No more tears

The Tränenpalast used to house the border crossing for the GDR via train or U-Bahn. In September, the ‘Palace of Tears’ reopened with a hands-on historical exhibition that’s free of charge to visitors.

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Photo by Anna Achon

People file into the glass-walled transit hall once again, queuing, snaking through various wooden checkpoint booths. Most are tourists.

A little over 20 years ago, it was nearly only Berliners who waited here, anxiously anticipating border controls and possible interrogation or sadly contemplating loved ones they were leaving behind in the East as they headed for West Berlin.

The Tränenpalast, the building with the sloped roof in the shadow of Friedrichstraße station, housed the border crossing for those leaving via train or U-Bahn. After tedious scrutiny by GDR border guards, travellers would walk through tight underground passages to their platform.

In September, the ‘Palace of Tears’ reopened with a permanent, hands-on historical exhibition that’s free of charge to visitors.

Following the fall of the Wall in 1989, the former site of painful farewells was reborn as a site for house parties, concerts, cabaret and even cockroach races.

In 2003 it was officially added to the list of preserved historical sites in the city. But Klaus Wowereit’s cash-strapped Berlin government sold the building as part of a controversial real estate deal that included the entire ‘Spreedreieck’, the triangular plot between the station and the river where Mies van der Rohe once planned a skyscraper.

The deal cost Berlin €14 million – due to planning incompetence on the part of the administration that resulted in various lawsuits – and left us with that hideous gray office block housing Ernst & Young.

In 2008 the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a history museum in Bonn, pitched its concept for the Tränenpalast, proposing to blow the dust off the old booths, bureaucratic binders, telephones, surveillance TVs and other artefacts left over from the former border control facility to create a historical exhibition for the world to see.

Fast forward to September 14, 2011 and Border Experiences. Everyday Life in Divided Germany is unveiled by none other than the country’s most powerful lady in beige and child of the East, Frau Merkel.

Visitors can buff up on their GDR history – in English and German – while mulling over clips from Stasi training films, heart-wrenching letters between divided lovers, suitcases brimming with East German artefacts (from books to porcelain crockery to children’s toys) and countless photos. Also on display are on-screen confessionals and historical footage of demos, escapes and German reunification.

Avoid battling over the LCD and audio stations (both of which have English-language options!) and arrive early – the place fills up fast during the late afternoon hours.

Occasionally, you’ll hear an older Berliner exclaim, “Oh yeah, I had one of those,” as they whiz by sporting a Bart Simpson shoulder bag or a Hertha BSC football do-rag, the kind of seemingly innocuous pop-culture accoutrements once forbidden in this part of town.

Border Experiences: Everyday Life in Divided Germany, Tränenpalast, Reichstagufer 17, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr. www.hdg.de, Tue–Fri 9-19, Sat–Sun 10-18