Sun, Aug 22, 2004 - Page 7 News List

New 'Gulag guesthouse' sparks controversy

QUESTIONABLE CONCEPTThe new hotel gives visitors a chance to spend the night like an imprisoned East German dissident, complete with piped-in creepy music


Investor Bernhard Freiberger on the first floor of Schloss Hoheneck, a former women's prison in the eastern German village of Stollberg, in this Agust 16 photo. Freiberger's fondest dream is to fill the empty cells with paying customers.


Just three years ago, the last prisoners shuffled out of Schloss Hoheneck, a glowering fortress that squats on a bluff overlooking this eastern German village. Today, Bernhard Freiberger's fondest dream is to fill its empty cells with paying customers.

Freiberger, a western German investor whose jaunty bow tie and quicksilver smile suggest a wheeler-dealer rather than a warden, bought the 140-year-old women's jail in 2003, drawn by its forbidding reputation as a lockup for women who were political prisoners during communist times.

Now he is promoting the chance to spend a night like a dissident, lying on a hard bed in a dank cell, subsisting on abysmal food and soaking up, as his Web site puts it, that "irresistible jail-house-feeling." The cost: 100 euros per person, or US$123.50 (stripes not included).

"It's important to make people feel what happened here," said Freiberger, as he showed off horrors like a pitch-dark, underground chamber where prisoners were hung waist-deep in frigid water for days at a time. "You don't understand it by looking at an exhibit in a museum."

Whether Freiberger, 44, manages to create a welcoming Gulag guesthouse in this secluded corner of the former East Germany is anyone's guess. He claims to have lined up 800 bookings for next month.

The trouble is, he ran into a wall of fury from women who stayed in Hoheneck before it began accepting major credit cards. Though Freiberger insists he will plow ahead, he abruptly canceled the first "Weekend in Jail" after a group of former political prisoners protested.

Renting rooms in Hoheneck trivializes their experience, they charge, turning a grim chapter of postwar German history into a Stasi theme park. They view it as crass exploitation of the current nostalgia for the communist East, which has been stoked by the popular recent film "Goodbye, Lenin!" and has inspired plans for an actual East German theme park near Berlin.

"He's making fun of our suffering," said Leni Koehler, 77, as she recited the sales pitch from Freiberger's site, her voice thick with anger. "You'd think we'd had some kind of wonderful life up there."

Fifty years after her release, Koehler still recalls her three years at Hoheneck with a shiver. Arrested in 1950 by the Soviet occupying troops, who accused her of helping Russian soldiers escape to West Germany, Koehler was forced to sleep on a concrete floor while pregnant.

She was sentenced to 25 years and transferred to Hoheneck, where her cellmates were murderers and other hardcore convicts. Political prisoners were at the bottom of the pecking order, making life a daily struggle. Weakened by the filthy conditions and lack of food, she contracted tuberculosis.

Victims of communist tyranny in East Germany have been largely forgotten in the euphoria that followed reunification in 1990. In the vast moral reckoning that is modern German history, their suffering is overshadowed by those who felt the Nazi boot.

Koehler's friend and fellow inmate Annemarie Krause noted that Freiberger would never have been allowed to convert a Nazi concentration camp like Buchenwald into a hotel.

Krause, 72, was arrested by the Soviets in 1948 because of her clandestine love affair with a Russian soldier. She and the young man plotted to defect to the West. As harshly as the Soviets treated her, she said, the East Germans, who took over in 1950, were worse.

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