Lost and found

Dropped your dentures from smiling to much on those jostling U-Bahn rides? Thanks to Berliners’ honesty and a German knack for organisation, they might show up again at the BVG Fundbüro.

Image for Lost and found
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Dropped your dentures from smiling to much on those jostling U-Bahn rides? Thanks to Berliners’ honesty and a German knack for organisation, they might show up again at the BVG Fundbüro.

Losing stuff on the U-Bahn is an always frustrating, and sometimes devastating, experience. But whether it’s a misplaced mitten or a wayward wallet, don’t immediately assume that its recovery is a lost cause. There is someone on your side: trustworthy Berliners and, equally important, the well-organized BVG Fundbüro (“lost and found office”), which works to reunite passengers with missing parts of their identity.

“Sometimes we get dentures,” explains Kirsten, a 10-year veteran of the Fundbüro, a small bright office in a non-descript building in Schöneberg, as she opens one of the cupboards that line its walls and whips one of many blue plastic bins onto the counter. A couple, here to pick up a lost wallet, looks on curiously as Kirsten rummages through the brown envelopes inside. In the one labeled Zahnersatz (“dentures”), there’s a plastic bag and, in the bag, a wad of paper towel. All wait with mounting dread as she gingerly peels away the paper to reveal a stained set of pearly whites.

Kirsten can’t forget one particular gentleman who, confronted with the collection of yellowish faux teeth that had amassed over the past weeks and unable to recognize his own, proceeded to try on each pair for size. He left apparently happy, having found a somehow suitable fit.

Amidst the humdrum and grotesque, there is also the dangerous: syringes (which are removed with the regulatory plastic gloves) or worse. Two years ago, a worker found a strange cell phone – the many electrical cords hanging out of it immediately attracted his suspicion. “It was rigged as a bomb,” remembers Marko, a staff member. The police immediately took over and cordoned off the streets surrounding the Fundbüro. “I’m not sure of what happened later. All we know is that that Handy contained someone’s personal identification”.

Marko is a former bus mechanic who has worked at the Fundbüro for the past 19 years. He’s hard-pressed to come up with bizarre anecdotes: new discoveries no longer surprise him – not even the wooden prosthetic leg that is packed in alongside gloves, hats, bags, canes, several baby carriages… even a wheelchair and a MacBook. But Marko’s laugh bears a certain professional pride as he recollects how a purse containing €6000 and 10 gold rings was returned intact to its owner, an old lady who didn’t trust banks.

Not everyone is so lucky. Annika from Tempelhof recovered her wallet, but her money and monthly train pass were nowhere to be found. Running into the office, her cheeks flushed from the cold and tracking number in hand, she grins: “Well, at least I got my wallet back.” And to the worker behind the counter: “Danke, aber hoffentlich nicht bis zum nächsten Mal!”

Every single day the Fundbüro receives 150 to 200 ‘lost’ items, 40 percent of which are reunited with their owners. Objects found in BVG trains, trams or buses are first brought to a central location, the Fundsammelstelle (“collection point”), where they are separated into brown sacks before being sent on to the Fundbüro. Here the sacks are unpacked, and each and every item is accounted for – backpacks and wallets are searched, and everything is meticulously labeled and entered into a database.

After six weeks, the remaining ones are either auctioned off or discarded. This beautifully organized system comes at a price: retrieving one’s belongings costs between €1 (for a personal document or a hat) and €7 (for a phone or backpack). Not everyone pays the fee gracefully.

“This one guy was so furious when we asked him for pay to retrieve his Personalausweis that he started shouting at us and punching the glass partition… he broke it and ran away.” A foolish move as the staff at the Fundbüro still had his ID and reported him to the police.

But most people are so relieved to be reunited with their lost belongings that they wouldn’t dream of whispering a word of complaint. Quite the contrary, in fact. “They are generally happy and grateful when they come,” says Kirsten. “That’s why we like to work here.”

Amid the hum of computers and soft rock on the radio, Kirsten insists that Berliners are mostly trustworthy, so chances are your next lost item – because, let’s face it, your dentures are bound to fall out from smiling too much on those jostling U-Bahn rides – will end up at the Fundbüro. Many tourists are surprised by this. Kirsten proudly describes Italians’ disbelief when their passports are actually returned to them: “Where we come from, it would simply be gone…”