Three glass jars containing dingy yellow cloth fragments speak volumes about the bizarre methods of the Stasi, the former East German secret police.
After questioning a detainee, Stasi agents used such cloths to wipe the chair he sat in. The cloths were then stored to save their scent - one of many methods used by the Stasi to track people down and tighten the jaws of oppression.The "scent samples" are in a weird display of Stasi relics arranged by activists who hope the exhibit will pressure the government to bring the secret police to justice.
Called "Stasi - Power and Banality," the exhibit is in an imposing stone building that once housed the Leipzig branch of East Germany's Ministry for State Security, nicknamed the Stasi.
"We have to make sure an awareness of justice is created (in former East Germany) for the sake of democracy," said Konrad Taut, an activist who helped organize the exhibit.
The display has attracted schoolchildren, elderly people, workers and curiosity seekers, many of whom express disbelief as they walk through it.
Leipzig is an appropriate site for such an exhibit. Street marches that began here helped topple Communist East German leader Erich Honecker on Oct. 18, 1989.
The Stasi building was considered so central to illustrating the extent of Communist repression that anxious Leipzig residents stormed it on Dec. 4, 1989, to prevent any of its secrets from being destroyed.
The Stasi exhibit displays what they found, as well as new knowledge about the secret police that is continually emerging.
According to the exhibit, the Stasi had handwriting specialists who could determine the age and gender of a graffiti artist or anonymous authors of anti-communist letters.
The idea behind the "scent samples," it says, was to use them to identify people who commited anti-communist acts. Dogs were used to compare scents found at the scene with those already stored by the Stasi.
An exhibit describes the Stasi's efforts to find out who wrote "Erich, you have lost" on a wall during the 1989 pro-democracy protests against Honecker.
"The graffiti was photographed," a Stasi report says. "Color samples were taken. The paint brush was found by examining the area. A tracking dog was brought in. Footprints of the possible culprit were secured. Two scent samples were taken in the area."
Also on display are plastic molds used by Stasi agents to make false noses and ears, as well as wigs and wiretap gadgets.
The Stasi's Leipzig branch was capable of covertly recording up to 360 telephone conversations at once, and intercepted and opened up to 2,000 pieces of mail every day, according to the exhibit.
It says agents stole about $109,000 from mail sent by West Germans to relatives in East Germany.
A wall map shows "conspirative objects," Stasi slang for apartments its agents used to spy on the populace.
"Look, there's one near where we live," a worried-looking elderly woman told her husband while inspecting the map.
There were at least 580 such apartments around Leipzig, some coerced from their occupants by threats to divulge secrets about them.
East Germany's Ministry for State Security had about 100,000 employees. About 2,500 officially worked for the Leipzig branch, and Taut estimates about 10,000 others were informers.
Over four decades, the Stasi compiled more than 6 million files, according to some estimates.
Most of the files are now kept under lock and key. The only people with access are members of a special commission selected by East and West Germany before unification on Oct. 3 to protect and research the papers.
A debate is raging in Germany over what to do with the files, which contain not only information about former secret police workers and their operations but also sensitive details about the private lives of millions of people.
Recommendations include destroying the documents, letting Stasi victims have their own personal files or handing them over to the government.
Taut advocated keeping access to the files strictly limited. But destroying the documents would be wrong, he said, since that could cover up Stasi deeds that might be punishable by law.