{Germany} The Palace of Tears

June 23, 2014


Last week, I attended a Museum Tweetup at Berlin’s Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears), which I had been invited to organise through Museum140 on the 60th memorial day of the East German Uprising of 1953.


The Tränenpalast was the transit hall for the border crossing by train between East and West Germany, adjoining Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station. Here travellers would directly experience the impact of a divided Germany. It was a place of “leave-taking and longing, resentment and despair” – it was not called the ‘Palace of Tears’ for nothing.


We started our Tweetup with some background information to the building itself, which constitutes the largest object in the collection, and was in operation from 1962 until 1989. Now a listed building, many of the original features have been retained or restored, whilst others have been reproduced. It was actually initially conceived as an arrivals hall (‘Einreisehalle’) for people coming to visit the capital of East Germany, with large windows opening out towards the city as you arrived. However, it ended up being more of a departures hall (‘Ausreisehalle’), as people tended to be intent on leaving for the West instead. Interestingly, despite being a border transit, the Tränenpalast was not situated ON the border, but entirely on East German soil. That meant, that trying to plan an escape via the station was relatively futile, as you would still not have crossed the border until a lot further down the train tracks.


Trivia: The large windows meant it was always either sweltering hot or freezing cold inside.

After the initial introduction, we began our guided tour around the permanent exhibition ‘Grenz Erfahrungen. Alltag der deutschen Teilung’ (Border Experiences. Everyday life in Divided Germany), which opened in September 2011 and covers “over 550 square meters showcases real-life stories, 570 objects and 30 media stations illustrating everyday life in a divided Germany” as well as key turning points in the German reunification.


Old photographs and original signage set the scene, whilst film footage from the 1980s lets visitors imagine what travelling via the Tränenpalast would have been like – in fact, some of the Tweetup participants even remembered it first hand! It was a highly co-ordinated process, focused on preventing illegal departures and escapes, and on preventing the many people arriving and departing from meeting each other.

One of the steps involved in passing through the Tränenpalast would have been having your luggage checked for any items that might point towards a planned escape from East Germany, rather than just a holiday or a day trip to go shopping in West Berlin. Any certificates, references or documents that would point towards starting a new life would be regarded as suspicious, as would be the contents of your suitcase not matching the purpose you requested leave for. In a very nice touch of exhibition design, a display of suitcases tells personal stories and histories, which you can watch and listen too via the audio and video stations.


One such story tells of a young girl whose request to travel to Sweden was denied as she was deemed ‘too westernised’, and who then planned an escape with her mother to West Germany instead as she felt she could not develop her full potential in East Germany. Another tells of a family who found themselves in West Germany when the Berlin Wall went up overnight and were faced with the decision of staying were they were and starting over with little more than they had on them at the time, or to go back ‘home’ to East Berlin and risk not being allowed to leave again.


Of course, there is also a display dedicated to the Wall itself, with original bricks and manhole covers – which were sealed up at the time and fitted with alarms, to prevent escapes. “Nobody has any intention of building a wall” is one of the most famous sentences in German history, but as we know the Wall appeared over night and separated people from their place of study or work, or from each other, tearing apart families in the process. For example, if you happened to be an unmarried couple living on either side of the East-West divide, that was it.


After the customs control would come the passport and visa check, and the exhibition included the last remaining original control booths that travellers would have to go through. Everyone had to enter the booth individually. The doors had no door handles and would close behind you, leaving you at the mercy of the border officials who would question and check you over very thoroughly, paying attention in particular to height and the apparently unique formation of ears, both of which would have been difficult to fake by anyone trying to escape under a different identity on a borrowed passport. If you were lucky, the doors opened at the other side at the end.



A model of the Tränenpalast and adjacent Friedrichstraße station – which are no longer connected today – shows the original setup. The station was a labyrinth of passages, with occasional refurbishments to change things around and confuse people in a further attempt to prevent escapes.




West Germans, by the way, were allowed to travel immediately to the East, but vice versa travel was not allowed until 1963. From 1964, retired people were also allowed to travel back and forth frequently, and many of them became important ‘couriers’ bringing back goods such as coffee from the West. In fact, the East German government apparently factored this in to the economy! However, there were also many attempts to smuggle in forbidden goods – for example pornography, political magazines, and even interior design magazines that would stir up discord through the longer for a more Western life, were forbidden.


It was also interesting to find out that not everyone left East Germany voluntarily. Many wanted to stay and fight to improve their country from the inside. But dissidents were often just ‘thrown out’, or given the choice between prison or renouncing their citizenship and leaving for the West.


The exhibition closes with a look at the final days of the GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, there were some Tweetup participants who had been there at the time, so we had the privilege of having first hand accounts being shared with us by eye witnesses. Of all the Museum Tweetups I have been to in Berlin since we started them in November 2012 (if I counted correctly, this was our tenth), this has to have been one of the most emotional.

The Tränenpalast is situated behind Friedrichstraße train station and is open Tuesdays to Sundays and on public holidays, except around Christmas and New year (check the website for details). If you are ever in Berlin, this is a ‘must visit’. Admission is free!


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