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Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a team of archivists has been tirelessly sorting, pasting and reassembling documents that were destroyed by the Stasi, the East German secret police. Nicknamed the “Puzzle Women”, these heroines of collective memory face the Herculean task of piecing together these files: the paper fragments are tiny, and the number of archivists is only a fraction of what would be required to complete the job without recourse to new technology. Meanwhile, the Stasi’s victims are getting older, and time is running out. Niagara Tonolli reports.

In 1989, East Germany‘s Communist regime collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the Berlin headquarters of the Stasi, the all-powerful secret police, panicked orders were given to immediately destroy the millions of cards and files that documented decades of police surveillance. When the crowd finally entered the Stasi headquarters, 111 kilometres of archives and 16,000 sacks full of paper strips – the remains of millions of shredded or ripped-up files – were saved by East German citizens.  

On the eve of German reunification in 1990, a team of archivists was set up in a bid to make sense of this gigantic paper jigsaw. Most of the archivists were women, and for the past 30 years they have been devoting themselves to this titanic task. With the will and self-sacrifice of monks from the Middle Ages, they patiently reassemble the fragments of files, reconstructing the history of their fellow citizens. When they finally come to read the yellowing files, victims sometimes learn that it was a husband, relative or work colleague who betrayed them to the Stasi.

The work of the “Puzzle Women” is essential to understanding the history of the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany. But their task is colossal. The contents of only 500 bags out of a total of 16,000 have been reassembled over the past three decades. It’s estimated that it would take several hundred years to manually piece together the contents of the 55 million pages still waiting to be assembled. That’s unless new technology and political will are combined to decipher this heap of confetti as quickly as possible, unveiling the legacy of a police state that some would like to read… and others forget.

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