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Refugees airing East Germany's dirty laundry

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Refugees airing East Germany's dirty laundry
Photo: Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde
16:11 CEST+02:00
As Germany prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall this month, a new exhibition explores the importance of refugee camps for those fleeing communism before the Iron Curtain came down. Erin Huggins reports.

Until 1961, thousands of people leaving communist East Germany streamed into West German refugee camps. The construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13 of that year, however, cut off this flow, and many of the camps simply disappeared.

New research into the significance of the camps by the Marienfelde Refugee Centre Museum has been channelled into the special exhibition “Disappeared and Forgotten. Refugee Camps in West Berlin.” Photos and charts printed onto large linen sheets form a complex system of laundry lines to recall the story of the 90 camps in West Berlin before the Wall went up.

“We noticed that in pictures of these refugee camps, there were almost always laundry lines,” said Enrico Heitzer, research associate at the museum and exhibit curator.

Indeed, hanging "laundry" has been made the foundation of the exhibit. A hands-on display, each semi-transparent sheet is designed to be touched, and visitors can walk onto the large floor map, which plots the locations of the former refugee camps.

“The laundry lines are provisional but also symbolise separation and the partitioning of private areas,” Heitzer explained.

Although they fled from impending government-imposed separation, citizens in communist East Germany (GDR) living in West German refugee camps still faced a large gap between themselves and mainstream society.

Everyone from the GDR who wanted to stay in West Germany had to go through so-called Emergency Reception Procedures, according to the museum's permanent exhibition. Numerous officials and agencies interviewed them and decided whether to recognise them as political refugees.

Click here for a photo gallery

Through the mid-fifties, the West German government was unsure how to handle to the massive influx of East Germans, not granting them official status as refugees, which, in turn, presented those seeking asylum from finding jobs, Heitzer said.

The special exhibit also includes audio clips from Germans who lived in the camps, such as Charlotte Österreich, who spent 10 years living in limbo. Österreich published a book about her experiences, in which she interviewed 22 other refugees.

Heitzer said the refugees reported feeling like outcasts, particularly at school. Generally speaking, eastern refugees who came through the camps in the fifties and sixties had an easier time adjusting to life in the West than GDR citizens fleeing in later decades, he said.

“For most people, the camp was a station in life that was over at some point,” Heitzer said.

The camps housed thousands of refugees throughout the fifties, and even after the Berlin Wall went up, people continued to trickle into West Germany for the first few months, all being routed through the refugee camps. By 1965, only a handful of the refugee camps remained, Heitzer said, although GDR refugees continued to live in such temporary accommodation right up until the Wall fell in 1989.

“This exhibit fits with the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall because that was really the decisive point for the camps,” Heitzer said. Only after the Iron Curtain fell did the camps slowly fade away for good.

Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde

Marienfelde Allee 66/80 Berlin

Open 10-18, Entrance free

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