I remember one of the rare treats from my childhood – a trip to Eastern Germany. We were visiting only a small town near the border, but the difference in what you could buy there and in Poland at that time was huge. I remember pure excitement when we were getting into the car and crossing the border. I did not understand, at the time, that every trip was always a dangerous one. Even though we lived in Poland and were supposed to be friends with DDR, you could never be sure if you were going back in one piece. That was the reality of my childhood.
I remember the border crossing and watchful eyes of the guards. I remember the dogs and the rifles. Every time I saw the car pulled aside I was glad it is not us. I did not understand why but I could tell that us crossing peacefully was a good thing. I could read it from the faces of every single adult sitting in the car.
My father was working as a sailor on the long haul ships. Sometimes our little family was allowed to visit him when his ship was stationed in West Germany, Netherlands or Belgium. Not the whole family of course. On these rare occasions my sister or I had to stay at home. I hated it and I could not understand it as a child. But the answer was so simple, so obvious.
The Tränenpalast – “The Palace of Tears” – at Berlin Friedrichstraße station is in a way a familiar sight. It is packed with personal memorabilia from the past, stories of love, friendship and family life; brutally interrupted by the Wall dividing the city. The Wall of Shame – as the West called it. The Anti-Fascist Protective Wall – as the East named it. I do not really think a name is important in here. History does not lie – especially when it is told by the people who were at the very heart of it.
The construction of the palace is very smart and cruel. Yes, you can see the windows, but if you are waiting outside, you are not able to see what is going on inside. If you have a closer look at the entrance to the border crossing, you will understand the evil genius of the palace construction. You can only wait until you are allowed in; not really knowing what to expect inside. Of course, there were sure things – like border guards with guns, so many of them, dogs, constant control and million questions asked. For the lucky once – there was not only family and friends, but perhaps also a lover.
So many pictures, so many stories, private dramas and happy endings too. I am walking around, trying to take all this in, compering my feelings from my childhood. Looking at the old photos of the Friedrichstraße station, at the map of Berlin divided, at the pack of Western cigarettes and a Playboy someone was trying to smuggle in. Even washing powder was seized! Nothing what was produced by the West could be brought through the border.
I am leaning forward to have a closer look at the details of the escape plan drawn by Herbert Roost. The farmer and his family suffered under SED regime and wanted to leave. Herbert had to bury his personal possessions – family porcelain, not knowing if the family was ever able to go back. But the world loves miracles and they were back in 1990 to find what they hidden intact. That is a happy ending in a way – even though they had to leave their home.
I am finding another happy ending in another old suitcase on the display. In 1987 two people fell in love – Jan Möllmann from West Germany and Silke Schmidtchen from East Germany. They were not able to see each other very often, separated by the Wall. Jan even tried to move to DDR, but did not succeed. They were trying to comfort themselves through the music, Silly for Jan, David Bowie for Silke. Their love survived and they married in 1992 – as quickly as it was possible, after the Wall fell. They won. Not the regime.
I am finding myself inside a narrow corridor. The corridor is divided by the windows. In the past you always had seated border guards behind them. I touched the same wood which was touched by thousands of travelers trying to see their loved once. I am closing my eyes. I can feel the shared tears, the fear, the observant eyes of the guards. The army uniform is hanging on the wall , behind the glass. I quickly escape, not wanting to be in this small, intimidating space any longer.
I am going out to take some pictures of the building, waiting for the rest of our small group to finish. Berlin Friedrichstraße station is still where it was. Fully functioning. People are traveling, going about their own businesses. How many are aware of this place, its significant history? Many, I am sure. The Wall fell on 9 November 1989. Not that long ago…
Berlin is incredibly accessible on a public transport. Getting to Friedrichstraße S-Bahn train station, where the The Tränenpalast is located, could not be easier. The station is located on the Friedrichstraße, a major north-south street in the district of Berlin Mitte, adjacent to the point where the street crosses the Spree river.
The opening hours:
Tuesday to Friday from 9 am to 7 pm and weekends from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission is free.