Oh you must visit the prison,” exclaimed an animated Carmen. I was startled and intrigued by her statement. I couldn’t fathom the interest and importance given to a prison. Of all the places in the world, who would want to go to a prison?
I was in the German baroque city of Heidelberg, an hour-and-a-half drive on the autobahn from Frankfurt. The 800-year-old city which escaped unscathed during World War II unlike its German contemporaries, sits daintily along the Neckar River. Its Altstadt (old town) on either side of the cobbled hauptstrasse (street) is dotted with taverns and monuments such as the Market Square and Church of the Holy Ghost. The hauptstrasse (street) is the longest shopping promenade of Germany dedicated to amblers.
Heidelberg University is the oldest in Germany, and has many credits underscored. Numerous Nobel laureates and Leibniz awardees have been associated with the varsity, founded by Rupert I, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s Prince Electors. It had its own jurisdiction over legal matters of its students. If laws were breached, the students were tried, and if found guilty, were incarcerated. The imprisonment term would be from two days to four weeks, depending on the severity of the crime. Earlier, the Studentenkarzer—or Student’s Prison—was in the basement of the Old University building. The inmates lived in horrible damp conditions. Later, it was relocated to the top floor next door at Augustinergasse.
In his book A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain has glorified the Student’s Prison. He is said to have been awestruck by the beauty of Heidelberg during his three-month stay, hence the many references to the Schloss (castle), Student’s Prison and the Old Bridge in the book. In his writings, he details the prison laws, “The prisoner must pay, for the ‘privilege’ of entering, a sum equivalent to 20 cents of our money; for the privilege of leaving, when his term had expired, 20 cents; for every day spent in the prison, 12 cents; for fire and light, 12 cents a day. The jailer furnishes coffee, mornings, for a small sum.” The students enjoyed the socialising moments with friends in the prison that they deliberately committed petty crimes. They would set a farmer’s pigs free and chase them, knock the hat of a policeman, indulge in loud drunken singing on the streets.
The prison is now a museum and is open all through the year for visitors. The walls were covered with graffiti, names, dates and monograms. Some with soot, others with coloured chalks, ink and paints. Silhouetted images of captors with coloured caps, plaintive verses and names and dates of imprisonment were scrawled between the pictures. Some rooms still have wooden tables with names and armorial bearings etched on them. A wooden bed with a straw mattress and stool was also provided in confinement. Students had to procure their own blanket, pillows and sheets. They were allowed to attend lectures during imprisonment.
In today’s world, prison is the last place where anyone would want to spend time. I wonder about those days in Heidelberg when going to a jail was considered fashionable and was the preferred place to frolic around.