Midterms done, vacation over, now it’s all getting very busy at university. The workload is intensive. The courses are all getting into the heart of their material now which is quite fascinating. I am finding it quite a refreshing experience to learn about a country’s past and be able to tour sites where events actually took place. Despite all efforts to disintegrate evidence of the Nazi and communist past in Germany and Berlin, quite a bit remains preserved and memorialized. Yesterday I visited the Tränenpalast, “The Palace of Tears” which is located next to the Friedrisstrasse Station. The Tränenpalast opened up in 1962 as a control/inspection center primarily for those wanting to travel from West to East Berlin. Very few East Berliners were granted the chance to travel from East to West because the SED dictatorship under the GDR state feared that East Berliners would flee. Again, the main purpose of the Tränenpalast was to provide West Berliners the chance to visit family and friends in the Eastern sector.
The building today still stands where it once did, right across from Friedrichstrasse Station. Today it is an exhibit that brings to life stories of actual experiences that took place there years ago when Berlin was a divided city. Why is it called the “Palace of Tears”? This name was given to the building as a result of the myriad of emotions that were experienced there by people.
As the years went on, people found themselves having to cope with the reality of a divided Germany. They took part in everyday activities and made the best out of a less than ideal situation. At the “Palace of Tears” the harsh reality of separation could not go unnoticed. People in the East felt anger, frustration and fear as some tried to smuggle their way into the Western sector by using forged passports. Only a very few people succeeded in leaving the Eastern sector this way, most people were discovered and imprisoned.
Walking through the exhibit made me hyper-aware of how invasive the SED was in people’s personal lives. Security cameras were virtually everywhere and spying of Westerners as they shopped or passed through controls was thoroughly done. The SED officials kept detailed records on everyone living in the Eastern sector and tried to do the same for those in the West as they were passing through. It is no wonder to me why Germans are so protective of their privacy now. In those days privacy did not exist.
Personal stories lined the walls of the building. Memories of people trying to leave East Berlin, of tears of happiness when being reunited with family and friends and then of sadness when the time came to go back home were shared. The thought of forced separation is unbearable to me and yet it was a reality for people not that long ago.
Living and learning in Berlin has been and is a humbling experience. The city is filled with reminders everywhere of the reality of what was. There are memorials, plagues, and exhibits almost everywhere you turn. OK, I exaggerate but my point is that the city has made sure to keep reminders of the past around in an effort to ensure that it will never be repeated. Berlin, one city now, was split in two not that many years ago. This fact alone never ceases to amaze me.
Whenever I feel away separated from friends and family, I am blessed to know that it is by choice not my force. The stories of people’s lives are heart-breaking but real. I have taken this as a chance to not forget how fortunate I am to be living at a time of peace and unity. Learning about this information is one thing when you are sitting in a classroom, reading the text. It is completely different to here not only reading, discussing, learning and questioning it all but also discovering and actually standing at the place that once brought so much sorrow, despair, hopelessness and fear into people’s hearts and minds. The Tränenpalast resembled the control fo the GDR state and the harsh reality of involuntary separation. I think that it is important to confront past realities and feel fortunate to be living and learning in a city that does just that.