Memories Of A Divided City

Vestiges of the Cold War are still to be found in many parts of Berlin and in the minds of those who lived through it
Russian and American tanks face off 
in Berlin’s East-West border
Russian and American tanks face off in Berlin’s East-West borderPhotos: Getty Images

Walking into the “Palace of Tears,” or Tränenpalast, with its huge glass windows, steel pillars and 1960s design, is like taking a journey back in time. Adjacent to the Friedrichstraße train station in Berlin, it was used by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Berlin dictatorship, as a departure point with passport control, for those leaving for West Berlin. And this is where people bid tearful farewells to loved ones emigrating to the West, not knowing if they would see them again. Constructed in 1962 and preserved as a museum since 2011, the palace still has the dingy booths used for immigration from the East to the West. Interviews with contemporary witnesses, biographies and 570 original objects showcase the region’s painful history.

A Troubled History

I am taking a Cold War tour of Berlin that throws light on a dark period of history where tensions ran high between the communist East (the Soviet Union and its allies) and the capitalist West (the US and its allies) from the end of World War II to 1989. Berlin was at the front line of the Cold War, where there was no warfare, but repression, espionage and excesses by the secret police. Our tour starts at Friedrichstraße station and ends at Checkpoint Charlie.

“Today Friedrichstraße station is a bustling transport hub, but it was considered an oddity in the past. The station was in East Berlin, but some of its platforms and all its underground services were for West Berlin,” says our guide Jorg, a “history nerd” who lived through the division of Berlin as a boy.

After World War II, the Allied powers and the Soviets drew up arbitrary borders to divide Berlin into four sectors. Soon after the division of Berlin, there was a mass migration of people from East Berlin to West Berlin, which represented prosperity and development. East Germany, or the GDR, lost about 20 per cent of its brightest people to defections to the West.

“The Berlin Wall came up in a matter of days. People woke up on August 13, 1961, to see a barricade, which was fortified in the next few weeks. Overnight, streets were cut in half, and families were separated,” says Jorg, showing us some old black and white images of soldiers putting up wire fences and people jumping out of apartment windows.

Exhibits at Tränenpalast Museum document the history of the Friedrichstraße crossing
Exhibits at Tränenpalast Museum document the history of the Friedrichstraße crossing

Behind the Iron Curtain

The Wall divided the city and threw its transport systems out of gear. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn (two types of rail services in Germany) had to go through enemy territory to reach West Berlin.

We take a train to Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. Today it’s a fully functioning station with a vintage look. One corner of it has a small exhibition explaining its past. It used to be one of the many heavily guarded “ghost stations” in Berlin’s transport system where trains going to West Berlin, and passing through East German territory, never stopped. These stations were sealed, sewage systems blocked, and armed guards posted on platforms to stop desperate people from jumping onto the trains to escape to the West. I imagine the coaches whizzing past these shadowy stations but never stopping.

(Left) The “Reconciliation” sculpture; Memorabilia at the Palace of Tears
(Left) The “Reconciliation” sculpture; Memorabilia at the Palace of Tears

From the station, we walk to Bernauer Strasse, where the Berlin Wall came up in 1961. At the height of the Cold War, the Wall stretched for 110 miles around West Berlin. Many people died as they employed foolhardy methods to escape to West Germany.

Today, the Berlin Wall Memorial sits along both sides of the street. We see the remains of a former apartment building, the façade of which was part of the Wall until the early 1980s. On the lawns, markers on the ground show where there were buildings and escape tunnels. Five metre-tall metal stakes in the ground indicate where the Wall stood.

Friedrichstraße station
Friedrichstraße station
The Checkpoint Charlie border crossing
The Checkpoint Charlie border crossing

A sculpture, “Reconciliation,” originally commissioned for the Bradford University in England, shows two kneeling men hugging each other. A little distance away, we see the circular Church of Remembrance with its wooden façade that stands in place of a church demolished because it was too close to the border. It was rebuilt after reunification to honour the victims of the Wall.

The wooden Church of Remembrance
The wooden Church of Remembrance

We walk past the infamous death strip.

“Watch towers with iron ladders leading to the top, guard dogs, and bright lights were used in what was called the ‘death strip’—a no man’s land between the two concrete walls—to hunt out people who were trying to escape across the border,” explains Jorg.

The Window of Remembrance
The Window of Remembrance

I stand at the “Window of Remembrance,” a memorial to the 136 people who died or were killed at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989, with black and white photos of the deceased.

“People were desperate to leave East Germany and reunite with their loved ones in the West. There are many stories of daring escapes from jumping into rescue nets in West Berlin to leaping off the roofs,” says Jorg.

The Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears) is a former border crossing point between East and West Berlin
The Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears) is a former border crossing point between East and West Berlin

Many tried to escape through underground tunnels. An acrobat used a tightrope, another used a zipline, and some people even escaped on an ultralight plane.

Checkpoint Charlie

Our last stop is Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstraße, where Russia and West Germany had a tense stand-off in 1961.

“It was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector,” explains Jorg.

The Allied side of Checkpoint Charlie was a tiny prefabricated shack and a few sandbags. In contrast, the East German side had guard towers, cement barriers and a shed where departing vehicles were searched.

Massive pro-democracy protests in 1989 prompted a rush to the border and the Wall that had divided Berlin for nearly 30 years.

At this iconic spot, thousands of East Germans gathered and began screaming for the guards to open the gates on November 9, 1989, signalling an end to the Cold War after years.

“An era of repression ended, and a city divided by ideology was unified,” says Jorg, as we finish the walk. We pose at Checkpoint Charlie with its sandbags and bunkers next to the “You are now leaving the American sector” sign. Restaurants and cafes surround Checkpoint Charlie, and I find it hard to visualise the Iron Curtain or the trials of the people of a city divided.

Getting there : To reach Berlin, book a flight to Berlin Tegel or Berlin Schönefeld airports. Do note that there are no direct flights.

Also, ensure to apply for the Schengen visa at least three months in advance. The visa costs approximately €80 (Rs 6,700) for adults and €40 (Rs 3,552) for minors.

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