BERLIN – In the posh, lush Pankow neighborhood of East Berlin, nothing indicates that people are squatting the Kunterbunt house. Everything is orderly in the small brownish building, a legacy of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). There are flower bouquets on the tables and water paintings of landscapes hanging on the walls. Yet Doris, Magret, Ingrid, Brigitte and her husband Peter are entering their seventh day of siege. What’s so special about these squatters? Their ages range from 63 to 76 years old.
When the district authorities told them the house they are using as a retirement club would be closed on June 30 and then sold, they decided to occupy it. On June 29, they set up their camp beds. “Very early the next morning, while we were still sleeping, the janitor came to change the locks. But we were already here. No one had taken us seriously. Now, we’re not budging,” says 71-year-old Peter Klotsche with a wide smile.
These former inhabitants of East Germany are mobilizing for the first time. “We contributed to this country,” says 72-year-old Doris Syrbe, the leader of the protest. “Our retirement pension isn’t high. Today, we don’t want what we have to be taken away, we just want to be left alone.”
“The world can hear us”
Since then, the retirees squatting the Kunterbunt villa – formerly the house of Stasi chief Erich Mielke – have become the protagonists of a media saga that has crossed national borders. “We weren’t expecting so much attention. We’ve been bombarded,” admits Doris Syrbe. “Every day, we are visited by journalists from Germany and around the world: Swedes, Iranians, British. Berlin television follows all of our movements. At first it was exhausting.”
But now, the seniors have gotten the hang of things. A press folder, a spokesperson and a guestbook in the entrance record all of the episodes of their fight for tranquility.
People from all four corners of Germany have expressed their support for the Pankow retirees. One Berlin electrician spontaneously came to repair their bathroom water-heater after he heard on the radio that they had to take cold showers. “We wanted authorities to listen to us. Today, the whole world can hear us,” says Brigitte Klotsche, who is taking advantage of the last rays of sun, on the terrace of an impeccably maintained garden.
“I hope our struggle will serve as a model for other people with hardships,” adds Ingrid Pilz, a slight 76-year-old lady, as she raises her eyebrows, carefully penciled with a crayon. “In Spain, senior citizens are demonstrating too. But it’s a bit more aggressive. Here, we are radical pacifists.”
A city in debt
Opened 15 years ago at number 10 of the Stille Strasse ("Quiet Street"), the villa welcomes 300 senior citizens aged 63 to 97 years old. They come to paint, play chess, do gymnastics or learn Spanish -- but also to keep loneliness at bay and forget the hazards of old age.
But the city of Pankow, who owns the house, is in debt. It doesn’t want to pay the annual 52,000 euros needed to maintain the house, nor its refurbishment -- which would cost an estimated 2.5 million euros. The authorities promised the Kunterbunt villa regulars that they would be redirected towards other cultural centers in the region.
What authorities hadn’t counted on was the friendship and solidarity that the retirees built over the years. “We aren’t protesting because we’re bored or because we think it’s funny, but because we want to save our community,” says Doris Syrbe.
The city council is working on a less radical solution that would enable the seniors to stay in the house, after a proposal by the radical left Die Linke party. The verdict will be revealed on Aug. 29. Until then, the social club squatters are intent on staying.
“The police wouldn’t dare force people our age to leave,” says Doris Syrbe with a smile on the corner of her shriveled lips. Since dawn, the pensioners have been taking turns cleaning, cooking and shopping. Every day, children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors come by with their arms full of food and baked goods.
In Pankow, the drab residences of the former GDR leaders have made way for modern villas with gardens that are very popular among wealthy Berliners. Only the Kunterbunt villa and its occupiers are resisting attacks from developers -- for now.