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Germany's Recycled Stasi Jails Evoke Cold-War Memories

Jens Leck looks down the hall of the abandoned prison and his eyes widen. "Look," he says to his sister, Sigrd Weber, "the red lamps are still here."

It is Mr. Leck's first visit since the 1990 German reunification to the prison in the Hohenschnhausen section of Berlin, once used by the Stasi, or Ministry for State Security, to hold political prisoners awaiting trial in the former East Germany.

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For Leck and Ms. Weber, who were both arrested by the Stasi in 1978 for spying, the lamps are a symbol of the isolation and psychological torture prisoners endured. What they remember most was the stillness and quiet.

"It made you crazy," Leck says. Today, the halls are empty, paint is peeling off the walls, papers and other materials lie scattered on the floor. Hohenschnhausen prison is preserved as a historic site. Most of the more than 200 other former Stasi prisons and office buildings are now being used for other purposes.

One building in Berlin will soon serve as a women's prison, and the "Dance Factory" disco in Dresden occupies part of another. At a former Stasi complex in Berlin, the German rail company, Deutsche Bahn, some local government offices, and an array of newsstands, hair salons, and other businesses have moved in.

"Now, especially when you see a family with children walking around here, you don't think about what was here before," says Jrg Steinbock, who works at a newsstand in the former Stasi cafeteria.

"It was the past," agrees Corinna Garreis, who works at a pharmacy in the complex. "Now, we have other problems to worry about," such as Germany's 12.6 percent unemployment rate.

"Whether or not the Stasi building is now an office or a kindergarten, it is a good sign that the Stasi is over," says Jrg Drieselmann, director of a museum at the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin.

As is the case with other historic items, Stasi paraphernalia are collected by some in Germany and abroad. Passport stamps and cases belonging to Stasi border guards are sold at Berlin's flea market.

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Genuine items are expensive, Mr. Drieselmann says. A Stasi medal of commendation can cost upwards of $275, he says. Even then, he adds, the buyer might be only getting a reproduction.

Drieselmann, who was incarcerated at a Stasi prison for about two years, sees the Stasi legacy as a lesson: "It is in our interest [to see] what ways were used in the past to solve problems."

Steffen Leide, a museum guide, says visitors often ask about Stasi memorabilia. "Nowhere could you buy this," he says, taking a metal stamp off his key chain. The stamp was once used by Stasi officials to seal in wax a string across their office doors so they would know if anyone had gone in or out of the room.

Most former Stasi members and the citizens who served as their informants have now slipped into normal life. In 1989, there were about 89,000 Stasi and 170,000 informants in eastern Germany, according to the German government. Today, many former Stasi have been successful in real estate, as private security guards, even in selling insurance, says Mr. Leide, adding that the former main Stasi psychiatrist still practices in the building next to the museum.

Charly Rau, a tour guide at Hohenschnhausen who was imprisoned for 17 years in Stasi facilities, says every once in a while his heart will pound as he walks through the former prison. It did so especially one day when he recognized a former guard who had come for a tour.

"They like to come to see where they used to work," says Mr. Rau. The avid Rolling Stones fan was first arrested in 1968 when he ventured too close to the Berlin Wall to hear a concert by the band on the other side.

Today, Rau lives with constant reminders of his past. Erich Mielke, the infamous minister for state security from 1957 to 1989, lives in the same east Berlin neighborhood. One day Rau saw Mr. Mielke, now in his 90s, walking home. "I said, 'Put the water on, Mielke, I'll be up for coffee.' "

Rau says Mielke responded by shaking his walking stick in the air.

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