The Ghosts of Berlin

Séance with the Stasi

Sarah Khan

Artwork by June Glasson

In 2009, the German writer Sarah Khan took to the streets of Berlin as a self-styled ghost reporter, collecting first-hand stories of encounters with the supernatural. The stories she gathered reveal layer upon layer of the city's troubled history, from a cursed stone cross stolen from an East Berlin graveyard by 1970s goth teenagers, to the eerie goings-on in a Kreuzberg building that housed Nazi-era forced laborers. The non-fiction book that came out of Khan's research, Die Gespenster von Berlin (The Ghosts of Berlin), intertwines the author's ghost reporting with relevant snippets of German literature and archival research on the places in her interviewees' stories. The following is a chapter from the book.


Séance with the Stasi

She was the lady in your neighborhood. You saw her at the supermarket, you saw her in line at the post office. She was like Monday, the day she brought her kid to school, Tuesday, the day she swam laps, Wednesday when she picked the kid up, Thursday when she did the shopping, Friday when she came out of the bakery with pieces of cake wrapped in paper. Neighborhood ladies crossing paths with the ladies in their neighborhood, as if pulled on strings: it could have gone on like that forever. But then everything took a different turn when the painter Uta Päffgen said at the Cindy Sherman opening, "If you're looking for ghosts, talk to Anne. That woman can conjure spirits, she has this amazing rapport with them." So you arranged to meet with this unknown Anne, she opened the door and you were standing in front of none other than the neighborhood lady. The long auburn hair, the savagely bemused gaze, the big heart in a broad chest and the scent of afternoon coffee rising behind her. This story is a gift from Anne, the red wine witch, the Lady of Goseck Castle, the Magdeburger medium. Thank you.

A woman with a supernatural bent noticed her abilities early in life and played with them. One day things went far enough that she got a terrible scare and resolved never to mess with that stuff again. But she ended up summoning spirits again and again, she just couldn't let go of it.

Anne was born in Magdeburg in 1966. When she was 22 and bored to death of everything, she decided to flee East Germany. Of course she didn't know that the GDR's days were numbered, since she'd asked the spirits next to nothing about her own future – that was too touchy a subject. Some of her friends had also considered fleeing. Others had already applied for exit visas and were waiting in fear of bad news. Plus, you always had to assume there were spies around. Imagine a spirit announcing to the whole crowd at a séance that Anne H. was going to successfully escape the GDR next week. You just couldn't do a thing like that, so it didn't work to hazard a glance into your own future. What the spirits did tell Anne and her friends were wondrous, sophisticated stories that captivated them. Once a spirit who had known Bertolt Brecht turned up, and another time there was a child who always sat on the right knee of the Good Lord. It was fun and entertaining, whereas the reality and near future of young East Germans were neither fun nor entertaining. This is how it came to pass that Anne didn't ask the spirits about her own fate; had she done so, she would have spared herself the fleeing, the arrest, the stint in a GDR prison.

In those days in Magdeburg Anne didn't have a job, but she did have friends. The friends had red wine and the red wine had a candle and the candle had a glass. They formed a circle, turned the glass upside down and set it on a table in the middle of the circle. Then they spread lots of slips of paper around the glass into a makeshift Ouija board: the words YES and NO and all the letters of the alphabet, and the numbers from one to a hundred, all arranged in intervals of ten. Each of them gingerly laid a finger on the glass and then they started. And how gloriously the glass tingled and jogged and jiggled as soon as Anne had summoned the spirits. It really danced.

One time they got someone right away. SOS, he said, SOS, SOS.

"Who's sending an SOS?"

They got a number, then another one, over and over again the same two numbers. Someone fetched an atlas and checked the numbers against the axes of longitude and latitude. It was a point in the South Atlantic. Magdeburg's red wine-swilling Ouija-boarders of the terminal phase of the GDR heard on the news the next day that a ship had sunk off the coast of the Falkland islands. Everyone aboard had drowned.

Once they summoned a spirit and nothing happened. Then came a knock at the door. One of them stood up and opened it; there was nobody to be seen, but someone stepped inside. They were all sitting cross-legged in a circle on crooked, wafer-thin old floorboards, and they felt how the boards rose and fell beneath the steps of the invisible but weighty guest, they heard the wood creaking. The guest circled the Magdeburgers a few times, scared the hell out of them, then he left. They all knew Anne was the one with the power to provoke such an audacious spirit. It never worked without Anne, and with her it was always wonderful and terrible. But after this experience Anne vowed to give it all up. Having spirits visit your own home was too much, she said, you never knew who'd turn up or what they'd be bringing with them. She said she'd finally understood that she could only attract them, not control them. So it was settled: no more spirit conjuring, never again.

But then came the story with the strange lady who sold clothes at the flea market like Anne did, the one who threw herself at Anne. The way the lady invited Anne and her friends over to her place was way too friendly, so fake, so hugely suspicious. Anne couldn't say no: she was hell-bent on showing off, so she gathered up her friends and a bottle of wine and showed up unannounced at the strange lady's place. The strange lady acted like it was such a pleasant surprise to see them. Then someone interrupted her chatter and said: clear off your table, we need it now. They turned a glass upside down in the middle, spread out the letters and the numbers - they'd brought everything along. Each of them gingerly put a finger on the glass. The strange lady didn't want to join in, she was really creeped out, but they said come on, don't be such a drag. Anne summoned the spirits, and right away they had one, a ghost in the glass. At first they went around the circle just making small talk with him.

"Great spirit, would you like to talk to us?"

"Yes."

"Are you a good spirit?"

"Yes."

"Is it nice in the place where you are?"

"Cold."

"What's your name?"

"Ludwig Brenndecker."

"When did you die?"

"1952."

"How old were you when you died?"

"57."

"What was your job when you were alive?"

"Cripple."

As soon as the strange lady started giggling, Anne came straight to her real question.

"Does anyone in this room work for the Stasi?"

"Yes."

"Is this room bugged?"

"Yes."

"Can you show me where?"

"Yes."

"Say yes when I get to the place where the bug is."

Anne stood up and walked around the room. When she got to the corner with the cabinet, the spirit piped up again: "Yes."

There was a radio on top of the cabinet. Anne reached for the radio and shook it.

"In here?"

"Yes."

Anne sat back down at the table. The strange lady was as white as a sheet. "Get out!" she yelled. "Now!"

But they didn't leave, they kept going.

"Do you know the phone number of the people who are listening to us right now?"

"Yes."

"Can you give it to me?"

The spirit gave them a five-digit number that started with a three. In Magdeburg the numbers starting with three were the Stasi numbers. This was such a triumph for Anne. She had abilities the GDR wasn't prepared for! She was jubilant. And so she thought, although death was still on her mind, that she would succeed in escaping. Another life was waiting for her, a life without shackles. She just had to make her move.

Anne took two journeys before her attempt to flee. The first was to Prague to visit Franz Kafka's grave; the second to Goseck Castle in Thuringia to get together with her friends one last time. They wanted to drink and laugh and go hiking. She'd been saying her goodbyes for years, in an excruciatingly slow, gloomy process, never able to tell anyone she was doing so. The farewell in Goseck was supposed to be something different, something fortifying. Today Goseck is a renovated castle. Visitor restrooms have been installed in a historically sensitive manner; there are tango workshops in spring, there are concerts and archaeological excavations. But back then, in the East German 1980s, it was half-rotted, abandoned to the ravages of time. Most of the castle was boarded up and coated in dust, lying there as if cursed to sleep a hundred years. There was a small youth hostel in one of the side wings, where Anne and her friends stayed. Anne said she remembers the bleak look of the place. Carpeting, cheap furniture, wipeable plastic surfaces, all of it utterly devoid of any feeling of being in a castle.

Once they snuck into the closed-off part of the castle and had a look around. Most of the rooms were locked, but they fiddled the doors open with a lock pick. Anne made a game out of it. Before she opened a door, she would stand in front of the locked door and rattle off a list: fireplace on the left, the fire poker is lying on the mantel and the knob is chipped, the window is green, there's a column in the middle of the room. Or: A long, dark room with a tiny window on the right at the far end, in the middle a cast-iron candelabra hanging low over a big table. And each time Anne's descriptions proved right. As if she knew them intimately, these dead rooms with their tattered curtains and dirty door fittings, with their putrid furniture and faded wallpaper. On one of these forays they found a bottle of red wine without a label amidst some debris. The bottle was covered in a thick layer of dust; the cork and the glass appeared to be forged of ancient materials. The bottle might have been sixty, maybe a hundred years old. Anne's friends opened it, but none of them dared to take a swig. Finally Anne tried it. The wine tasted so good that she drank the whole bottle. Then she lay down in her bed in the youth hostel. That night she dreamed she was walking through Goseck Castle. She was supposed to go to the castle chapel, that was the order she'd been given. On the way there she was able to walk through walls. She could stick parts of her body through the thick walls – her head, an arm, a leg. It was fun. Then she couldn't get any further. The dream ended. The next day Anne found out that during the night an old woman had died at Goseck Castle. The woman had held a right of lifelong abode there. The crotchety old lady had been a noblewoman, people said, a countess whose family had lived in the castle for a long time.

The end of this story didn't come until six months later, in May 1989, when Anne was in Hohenschönhausen Prison, having failed in her attempt to flee. There in her prison cell, the dream suddenly picked up where it had left off. She was back in the spot in the castle en route to the chapel where she hadn't been able to get any further. Now she could also see the landscape, and a St. Bernard, and herself in a white dress with a little boy of about five at her side. She knew immediately that this woman and child were killed by the woman's husband. He'd been away for years at the crusades and she'd been unfaithful. The child was killed for the shame he brought and was buried in front of the altar; the woman was bricked into a wall alive. "But what does that have to do with the old countess?" she asked in the dream, and an answer came: "The old woman at Goseck Castle was the last of her family line and couldn't die until you arrived." That was me, Anne thought when she woke up in her cell in Hohenschönhausen – that was my past life. My life now has nothing to do with it anymore.

When she got out of jail and the GDR's hermetic seal was broken, she drove to the Mediterranean and picked up a stone there. Then she took it to Franz Kafka's grave, back to Prague. She laid the stone on the grave and apologized profusely to him for having stolen a small rock there the year before. The stone had been lying at the very top of the grave, she explained, and she'd wanted to take it as a good luck charm for her escape and for all the dangers she'd face. She said she'd wanted to possess a part of him, she revered him so much, but she hadn't taken into consideration that the stone had been an offering to him from someone else. Since then she'd had nothing but bad luck, a whole year of punishment and misfortune. She would still be sitting tight behind bars if the GDR hadn't collapsed. And so, she told him, she was bringing the stone back. It wasn't exactly the same one – that one had gotten lost in the turmoil of the past year – but it was a pretty stone from the Mediterranean, and would he be so kind as to accept it with her apology and forgive her?

Anne moved to Berlin, studied art history, got a job sorting mail, and was for a while something along the lines of honorary chairwoman at the Kommandatur Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. She heard about Goseck Castle once more. In 1991, two years after her dream, she met a guy from Weißenfels, a town near Goseck. Anne's friends told him about the eerie things that had happened at the castle, about Anne's dream where the woman and the child appeared, and the night the old countess died. They told him how Anne had since sworn that a child was buried in front of the altar in the Goseck Castle chapel. The young man turned ghostly pale and said that a child's skeleton had been found beneath a marble slab in the castle chapel.

"That was my child," Anne said. "In the time of the crusades. I led him by the hand."

In Berlin she mostly stopped using the Ouija board and encountering spirits, which is odd given that Berlin is full of ghosts, and that they have no reason to avoid Anne. Now and then a spirit would sidle up to her, but she didn't even always notice. Once she mistook a ghost for a roommate dressed in dark clothes. He entered the room softly and looked over her shoulder, read along with interest as she wrote at her desk. She chatted with him – a one-sided conversation, as he never answered. When she turned around, nobody was there. As if the man had never even been there.

For a few years in the late 90s, Anne lived in a dilapidated building at Invalidenstraße 104, kitty-corner from the Natural History Museum. The building's owner would later pay her a lot of money to move out so he could renovate the place and raise the rents. The building was part of a horseshoe-shaped housing complex right next to the Charité hospital and various military facilities, built during the Gründerzeit, the late-19th-century period of rapid industrial expansion in Germany. Theodor Fontane's novella Stine is set at this time, around 1890, on exactly this stretch of the two-mile-long Invalidenstraße. It was no coincidence that Fontane chose this particular street for Stine. The panoply of buildings and institutions there showed the Gründerzeit at its most frenetic. Invalidenstraße was blood and sweat, dreck and speed: three major train stations, the Lehrter, Stettiner, and Hamburger Bahnhöfe; engineering works; parade grounds; barracks; the veterans home; and beyond it all a prison and the Charité hospital, and then the countless apartment buildings and graveyards. Fontane depicted the precarious social circumstances of Ernestine Rehbein and Pauline Pittelkow, two sisters who lived at Invalidenstraße 98e, torn between flirtations and marriage proposals, between hoping for love and striving for upward mobility. All their dreams are dashed against the rigidity of a narrow-minded society, and only death triumphs in the end.

Stine looked at her sister.

"Yes, you're looking at me, child. You likely think, oh glory, it's a reassurance when you say 'It's not a fling.' Stine, darling, that doesn't comfort me one bit; on the contrary. A fling, a fling. God, a fling isn't the worst of it by a mile. It's here today, gone tomorrow, and he goes this way, she goes that way, and by the third day they're both singing again. Off you go, I have my part. Oh Stine, a fling! Believe me, no one ever died of a fling, not even when it gets rough. No, Stine, no, a fling's not much, it's nothing at all really. But when it gets to you here (she pointed to her heart), then it's really something, that's when it turns ugly."

When Anne was living at number 104 she started up again with the Ouija board. It was late at night, there were five of them there, and they'd planned it all ahead. One of her friends brought along a really big bottle of wine, the rarest and most subtle vintage Anne had ever sipped, she even wrote a short story about the wine later. The séance started the same way it always did: "Great spirit, we summon you." A woman who'd died of tuberculosis when she was just 23 came into the glass. She answered their questions about where she was – "I'm in the yard" – and where she came from: "I'm buried in the yard behind the house." Anne had heard talk among the neighbors about a pauper's graveyard behind the horseshoe-shaped buildings, a place where the Charité used to bury dead patients without much ado, plague and Hepatitis C victims. The rumors and conversations mostly concerned the rats that came over from the old Charité campus to invade the building's cellar and root through the garbage bins. After their pillaging, they would run back through their own tunnel to the hospital park. Was that where this spirit came from? The young woman's ghost answered the question "What's up with you?" with "hatred" and "rage". She answered the next question with the word "oficier," written just that way, one f and an i after the c. The story came together over the course of the séance: the spirit in the glass was the servant girl of an oficier who had once lived with his wife in Anne's apartment. The girl slept in the tiny room at the back. The officer was also her lover, and she really fell for him. But when she fell ill with tuberculosis, the man couldn't have cared less. She was buried in the pauper's graveyard of the Charité, not far from their building. The man carried on with his life unperturbed; she alone had been robbed of all the nice things in life. Hence her rage. When Anne's friends heard the story, they resolved to do something about it. Naturally they felt terribly sorry for the girl, one of the friends was so moved by the story she sobbed. But what Anne wanted most was to get the unbridled rage out of her apartment. She opened another bottle of the extraordinary red wine and gave the ghost a speech. She spoke of the brief life that was granted to the poor, the girl's grave and unforgettable experience with the callous man. They held a moment of silence to commemorate her bitter end, and they wished her and her broken heart nothing less than eternal peace. Then the glass was still. This, too, is a woman's stirring fate from Invalidenstraße. Not from Fontane, but nonetheless from the realm of spirits.

Your Ghost Reporter could not, of course, leave it at that, and had a look at old city maps from the turn of the century. The old Charité graveyard really did run right behind Invalidenstraße 104. It stretched along Hessische Straße to the hospital washhouse. Very little information about the cemetery survives – even Frau Beer, who leads historical tours of the Charité grounds and specializes in fielding such questions, knows nothing about it. "I'd have to dig way down," she says. "I'd have to dig way down." The cemetery existed from 1726 onward. The new glass-walled North Campus Cafeteria and the Center for Advanced Training in Rural Development have now been built over it. The weathered walls and wild ivy beds shooting up dark hundred-yard vines look like reliable signs of a graveyard. But nothing at the site wants to recall a burial ground for the poor and the invalid – we only have maps, servant girl apparitions, and rumors among the rat-plagued neighbors to do that. And as for the oficier – a member of the military did indeed live at number 104; this fact appears in Berlin address registers, specifically in the "Directory of All Domiciles in Berlin with Specification of Their Owners and Tenants". From 1893 onward, a certain Müller lived there, who in the address directories is alternately listed as a sergeant and a lieutenant, and beginning in 1904 as "retd. Lieutenant"; then he stops turning up at all. "Sergeant lieutenants" were considered commissioned officers or subordinate officers in the Second Reich army, and were entitled to use the associated insignia and titles. Whether this Sergeant Müller was the aforementioned rake, and whether he was dashing, and whether the story of the consumptive servant girl is true at all – this the Berlin address directory cannot divulge. The episode shall remain uncanny.

Before we draw this to an end, permit me to add a general reflection on the gift that has followed Anne through her life: the spirits that revealed themselves to her were far more numerous during her youth in the GDR. She had energy to devote to them, she was interested in their stories. This interest waned as she got older. It's the same way with red wine and your own vigor: there comes a time when you have to pace yourself. Especially when you have a kid to take care of, a husband to love, a job to do. The path of wisdom is too hard a route if it leads through wine. In Berlin Anne was no longer the medium she'd been in Magdeburg. Terrorizing the Stasi, conquering wiretaps across time and space: that wasn't her anymore. What did happen in Berlin was that she noticed the ghosts and spirits had plenty of people to tend to them. Anne is constantly encountering people with ghost stories to tell. People like her neighbor, the painter. When she visited him she got the feeling that someone else was there with them in his apartment; maybe, she thought, it was just noises. She looked around.

"So you heard something too?" the painter said. "I have a sort of housemate, but then again, who knows, maybe it's just a dream."

"Come on, tell me," Anne insisted.

The painter was skeptical. "It was probably just a dream." Then he said, "I was lying on the sofa falling asleep. A woman appeared. She wore a dress with an apron and her hair was in long braids. We looked at each other in astonishment. I felt awkward, I didn't know what to say to her. Then I suddenly thought: I'm just sleeping! I closed my eyes, and then I woke up."

He showed Anne a picture he'd drawn right after he woke up. The woman was wearing high-heeled lace-up boots. She looked short and serious and overworked. Like a woman from a century ago. His housemate.

translated from the German by Jane Yager



Read the original in German

Sarah Khan was born in 1971 and grew up in Hamburg in between the rectory of her German Protestant grandparents and the traditions of her father, a carpet dealer from Lahore, Pakistan. She studied folklore and German literature, and published three novels between 1999 and 2004: Gogo-Girl (1999), Dein Film (2001), and Eine romantische Maßnahme (2004). Her most recent book, Die Gespenster von Berlin. Unheimliche Geschichten (2009), is a collection of contemporary stories about ghosts and hauntings. Sarah Khan lives in Berlin and regularly publishes articles and essays. In October 2012 Khan won the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's Michael-Althen-Preis für Kritik for an essay about the TV series House. Find her online here.

Jane Yager is an essayist, literary critic, and translator. She was born in California, studied religion and anthropology at Macalester College and Harvard University, and has lived in Berlin since 2005. Her writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Paris Review Daily, Nerve, and the Global Post, and she has contributed to travel guidebooks on Germany, Poland, and Thailand. She blogs here.



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