Anne Michaels: “Torn from mistakes they had no chance to fix; everything unfinished.” (Berlin Refugee Centre)

marienfeldeMid-November 2016, pretty much  27 years to the day, give or take a couple, after the wall came down and I’m in Berlin at the Refugee Centre Marienfelde ( It’s hard to locate, blending in with the faceless fabric of southern Berlin’s post-war suburbs: corner shops, insurance offices, mattress sales outlets. I drive around the block twice before I find it.

A small part of the Centre is now used as a museum – the Marienfelde Refugee Centre Museum – and I’ve come with a friend to visit the permanent exhibition: Flight in Divided Germany. As we walk up to the Museum door, we pass by a smaller, less voluble entrance on the left: a double glass door, a brightly lit hallway with multilingual slogans and a couple of loitering youngsters. It’s clearly not the museum, whose authority as the mediator of information on inner-German migration 1949 – 1990 squats solemnly behind the more impressive set of tinted-museum-glass doors ahead.

We pass through these into an atrium and on through a sequence of rooms detailing the many logistics of inner-German flight. Many numbers. In March 1953, 58,606 people leave the German Democratic Republic, mostly via Berlin—the only loophole after the inner-German border was erected. In July 1963 30.415 leave, fearful of rumours about a wall. By December, Berlin is divided and only 2.420 succeed in transiting.

Many thousands of East Germans pass through the Marienfelde centre. Opened in 1953, it is built to provide temporary accommodation for 1,200 refugees. It also houses official reception offices, where applicants for the status of political refugee undergo a rigorously codified 12-point Emergency Reception Procedure. More numbers. Testing is strict and in light of West Germany’s own post-war frailty, economic refugees are discouraged. Rejected applicants – illegals – are not sent back. But no help is provided in helping them settle.

There are some suitcases and handbags: “this is what we took.” And many interviews. “This is when we were told we could leave.” Upstairs, there are sanitized rooms, a clean, taut blanket on which “Land Berlin 1970” has been stencilled. Another door stands ajar fronting the bare bones of a bathroom. And more information, crowding out the individuals: the migrants, administrators and officials that constitute the stages of this three-million-plus exodus. One comment by a young woman rings truer to the potential for despair of people “torn from mistakes they had no chance to fix”. Jobs and accommodation are one thing, she says. Dealing
stairwellwith months, with years of dislocation and isolation? This is something else, this experience of those who travel not to travel, but to arrive. And find that arrival is the beginning of another journey, a trip filled not by novelty and sophistication but into the uninhabited time that it takes to leave one home and find another.

The staircase between the two levels is white and absolutely bare – an empty, confusing space that feels truer to the migrant’s experience than all the many words written in explanation of it. As I open the stairwell window for some fresh air and look out onto a dusky courtyard, a rush of sudden noise (children cheering a goal) fills the vacuum and the museum comes alive.

I ask the cashier at the front desk: 750 invisible refugees – from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – are currently accommodated here, cared for by the Internationaler Bund, a non-profit provider of social and integrative services. Somewhere, behind makeshift curtains that struggle with the glare of an un-shaded light bulb, people are trying to fill the unfinished space between where I was and where I’m going.

As we leave the museum, our pockets stuffed with information brochures, we pass that other set of double doors. It’s the entrance to the refugee centre . The children have gone – maybe to play soccer. Their head-scarfed mothers stand around irresolutely. Waiting.

Eve Lucas

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