Plans to close a seniors' center in a building that was used by East Germany's Stasi spies during the Cold War have prompted its elderly patrons to take action: They've occupied the building. NBC News' Carlo Angerer reports from Berlin.
BERLIN – Ranging in age from 55 to 96, a group of fed-up German retirees may be the world's oldest squatters.
They have occupied their local seniors' center in Berlin-Pankow, a formerly Communist district of the German capital, since local officials announced it would be shut by early July.
With its intermittent hot water and creaking hardwood floors, the villa -- which was used by East German Stasi spies during the Cold War -- is not the most comfortable place to stay overnight.
The protesters had planned to stay for only a few nights hoping for a quick offer by the city. The group’s 72-year-old leader Doris Syrbe admits that they were unprepared at the beginning.
"We didn’t know what to expect," Syrby told NBC News. "All of us were citizens of East Germany, where it wasn’t routine to get up on the barricades. And even now, politicians tell us that we are operating out of limits."
Before the action started, the center was a place to get together and do exercise, play chess and even celebrate momentous occasions such as one couple’s 50-year wedding anniversary.
The demonstrators are afraid that the building will be sold off and torn down to make room for more of the high-rent houses that already dominate the neighborhood, and their community split up with members sent to different locations.
Carlo Angerer / NBC News
Doris Syrbe, 72, leads a group of retirees struggling to keep open a community center in Berlin.
And worried that the city would lock them out, the retirees decided to occupy the house. More than a month later, they remain.
Now big posters draped on the street-front fence declare "Hands off!" and "This house is occupied," reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
'Just don't get sick'
At least seven of the retirees representing the center's 300 regular users have stayed every night since the end of June, sleeping on old mattresses, camping beds and sun loungers.
But after a couple of weeks they have become highly organized with plans for when a person can spend a night at home once a week or at what time newspaper reporters and camera teams can visit.The elderly squatters have enjoyed widespread support from neighbors, political activists, local media and their families. "They are proud of us and tell us to hang in there, just don't get sick," one of the occupiers said.
With no acceptable offer by the city in sight, Syrbe said the occupiers are now in for the long haul. "We want to stay together," she said. "The city has not even been able to find room for all of our groups."
City officials say they can no longer afford the annual operating costs of about $73,000 and an imminent renovation which would cost more than $3 million. The retirees counter that those estimates are artificially inflated and say the community center is vital to its 300 visitors, many of whom get a pension that barely covers the cost of living in Berlin.
To make ends meet and to finance at least a short vacation with his wife, 71-year-old occupier Peter Klotsche says he has to work for two days a week on tourist buses. He says that after working and paying taxes for decades, the retirees should get at least something in return.
"We don’t want to be ignored and sit at home in front of the television all the time," Klotsche said adding that the building is the only place for many to stay active and have a vital social life at an old age. "Life doesn’t stop with retirement."
Carlo Angerer / NBC News
Peter Klotsche, 71, says that after working and paying taxes for decades, retirees like him should get something in return.
But a solution seems out of sight after the city cut the telephone lines and even sent a worker in the early morning hours to change the locks to the basement, which barred access to its gym. The seniors complain that there is little communication from the city.
Local politician Lioba Zürn-Kasztantowicz, who announced the center's closure, told NBC News that the city hardly has a choice due to budget pressures.
"The money just isn’t there anymore," she said. "There is less and less wiggle room, when it comes to voluntary social services."
Zürn-Kaztantowicz said that there are no current plans to clear the squatters from the site. "But I can’t say if that decision will hold," she added.
The squatters say they will remain in the building until the city promises to keep the center open or a substitute building that could house their community is found.
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