RECEPTION CENTRES IN THE GDR
The first admitting facilities and reception centres for returnees and migrants to the GDR open in the summer of 1953. As of the fall of 1957, all newcomers must pass through a reception centre. By the mid- 1960s, such central reception centres are located in Eisenach, in Barby, near Magdeburg, in Pritzier in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, in Thuringian Saasa and in Berlin-Blankenfelde. Altogether their total capacity is 1,500. After the building of the wall in 1961, the occupancy rate sinks to below 20%.
The centres are under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. The People’s Police, or Volkspolizei, are responsible for housing, guarding and integrating the migrants, as well as for conducting the first round of questioning. The secret police, the Stasi, are responsible for carrying out additional security reviews. The migrants must prove that they are worthy of GDR citizenship. In the 1950s, more than half of all newcomers are sent back to West Germany. Spies and criminals are unwelcome, as well as people in debt, “asocials,” anyone with excessive demands, and the unemployed. Migrants remain in the reception centres for just a few days in the 1950s. As time goes on, the process begins to take longer. In the 1960s, the average length of time spent in a reception centre is four weeks, although some people are detained for as many as three months. In April 1979, with the number of migrants steadily declining, a new principal reception centre (Zentrales Aufnahmeheim, or ZAH) is opened in Röntgental, near Berlin. Slowly but surely, the other centres are closed down. After being released from the reception centre, migrants are usually transferred to district centres, where they are provided with housing and jobs.
DAILY LIFE IN THE RECEPTION CENTRE
Upon arrival, the newcomers must surrender their identity card, passport, cash, and any personal effects. After a maximum of 24 hours in the quarantine station, where they are isolated and undergo a medical examination, they are transferred to single or double rooms in the reception centre. If there is the slightest suspicion that a particular person may be a spy or harbour subversive attitudes, the Volkspolizei and the Stasi conduct gruelling, weeks-long interviews. The migrants do not receive any information regarding the duration of their stay, their future fate, or that of their family members in the GDR. Daily life is marked by boredom. In the 1950s, detainees are allowed to leave the centres in the daytime for several hours. This practice is forbidden in the mid-1960s. Migrants are required to assist with various work projects at the centre during their detainment. The GDR attaches great importance to the political and ideological education of the prospective new citizens. For this reason, lectures on historical, cultural and political topics are held at the centres on a regular basis.
THE PRINCIPAL RECEPTION CENTRE IN RÖNTGENTAL
The first reception centres in the 1950s and 1960s are intended to be temporary and therefore are in poor structural and sanitary condition. The internees’ anger occasionally erupts in protests and even violence towards the staff. Conditions remain variable amongst the centres until the establishment of the principal reception centre in Röntgental near Berlin in 1979. The old centres are subsequently closed, not least on account of sharply declining numbers of migrants. The centre at Röntgental has 117 beds. However, its average occupancy rate is only around twelve detainees at a time – looked after by 114 centre staff members, as well as 19 full-time Stasi employees. Absolute anonymity is of the utmost importance; none of the centre staff members is known by name to the detainees. For example, culture department employees are addressed as “Herr/Frau Kultur” (“Mr/Mrs Culture”). The migrants are also only permitted to address each other by first name.
FROM CENTRE TO CENTRE
GDR authorities establish district centres in addition to the central reception centres starting in the early 1960s. District centre workers and district councils are responsible for arranging housing and job placements, as well as for assuring that the migrants are integrated into society. Additionally, the Volkspolizei and the Stasi complete their security reviews at these centres. The detainees are required to attend internal cultural events and work in local factories. The centre directors are supposed to encourage reliability, diligence and punctuality in the workforce. Because migrants are often assigned to jobs for which they have no previous experience, employee morale leaves much to be desired.
Some centres are in disrepair. In the 1950s and 1960s in Loburg, near Magdeburg, for example, the basic structure of the building and the plumbing facilities are so poor that GDR authorities worry about the general reputation of the centres. In Kraftsdorf, near Gera, the detainees are left on their own at night because staff members are only onsite during the day. In 1963, the director of the centre in Karl-Marx- Stadt (now Chemnitz) wants to resign because his detainees heavily criticise government and social conditions in the GDR. Political discussions shape daily life in other centres as well. Many migrants find it frustrating to be sent from one centre to another.