During the years of division, one of the saddest buildings in Germany stood in the heart of Berlin, immediately adjacent to Friedrichstraße station. In the 1970s I passed through it many times, with only minor inconvenience. But for many Germans it was a place of heartbreak, of separation, of tears.
Between 1962 and 1989 the Tränenpalast – or Palace of Tears – was the border crossing station for foot passengers heading west from communist East Berlin. West Berliners, West Germans, East Germans, foreigners, diplomats and transit travellers all had separate queues, which involved as many as three individual passport checks and customs controls. The steel-and-glass wedge building was nicknamed the Palace of Tears because it was here that most East Germans said goodbye to families and friends, never knowing if they would see them again.
Its designers’ intention was to humiliate and inconvenience people, subjecting them to intimidation, fear and long waits. In their melamine booths, officious border guards had the authority to arrest and imprison any East German. Other citizens could be delayed for as long as an hour, especially when – as I once experienced – duplicate forms had to be complete by hand as there was no carbon paper.
On 2 July 1990, Berliners cheered the first direct S-Bahn as it passed through Friedrichstraße station on its way from east to west. Then in 2011 the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland – the bold and important museum of contemporary German history which is headquartered in Bonn – took over the Tränenpalast and opened within it a new permanent exhibition on everyday life in divided Germany.
Its simple and moving exhibition recalls the life of people walled in by their leaders. Open suitcases tell the real-life stories of individuals who used the border crossing point: the Party cadre allowed abroad, the Stasi spy smuggled into the West, the children separated from their family and home for over a decade. As well as original checkpoint booths, rolls of barbed wire, visa forms and photographs, a sequence of East and West German newsreels enable the modern visitor to contrast reports on the riots of 17 June 1953, on the building of the Wall in 1961 and on the first humanitarian Passierscheinregelung visits over Christmas 1963. The exhibition also provides an overview of the reunification process.
As the years pass it becomes more and more difficult to remember the arrogance, heartlessness and political and military ambitions of the men and women who erected the heinous divide. Hence the Palace of Tears – which charges no entry fee – becomes an ever-more important destination for visitors to Berlin.