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Refugee City – present and past


80,000 refugees have arrived in Berlin this year and the numbers continue to rise. Temporary accommodation includes army barracks, sports halls and airport hangars, as well as rooms in private homes. The Berlin boroughs are working around the clock to cope with the influx of new residents and have been drawing on local volunteers to help them with their task. Berliners have been generous with donations of money, clothing and food and are out and about with collection boxes.


Donations loaded into a van, ready for distribution

Sunday 31st January, is a special ‘Berlin sagt Danke’ to thank the countless Berlin citizens who have been involved with welcoming refugees to the capital. There will be free entry to over 150 museums and institutions, special concerts and events. Underlying this special day is the drive to keep all Berliners aware of the need for their continuing efforts towards integration.

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Free tickets to see Katjuscha at the Berlin Zoo

Berlin has a long history of welcoming refugees  Way back in 1685, when  Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in France, the Elector of Brandenburg responded by issuing the Edict of Potsdam, which guaranteed religious freedom and tax-free status to French Huguenot refugees for ten years.  Large numbers of them fled to Berlin and made a lasting cultural and economic contribution to the Prussian capital.


The Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) on Gendarmenmarkt

In the centuries that followed, Berlin built a reputation as a liberal and socialist city, even if working conditions sometimes left much to be desired. During the city’s division after the Second World War, West Berlin became a beacon of freedom and tolerance in post-war Europe. It was the ‘Schlupfloch’ (‘Loophole’) through which four million refugees fled from East Germany to make new lives in the West.

Life inside Berlin's Marienfelde Refugee Transit Camp in 1961 (3)[1]

Queues of East German refugees arriving in Marienfelde

Between 1949 and 1990, over 1.35 million of these refugees passed through the Marienfelde Notaufnahmelager (‘Emergency Admission Camp’) in West Berlin. Here they were given temporary accommodation and provisions, and completed the official procedure to obtain a residency permit for West Germany or West Berlin. The centre closed in July 1990 but, since 2010, some of the accommodation has been used as a transit hostel (‘Übergangswohnheim’) for over 700 refugees fleeing war and deprivation in Syria, Afghanistan and other countries.


Ariel view of the Refugee Centre (from a photo in the museum)

Last weekend I went out to Marienfelde to visit the museum and to see ‘Bridge the Gap’, a special photographic art exhibition featuring snapshots from the lives of current young refugees. It’s not far from the city centre – just take the S-Bahn Linie 2 to Marienfelde (they run every ten minutes) and the Refugee Centre is only a seven minute walk from the station, with plenty of signs to guide you.


Outside the Marienfelde Centre

Entrance to the museum is free and all the main information is given in English, as well as German. The permanent collection is based on what was left behind by the State Office for Health and Social Welfare after the Center closed in 1990. It was then significantly expanded in 2004/2005, not least by gifts from former refugees, immigrants and employees of the refugee centre. The photo below is of an exhibit in the museum donated by a refugee family. The camera was brought in with them from the GDR and used to record their first experiences in the West. The blouse was the first ‘western’ purchase by Ursula Wadewitz with money she earned giving drawing lessons at the refugee camp in Kempten, Bavaria.


Treasured belongings donated by the Wadewitz family

The museum’s emphasis is on witness testimonies, information about persecution in East Germany and about arrival and integrations in West Berlin and West Germany. It is a fascinating exhibition which makes an indelible impression, not least because it is housed in the original refugee centre, with some of the rooms left just as they were in 1990.


Refugee accommodation in Marienfelde

A friend of mine in Berlin had personal experience of the centre when he left East Germany in 1961, a few months after the Wall went up. He was allowed to live with his elder brother who had already fled to West Berlin, but had to go through a series of interviews with the Americans, British and French before his application to stay was approved. For an authentic depiction of life in the refugee transit camp I can recommend the 2013 German drama film ‘West’ which was recently shown on BBC4. It tells the story of the Nelly Senff and her young son Alexej, who leave the GDR in 1978. She wants to start a new life, but finds that the surveillance and suspicion that drove her to leave the East also await her in the West.


Fast forwarding to the present refugee situation in Berlin, I looked out of one of the windows on the staircase in the museum and saw a group of children playing football in the open area outside the accommodation blocks. I couldn’t tell what nationality they were – refugees in Marienfelde come from over ten countries.


A game of football in Marienfelde, January 2016

‘Bridge the Gap’, the temporary exhibition in the Marienfelde Centre, feels like the continuing story of refugees in Berlin. Abdul from Syria, in the photographs below, is 14 years old and arrived with his parents, brother and sister in December 2014. He is now in High School and his ambition is to stay in Germany and become a professional footballer.



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7 Responses

  1. I found this ‘blog’ absolutely fascinating. You have captured so well the similarity between the situation now and the plight of the East Berliners and East Germans years ago, and their ‘flight to freedom’. Is it harder for today’s refugees with the long journey and additional language and cultural barriers, or was it worse for the ‘Easties’ because their future home was so close and yet the ‘guards’ were trying to stop them getting there? A great piece of writing – thank you.

  2. It’s so important for us on an island to know what is happening in mainland Europe and you have described the continuity of welcoming refugees in Berlin due to different political circumstances whereas we often only dwell on the dark side of these situationsI I shall forward to friends and continue to be informed by you! Thanks Penny.

  3. Very inspiring to see that Berliners still continue to welcome refugees to their city as they have done in the past. Other European cities and towns should take note!

  4. This is facinating Penny. I now think I will have to make a visit over to Berlin myself and go to the museum. You have indeed, opened my mind to the plight of refugees now and historically. Thank you

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