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World's Largest Jigsaw Puzzle

Four to six hundred million pieces


Bags of shredded Stasi files

A daunting task

It's being called the world's largest jigsaw puzzle. And with four to six hundred million pieces in 16,000 sacks of scraps of paper in various colors and textures that range in size from tiny fragments to pieces the size of dinner plates, "the biggest puzzle in the world" sets a record which will never be surpassed. And that is a good thing. For this is no puzzle for a jigsaw-obsessed fanatic seeking multiple lifetimes of jigsaw-solving utopia. When these puzzle pieces fall into place they will tell a story of ruined lives, shattered families and broken dreams.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, The Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit), commonly known as the Stasi, began to feverously destroy incriminating documents. From 1950 until 1989, the Stasi had bugged people's homes, listened in on telephone conversations and employed a vast network of informants (perhaps as many as 500,000) in order to root out perceived enemies of the state. They were meticulous record-keepers and this resulted in millions of files, official documents, transcripts, video and audio tapes. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for those wishing to discover what happened to their loved ones), the Stasi was better at creating files than destroying them. They had very few paper shredders and those they did have were Soviet-made and of inferior quality.

They were resigned to shredding much of the paperwork by hand and dumping the pieces in bags which they planned to burn or soak in acid baths later. They had only managed to destroy some 5% of the files when those plans went awry in January, 1990, as crowds stormed the Stasi headquarters in Berlin and ransacked the offices to prevent further destruction of the files.

But for all the heartache and tragedy contained in these shredded documents, it is still essentially a puzzle and one that is more compelling and demanding to be solved than any previous, frivolous jigsaw puzzle. When this puzzle is pieced together it will answer decades-old questions and lay to rest unresolved mysteries which have haunted the lives of countless survivors and descendants of the people caught up in those turbulent, repressive times.

It would take a very large group of people untold lifetimes to solve a puzzle of this magnitude. However, when computers are brought into the equation, the time factor drops exponentially. Computers are fast, tireless and remember everything. They can analyze color, form and texture, which are paramount to solving jigsaw puzzles. A specially programmed computer has been devised to handle the task called the "ePuzzler". It was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin which is the same entity that created the mp3 player.

Each piece of paper is flattened, laid on a tray and scanned into the computer. Any known attributes (paper weight, color, type-written, manuscript, provenance) are entered into the file. The computer then uses that information and its own edge-analysis to find a match with millions of other files in its memory bank.

One thing working in the solver's favor is the fact that many of the bags contain the complete remnants of a shredded document. And the fact that the Stasi kept such detailed and extensive documents gives hope to the families and friends of those who have disappeared that they will finally know what happened to their loved ones. Incidentally, this German propensity for meticulous record-keeping made it easier to prosecute the many war criminals of the Third Reich.

As of September, 2012, the project had processed four hundred of the sixteen thousand sacks of shredded paper. Its a daunting task and one that is extremely close to the heart for the project manager, who believes he lost his East German friend due to mistreatment while in a Stasi prison.

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