Dienstag, 6. Mai 2014

25 Years without the Berlin Wall: the Palace of Tears

25 years after the fall of the Wall, the memory and memories of the Berlin are still alive, not only in the daily encounters with the architecture and the remnants of the wall. Many still have fresh memories about the lost relatives and the precarious life during the DDR or about the desperate attempts to risk the most precious asset, the life, for a minute of freedom on the other side. Near Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station, an exhibition reminds the everyday experience at the border, recreating the former border point, the so-called 'Palace of Tears'.
Because very often, those who were leaving the freedom to return to their country-prison were having tears in their eyes. Not necessarily the economic and social comfort were they missing, but going through the humiliation of permanent surveillance and ideological brainwashing and the daily hardships was not the kind of life to dream about - even though there is still a 'romantic' nostalgia about the so-called 'golden times' of the DDR - the 'Ostalgia'.
The 'Palace of Tears' was created in 1962, shortly after the building of the Wall. Following the end of the war, the city of Berlin was split into four zones: French, British, American - on the West side - and Soviet - on the Eastern side. Friedrichstrasse was one of the most important border crossing point.
The exhibition, that can be visited for free, presents various materials testimonies describing the ambiance of the crossing point. The opening of the border is illustrated by news aired in the local media at the time. In the communist Berlin, the authorities were joyously announcing the event as an opportunity offered to the citizens from the Western part of the city to see the socialist realities. In the good style of the communist denial language, they were forgetting to mention that before the decision of erecting the Wall was taken, more than 100 people were leaving daily the DDR. 
Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station was several times rebuilt since its inauguration at the end of the 19th century, and was considered as an important junction of the transportation system of Berlin. By 1884, more than 300 local trains stopped here every day. After the construction of the Wall, many subway stops turned into 'ghost stations', because impossible to use as there were part of the new security situation.
Nowadays, all the objects and images are part of the history, but at the time, there were representing a painful past and impossible freedom dreams. Another reason why I liked the exhibition was for personal histories of the people who were successful to start a new life on the other side of the border. Not all of them moved to the Federal Republic, as there were few that decided to follow the communist dream and relocated in the DDR. 
The visitor can also have a look at the way in which the border control functioned, with a short introduction into the special training and identification tips of the people working in such a sensitive job.
The communist authorities used the short-term visits to gather hundreds of thousand of personal data about citizens of West Berlin. From time to time, they were also sending their famous STASI spies under cover in the West.
Before being free to start their day on the West or Eastern side of the city, strict controls were made through the luggage of the citizens. Especially books and topics that might put in danger the socialist credo were sought after and, if found, confiscated. Many Eastern citizens were happy to bring back home from the West some good coffee or chocolate. 
Another fascinating section of the exhibition presents the last days and hours of the Wall. While the country was taken over by peaceful protests, the official TV was talking for hours about the extraordinary prodigies of the Democratic Republic. 
No one really knew for sure when the Wall - whose construction was qualified by the German chancellor Willy Brandt as 'illegal' and 'inhuman' -  will turn into a historical episode introduced at exhibitions or scholarly conferences. But looking back at those times, with wise distance, I am grateful for living in the times when I can move freely in the city, without my bag being searched out for 'subversive' books. 

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