As communist East Germany crumbled, bureaucrats shred and ripped 50 years' worth of secret police files on East German citizens. Now, workers are trying to put them back together.
With dozens of scraps of paper spread before them like pieces of jigsaw puzzles, the 50 workers have been laboring for 19 months in a stuffy, worn-down office building in this small town near Nuremberg.They are proud of the 180,000 pages they have pieced together since they began on Feb. 24, 1995.
They have emptied 30 sacks of paper scraps. Another 1,063 are waiting.
It takes hours to paste together thousands of scraps with special tape.
"There is a certain technique. The tears in the papers must be matched exactly, and this is especially difficult when part of the paper is blank," said Lothar Flessner, who is responsible for reconstructing old telephone and address lists.
The files were compiled by the Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, which tried to destroy them even after the Berlin Wall fell.
Most of the papers were shredded beyond restoration. Others were hurriedly ripped in half, or torn into dozens of pieces.
The reconstruction is tedious - but produces invaluable documents.
"I like to do the work," Flessner said. "I think it is important to piece together the truth."
Some of the most important restored papers include spies' reports on the private lives of dissidents, Olympic medalists and East Germans who traveled outside the communist bloc, said project leader Peter Busse.
But the workers are just as impressed with the files on ordinary people.
"It is really unbelievable how many intimate details they knew about peoples' lives," Ida Wienkler said. "Even husbands spied on their wives."
About a third of the shredded material consists of surveillance reports on the church and democracy activists of the 1980s. Documents dating back to 1961 contain information on people who died trying to get over the Berlin Wall.
A few weeks after the Wall fell, East Germans rushed into the once-dreaded Stasi headquarters building on Jan. 15, 1990, and found 17,000 cloth and brown-paper sacks, stuffed with shredded paper, index cards and photographs.
After irreparably damaged materials were weeded out, 5,650 sacks remained.
Officials believe some of the most important documents - on the East German government, political opposition, church and artistic community - may be in the hundreds of sacks transferred to Zirndorf in 1995.