I was just 10 years old when the wall came down in 1989. I was born in Neubrandenburg, a town in East Germany in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). After the Second World War, the GDR was a socialist, authoritarian dictatorship in the Soviet occupation zone from 1949-1990, which collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was reunified to the democratic Federal Republic of Germany in the West. My parents and I lived relatively close to the widely feared psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde. Nobody would have thought it possible that I would almost be killed there only seven years after reunification.
Ueckermünde, a small resort town in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, has been praised in the past for being both family and senior-friendly. Thanks to its renovated old town and proximity to water, it has become a popular tourist destination. But Ueckermünde is also the scene of several extremely dark chapters of history. Cruel crimes against humanity were committed at this place during the Nazi era. In 1941, the Nazis set up the Kinderfachabteilung (children’s department) for the systematic killing of children with disabilities.1 The crematorium was used to deal with the aftermath of the many deaths that occurred. Today, on the grounds of the AMEOS Clinic, a memorial serves as a reminder of these horrific crimes. Despite the idyllic location of the city, this dark shadow still remains.
In 1993, many decades later, Ernst Klee’s documentary, “The Hell of Ueckermünde – Psychiatry in the East,”2 shocked the country again. Klee was well known in Germany for his investigative research about German Nazis in the medical field, and his film brought attention to the inhumane living conditions of patients with multiple disabilities. The media response was enormous, and the film sparked outrage. But what was more appalling? The sight of frightened men and women who had barely seen daylight in years, who sometimes huddled naked in the corners or emitted guttural sounds while creeping across the bare floor, or the justifications for such treatment given by the staff interviewed in the documentary?
The public outcry was followed by public appeasement. Once these terrible conditions were exposed, it appeared that immediate changes to the system were enacted. However, behind closed doors many of these practices remained in place. I sadly discovered this fact in 1997 — and suffered both physically and emotionally as a result.
* * * * *
June 17, 1997 was the day destined to change my life forever. I had just started the 11th grade of the sports high school in Neubrandenburg when a tumor on my appendix was discovered quite by chance. When the doctor informed me after the operation that some malignant cells had been detected in the histological examination, I feared for my life. This shock struck me in the middle of my puberty at a time when I was already struggling to acknowledge and come to terms with my homosexuality. As a teenager, I was not brave enough to openly share my feelings in my environment. I started on a path of contemplative soul-searching and looked to God for answers. I was never one of those people who show their troubles to the outside world. That is why even then I had only a few close allies with whom I still share my life today; without their support, I certainly would not have survived that horrific period. Looking back, apart from the tumor, I had the problems of an average teenager. I would never have thought it possible that these normal struggles would lead me directly to the “Hell of Ueckermünde.”
Because of my emotional state, I was referred to a pastor who worked at the Neubrandenburg Clinic. After a personal consultation, this pastor accompanied me to the psychiatric clinic in Neubrandenburg. At first, I didn’t know where I was being taken. I had hoped to find myself in a place where people would talk to me about my worries. But nobody wanted to talk to me about any of that. Once I was admitted to the psychiatric ward, I was immediately locked up.
On the second day, behind locked doors, severe stomach cramps went through my entire body. I was in terrible pain. I heard the keys turning in the lock. The nurse let me go to the toilet. I sat down holding my belly. Completely stunned and dizzy, I saw blood in the toilet bowl. This is your punishment, Christian! You should have eaten more, but it doesn’t matter anymore. These thoughts kept rushing through my mind. My body was weak. So as not to upset anyone, I cleaned the toilet and my legs, which were splattered with blood. It took longer than planned. I washed my face with cold water and walked toward my room. In the hallway, two doctors and four male nurses were staring in my direction.
“What do you want from me?” I asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?” I didn’t get an answer. Surprised by this threatening crowd, I was seized once again by panic. They circled around me. Trapped, I pushed aside the doctor who wanted to block my way.
“Get him!” someone shouted.
Dr. Gold grabbed my arm from behind and twisted it as much as possible. It hurt like hell, and my joints cracked. I had lost my strength in the past few weeks. I was too weak to fight back.
“I’m sorry, I apologize. I didn’t want this to happen. I was confused. I thought you wanted to hurt me,” I pleaded. It was too late. The door to the monitoring station was open. They threw me on the bed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Working as a team, they tied me down. Now they stood around me, held me and simultaneously tied my wrists and my ankles down with straps. Meanwhile the nurse calmly injected me with something in my leg. I fell asleep for a little while.
When I woke up and I could no longer lift my chest, I thought about God. It was obvious: I was being punished for my sins. But to be put through the ringer by six grown men as a weakened and sick 17-year old boy, to be thrown onto the bed and tied down? I would have never expected something like that.
A nurse sat beside my bed to monitor my vital signs. My left leg was firmly turned outwards and tied too close to the bed. “My knee hurts. Could you loosen the belt?” I asked.
“No. I’m not allowed to, Mr. Discher.”
Once again, my bowels clenched. I defecated, feeling the liquid drip out of my body through my underwear, until it finally reached the sheets. Indifferent, I accepted it. I remained silent and dozed off. When I came round, it took me a few minutes to realize where I was. They were now standing behind the glass windows of the monitoring room, talking and staring at me. Now it was no longer the guilt that nagged at me; it was worry and confusion that made me feel paralyzed. I lay here now, powerless and handcuffed to a bed. Thinking of my future was out of the question. Lost in thought, I was pushed out of the room and toward an ambulance.
I was rushed to the hospital in Ueckermünde by ambulance. Despite my dazed state, I heard the piercing siren. Why am I being transported with the siren wailing and lights flashing? What would others say if they saw me lying here? What have I done?
My effort to express myself was interrupted by an injection in my arm and I fell back into a dozy state. Only the bump of the ambulance and the opening of the back doors woke me up. Men and women dressed in white clothing looked at me with grim faces.
Although I was lying on the stretcher, still feeling dizzy, I could make out their words and the red brick building surrounded by tall trees. It smelled like sea air. How nice it would be to lie on the beach now, to listen to the waves. “I want to stay here,” I said to the red-haired man whose half-bald head was particularly striking. He chuckled wryly at my request.
They removed the gurney from the ambulance, which jolted violently on the uneven ground. They pushed me into the building through a dark, narrow corridor. I was too weak to talk and could hardly see anything. Though the paramedics were releasing the restraining straps on the gurney, the staff in House 12 had already prepared new ones. Brownish and worn out, they were spread out on my future bed.
The paramedics handed over my documents and left the observation room. For the first time I felt some relief, although my left knee, which had been tied down at an awkward angle too long, still hurt. My underwear stuck to my body. But none of this stopped the red-haired nurse from tying me up again.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Discher — that’s your name, right?” As if it were the most normal thing in the world to joyfully restrain the body of a defenseless, 17-year-old boy.
“My name’s Mr. Discher,” I replied. At this time, I had no idea he had addressed me like this as an allusion to my homosexuality which had been openly announced at Neubrandenburg Hospital. Otherwise, there was no way he could have known I was gay. “If you believed in God, you wouldn’t be treating me like this!” I said grimly.
“God! God! God! Can’t you talk about anything else? He can’t help you now! You are sick. Just answer my questions! You need to stop talking about this stupid crap once and for all!” He tied my ankles as he tried to quiet me down, moving afterward to my wrists and the waist belt. Then he put a piece of paper and a pen on the table next to my bed which was just out of reach. On the thin and yellowish paper I read the words “RELEASE PAPERS.” Was it normal that you had to sign release forms here? I immediately remembered visits to the doctor during my childhood.
“Aren’t these documents from GDR times!?” I asked.
“Shut up, you!” he replied.
“But why am I supposed to be released now? Where am I anyway?”
The male nurse was watching my attempt to get at the piece of paper. I didn’t succeed. I tried again and again to reach for it with my bound wrists. He was obviously enjoying it. I couldn’t understand anything anymore.
“Mrs. Discher, are you going to sign the release papers now or not?” he laughed.
Despite the strap around my wrist, I was beginning to be able to move my right arm again. But I still couldn’t reach the document. Shaking his head, he left the room. I eventually dozed off, then woke up suddenly and saw my parents crying as they stood next to my bed. I saw things blurred and could only mumble: “What are you doing here?”
I noticed the clammy air mixed with the smell of disinfectant. It smelled like hospital.
After my initial assessment, the medical staff deliberately made false diagnoses—they diagnosed me as schizophrenic—and refused to offer me legal support. Although I was a minor, they refused to let me to contact my parents.
After only 24 hours I was barely able to speak and anything I wanted to say was hindered by another dose of medication, which was administered at what felt like three-hour intervals. Drool trickled out of my mouth, my body moved involuntarily, my eyes rolled around as though on remote control and I suffered from frequent tongue cramps. I was not only helpless, like my parents, who had to face the mighty psychiatry apparatus consisting mainly of doctors, psychologists and nurses already working in the former GDR, I was also lost, completely alone and defenseless in the hell of Ueckermünde.
Behind the locked doors I met various people between the ages of 30 and 70. Many told me their tales of suffering. I was unable to speak, which made me a good listener; I was not able to stop them from saying what they felt like saying. For the rest of my life, I will never forget their faces and voices. We were not treated, but rather stored in the red brick building as though we were objects. There were dark basement rooms in which the “therapeutic” treatments were carried out. A student at a Gymnasium, Germany’s higher level high schools, I had to color carrots in occupational therapy and write what type of vegetable it was on the drawings. The math problems I was given were as challenging as, for example, 11+3=14. We were sometimes allowed to smoke in a room that was around 64 square feet. The window could not be opened, and the entire ward was crammed into the room. Any form of resistance or opposition demonstrated by my fellow patients was utterly futile and immediately put to a stop.
My encounter with the assistant doctor in the prefabricated house number 40, which still exists today, was particularly traumatic; this doctor carried out examinations on me without my consent. Within a week, for example, he inserted a hollow needle twice into the lumbar canal of my spine, stating that the sample had fallen from the table in the laboratory after the first lumbar puncture. Not only had I not agreed to this procedure, I also could not object to it, nor had my parents or legal counsel been made aware of the need for this action.
Every day I heard screams coming from houses unknown to me that I couldn’t begin to understand. When I was moved a few weeks later from the red brick building to a prefabricated building, I found out where the screams were coming from. These were the cries of people with mental developmental disorders, who Ernst Klee reported on in “The Hell of Ueckermünde.” These people have vanished without a trace. To the best of my knowledge, they are either no longer alive or no longer capable of participating in society. However, the staff working at that time are still actively employed, either at the same institution or a similar one elsewhere.
Just as I had entered this facility, after eight weeks I was “spat out” of it and discharged home. After the ordeals in Ueckermünde I had to go to the outpatient treatment of the notorious psychiatrist Krause and his wife in Neubrandenburg. Although I left Ueckermünde without the ability to speak, heavily traumatized and barely able to move, I managed to reclaim life after more than a decade. In 2015, I published a memoir.
Today I am one of the few witnesses who survived the Hell of Ueckermünde, who can tell the story of my companions and raise awareness of the injustice committed against us as well as demand answers.
My friend Simone Stark was committed to the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde before the fall of the wall. She told me she is convinced she was committed to hospital by the Krauses for political reasons: before this occurred, she had publicly criticized Marx and Engels and held political speeches. While housed at Ueckermünde’s psychiatric hospital, she was raped by a janitor. When she did not behave in a way the staff deemed fit, she was often confined in a cage bed, tortured, doped up or humiliated. Not only was she prevented from returning to school after her stay at the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde, she was also blocked from receiving any sort of training. After her terrible experience in Ueckermünde, she was never taken seriously by any responsible authorities. Today, she is no longer alive.
My friend Birgit tells a similar story. She told me that the staff in charge of her care expected sexual favors in exchange for letting her smoke on the terrace or bum a cigarette. Birgit also said “abnormal” behavior was punished with punitive measures, such as confining patients in cage beds or cruel, painful injections in their heels. Birgit was housed at Ueckermünde both in the GDR as well as after reunification. Therefore, she can testify that the exact same staff who treated her in the GDR largely continued to work there after reunification; she also claims that the staff behaved exactly the same after 1990.
The people I met or later interviewed about their experiences at these infamous psychiatric hospitals still talk of the cruel treatment they were subjected to, which haunts them to this day. Some of the people are now no longer living or have multiple disabilities thanks to their experience in these psychiatric institutions. This injustice has never been dealt with or addressed.
Antje, my longtime friend from this horrific time, who was Dr. Gold’s prey for many years, continues to fight to get those in positions of power to acknowledge and shed light on the injustice committed against us. However, her efforts have so far been in vain, just like mine have been. My 2016 petition3 to the state parliament in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to shed light on human rights violations in the psychiatric institutions of Neubrandenburg and Ueckermünde was recently rejected on the recommendation of the incumbent Minister for Economy, Labour and Health, Harry Glawe,4 who worked as a psychiatric nurse near Ueckermünde during the GDR era.
The psychiatrist Dr. Rainer Gold had been exposed by the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1991 for testing new medications on patients without their knowledge or consent, with no regard to the possible health risks or potentially fatal side effects.5 After the medication scandal became public, Dr. Gold moved with his wife, who is also a psychiatrist, from Berlin to Neubrandenburg where he opened a psychiatric clinic in 1993. There had been close professional cooperation between the Golds, who practiced until 2014, and the Krauses, another psychiatry couple who in the GDR era were considered loyal to the regime; they were never prosecuted, and were permitted to continue practicing until 2010. From their practice, before and after the fall of the wall, people were regularly admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Ueckermünde who did not fit into society in some way; this included my companions, many of whom are now dead. The powerful influence of the Krauses remains unabated due to the institutional networking of the authorities in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her constituency.
In 2006, Dr. Gold, together with Mayor Andreas Grund,6 who still holds office today, publicly unveiled a plaque commemorating the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. Gold had only words of praise for the scholarly achievements of Kraepelin, referring to his immense influence and mentioning his classification of mental disorders and disease systemology as examples of important contributions to the psychiatric field. However, Federal Cross of Merit bearer Dr. Peter Lehmann7 urges the long overdue public condemnation of Kraepelin as one of the ideological forerunners of psychiatric mass murder during Hitler’s dictatorship. In his work, Kraepelin denigrates Jews, draws dubious conclusions about homosexuals and those he considers “different,” and suggests eliminating psychiatric patients, which led to the psychiatric mass murder (T4) of hundreds of thousands of victims. In response to Peter Lehmann’s repeated request to remove the commemorative plaque or, at the very least, add in the information mentioned above, Mayor Grund has refused to take any action. To this day, the plaque is still mounted on Glambeckerstraße 14 in Neustrelitz.8
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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