. It was hard to know how much time passed between his questions, but this pause seemed insurmountable.
“Do you have family in the west?” His next question frightened me most of all.
I knew spies regularly hunted people who had escaped to bring them back and face charges of treason.
“No,” I whispered but turned away.
“Where are your parents?”
“They are dead.”
Scratch, scratch, scratch, the tip of his pencil moved swiftly across his paper.
“Do you lie, Fräulein Kühn?”
I felt my face heat up; I could not look at him.
“Anker said you are a liar. Do you lie, Fräulein?”
“Anker? Colonel Anker?” My heart stopped. “What does he have to do with this?” I sat up off the floor. My arms still cuffed and limp at one side.
“You are familiar with Colonel Anker?”
“No . . .” I paused. “Well, yes . . .” My sudden energy piqued his interest. “He has been to the Franke home.” I stared at the Captain. He faced me back. “Colonel Anker was at the Franke home yesterday. I think it was yesterday . . . for lunch. I spilled a drink on him—it was an accident.” I took a breath then continued. “He became very angry with me then had me arrested.”
The Captain was silent as he processed this. I shifted my legs into a different position. He didn’t talk for what seemed to be another ten minutes.
“It was an accident, sir,” I pleaded. I hoped I could somehow get him to believe me. “I tripped when entering the parlor, and the glass went everywhere. I am sorry. Please Captain, please go to Stefan, he will speak for my innocence.”
Suddenly, the door flung open. Before it registered who entered the room, Colonel Anker’s hand flung angrily against my cheek. Tears immediately shot forth from the sting, and I fell to the cold cement floor once more, my cheek numb.
This surprised the Captain as much as it did me.
“Colonel.” The Captain stood. “I have this under control.”
“She is lying, Scharf. She’s a spy, I know she is.”
My eyes widened with this news. That’s what this was all about, his pride? He was trying to frame me to get back at me or possibly Stefan for what happened.
“I’m not a spy!” I sniveled back through gritted teeth. He lifted his hand again, and I braced myself, but the hit never came. I glanced up to see the Captain’s hand restraining the senior officer’s forearm. My eyes shifted back and forth between the men. Colonel Anker’s face was blanketed in shock. The Captain quickly released his grip.
“Sir,” Captain Scharf stuttered a bit, “we need to follow protocol on this one.” The Colonel’s jaw locked, his eyes filled with rage, but he stepped back.
“We need to break her,” Anker said.
Captain Scharf responded, “We will if she’s a spy.” The way he said it, gave me hope. Maybe he doesn’t believe I am.
The Colonel paced the room. His hands alternated between wringing and tightening in a fist. The mumbling was incoherent and his apparent agitation became distracting, like he wasn’t himself, although I didn’t know him well enough to know if he was always this dreadful or not.
“Where do you meet with your friends, Fräulein Kühn?” He ignored Anker’s aggravated movements.
“Um . . .” The Colonel’s presence made me nervous. “. . . we go to this place called Dafne’s café.” There was a strange shift in the mood. Despite Anker’s restless presence, I now realized my best chance for a release was to cooperate with Captain Scharf.
“What do you talk about?”
“Normal stuff . . .” I glanced fearfully towards Anker. The veins in his neck protruded. “. . . stuff like work and music.” I cleared my throat. “I’m only sixteen, sir.” I was actually seventeen now if we went by the birthday the Kühns gave me, but I hadn’t celebrated since Papa died. There was nothing to celebrate . . . and maybe sixteen sounded more innocent at the moment.
Colonel Anker slammed his hand against the wall, impatiently. It made me jump. He was different than last night . . . or whatever night it was. He seemed worse.
“Colonel, may I speak with you outside, please?” Captain Scharf pointed to the door, then once outside they started talking, although Anker did not know how to whisper. I tuned in as best I could.
“You know she works for Koen Franke, correct?” “Yes,” Anker snapped as Captain Scharf continued.
“I think we need to proceed carefully. We have a specific relationship with him.”
“She is the maid. She means nothing to them.”
His words imprinted deeper than I thought they would. Maybe that’s what they all think of me.
“Still, there is also Inga Franke’s family connection with Wolf.
Let’s not create a reason to disrupt any association.”
I held my breath. Who could have imagined it would be Frau Franke’s bloodline that could ultimately set me free?
“I want her convicted, Scharf. I want it done tonight!”
“I’m not certain she is a spy, Anker. There are some . . .” he tried to whisper lower, “. . . doubts.” Papers shuffled loudly. “This is not a high priority target. Who did you say reported this?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the Colonel snapped. “She is, I know it. We need to press her harder.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Then Captain Scharf spoke up. “Well, let’s give it some more time, sir.”
“Do not be mistaken who the ranking officer is here, Scharf.” Anker’s irritation was evident. “You may have influences in high places, but I am still in command.”
“Yes sir,” the Captain conceded. “I understand. I’m only suggesting more time. She’s not going anywhere, and I am due to meet
Honecker this afternoon. I can return and proceed shortly after.”
“Fine!” the Colonel’s disgust was clearly evident as he conceded.
“Are you feeling alright, sir?” I could see the Captain hand the
Colonel something, “You look tired and a bit out of sort this morning.”
“Alright, sir.” Scharf gazed back into the room, but I had already turned away. “She will be fine in here. We have two officers who will remain close. They can keep an eye on her while you go about your business. Let’s reconvene at four this afternoon.”
When Captain Scharf re-entered the room, he held a glass of water and offered it to me. This action surprised me and I hesitated, wondering if it was somehow poisoned. He motioned for me to turn around, and as I did, I felt the metal bands release. Shifting forward again, I rubbed my wrists, and reached for the glass. I gulped hastily. Poisoned or not, my mouth ached for it. When I finished, he held the cuffs out again but kindly restrained my arms in the front and not nearly as tight.
I thought about the conversation he had with the Colonel and wondered if I had imagined the uncertainty he might have in my guilt. A sliver of hope blossomed in my heart and gave me the courage to once more plead my case. I thanked him for the water and proceeded in a whisper, “I didn’t do anything wrong, sir. I am not who you think I am.
Please . . . please ask Stefan Franke.”
The Captain didn’t respond to my statement.
“Make sure you are ready to tell me everything I need to know when I return.” His stance was less domineering than before. Or so it seemed. “I will return shortly. Do not consider running away, I have soldiers posted at the doors.” He turned before he left. “This will all be over soon.”
Then he closed the door.
I wasn’t sure if I should feel reassured by his last comment or not. It was a double-edged sword.
The tingling in my arms subsided as I scooted awkwardly towards the back wall and leaned up against it. Now that my hands were restrained in the front, I could rub my stinging cheek gently with my palm. I welcomed the silence.
The psychological terror the Stasi deployed was notorious. I heard the stories. The tales of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, accused of crimes they never committed, interrogated relentlessly and sentenced to horrible outcomes. Hohenschönhausen Prison in East Berlin was one of those places. Many received life sentences there, but those who didn’t and were released after a few years were never the same. I wondered how long it would take for me to prove my innocence—if innocence was still an option.
I thought of Stefan. Was his family keeping him from me, or had he realized what they always knew. We were never meant to be together. As time continued to pass, any amount of belief or courage diminished with it.