A Youth Misspent Trying to Escape Communism - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Youth Misspent Trying to Escape Communism

A Youth Misspent Trying to Escape Communism

By Sean Williams


The Berlin Wall was more than a political symbol. It ruined countless lives.

By Sean Williams

This is the first in a series of Wednesday articles by Sean Williams marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Williams tells the story of the wall and the division of Europe through the eyes of individuals who lived under its shadow.

Many things could get you jail time in East Germany. For Cliewe Juritza it was a skateboard. It was 1979 and he was 13. The VCR had inspired a skating renaissance, and Juritza, watching on banned West German TV in East Berlin, wanted in. But skateboards were off-limits in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which had grown from the Soviet-ruled shell of the Third Reich. 

The only way to emulate those Californian kids, Juritza figured, was to get a blueprint from the U.S. Embassy and make a board himself. One day he wandered inside and asked a guard if he had a picture of one. The guard screamed back, “Get out! Get out!” When he did, an officer of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, was waiting. “How can you go into the cave of the imperialist lion?” he yelled. The next day Juritza was hauled in front of schoolmates to explain his misdeed. 

“It was the fate of living there,” he says now, at Hohenschönhausen, the East Berlin Stasi prison where he has worked as a guide for seven years. Thousands of political prisoners were held at Hohenschönhausen under the world’s most paranoid surveillance state. A fall breeze whistles through the old block but the smell of disinfectant is thick. “That’s the smell of East Germany,” says Juritza, who is dully dressed but dapper in a smart shirt and sweater. He speaks slowly, pausing to pick through the details of a youth that began with disenchantment and ended behind bars.

Hohenschönhausen was never home to Juritza. But four other DDR prisons were, after two foiled attempts to escape the totalitarian state. Now he runs tours of Berlin, his home, 25 years after its famous wall fell. 

Cliewe Juritza former prisoner of the Hohenshohnausen gives a tour for vistors of the old prison.

Cliewe Juritza giving a tour of the old prison to visitors

Source Robert Lackenbach / GETTY

Germany’s capitulation in the Second World War forced Juritza’s parents, along with almost half a million other ethnic Germans, to leave their homes in territory ceded to Poland. Juritza’s mother was a housewife, and his father, a former Wehrmacht soldier, was a plumber. They had three children. 

In 1953, Juritza’s grandmother, a 59-year-old West Berliner, was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to evangelize her Jehovah’s Witness faith in the east. The family chose to stay in its Prenzlauer Berg home in the east — even when, after 3.5 million Germans had fled west, the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Juritza and his brother would play tennis in its shadow. “I guess it was a unique court,” he says. 

Juritza grew desperate to escape East Germany. By the 1980s, the inner German border had become virtually impossible to cross, with alarmed fences, a “dead zone” of mines and booby traps, and shoot-on-sight guards. Fifteen years old and a talented student, Juritza applied for a spot in the East German merchant navy. He was refused on the grounds his grandmother lived in the west. He began to notice that shops stocked high-quality West German products, which could be bought only with West German Deutsch Marks. “No one thought communism was a good thing,” he says. “But what could you do? You protested? You were arrested.” 

An alarm triggered. Juritza fell and ran as border guards raced towards him. A passing motorcyclist offered him a ride in his sidecar. 

At 18, Juritza climbed aboard a train from Berlin to Budapest, Hungary. There he bought a one-way ticket to the town of Shopron, where he planned to cross the Austrian border to freedom. When he arrived at his destination, a Hungarian officer was waiting. His heart sank. Juritza was arrested and interrogated, but since the Hungarians weren’t working with the Stasi, he was let go. He returned to Germany. 

His second attempt came soon after, in the southern German town of Mödlareuth, which GIs named “Little Berlin” because it too had ben bisected by a wall. Desperate, Juritza began scaling the fence. An alarm triggered. Juritza fell and ran as border guards raced towards him. A passing motorcyclist offered him a ride in his sidecar. Police sirens wailed as they sped away.

Juritza returned to his family in Berlin. His mother was furious. After his two failed attempts, the Stasi was surely on his tail. “I was weak because everywhere you supposed there was a spy,” he says.  

One option remained: Get arrested and hope to be sold to West Germany. As the GDR’s planned economy faltered, selling prisoners became a key source of state income. Juritza’s own cousin had fled that way. Juritza boarded another train, this one to the town of Eisenach. Halfway there, a border guard demanded his papers. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to escape?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ So he took me away.” Juritza was charged with attempting to escape and sentenced to a year in jail.  

The escape had stolen a year from him — and the chance to see his family again. But he was in the West. 

After a short stint in the south, Juritza was sent back to East Berlin, where he was incarcerated in Rummelsberg Prison. Interrogation sessions would take hours and inmates were urged to give up accomplices and anyone else who might turn on the GDR. At its most fatuous, the Stasi examined prisoners every few minutes. They also broke into houses, tapped phones, spread misinformation and threatened the families of suspected agitators as part of a process called Zersetzung (“decomposition”).

Juritza had no accomplices, and the authorities soon gave up on him. Boredom became his tormentor. After one outburst during a family visit, Juritza was placed in solitary confinement. 

“There was nothing: no people, no books, no papers, nothing,” he says. “So I looked at a tile on the wall, and in my mind I separated the tile by rectangles, squares, and in each square I made a line from the corner to the corner so I had two triangles. And you can imagine that when you make such things voluntarily you’re living in a completely different world.”

Ten months passed, until one day a guard beckoned Juritza to a prison van that, like all Stasi prison vans, was disguised as a delivery truck. Prisons were customarily left off maps. To speak of them could land you in jail. From the van Juritza was put on a prison train for two days. Only then did he learn that West Germany had paid for his freedom. It was 1985 and he was 19. The escape had stolen a year from him — and the chance to see his family again. But he was in the West. 

Juritza worked in planning and PR before taking a political science degree in Berlin in the late 1980s. On November 9, 1989, he was sitting in a bar with some friends. A man rushed through the door. “He shouted, ‘The wall is open, the wall has disappeared!’ I thought to myself: Dream on and don’t drink so much beer.” 

Juritza went to bed early that night. The next morning the Berlin Wall, and European communism, were being dismantled. “For me the border was always impossible to breach,” he says. “When I lived in East Berlin, there was a wall: I could see over it. When I was in West Germany I could not travel to East Germany. I had a special affair with the German border.” 

After 45 years, Germany was reunited, and Juritza was his family once again. In the coming years, millions of files the Stasi had kept on East Germans were made available. Juritza, who has since written a book about his experiences, was amazed at what he read in his file. Entries listed his personality, his behavior — even his “future behavior.” He could read about his short fingers and his “high, vertical forehead.”  

One entry stood out more than the others. Buried in the paperwork was an assertion from his time in prison that Juritza was intelligent. “But there is a little shadow on this,” he says now, smiling. The officer in charge had misspelled “intelligent.” Perhaps, he wonders, he wasn’t so bright after all.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories