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Refugees airing East Germany's dirty laundry

The Local · 4 Aug 2011, 16:11

Published: 04 Aug 2011 16:11 GMT+02:00

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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.

Story continues below…

“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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Your comments about this article

19:26 August 4, 2011 by whpmgr
I had an acquaintance that took part in teh interrogations of the refugees. He told me about how the Russians and East Germans fed many agents through the camps and lines so that they could establish their bonafides as refugees. Only to be spies once they got here. It seems that there are so many secrets about what happened during that time. The tunnels, the back and forth espionage, the intrigue...it would make a great television series.
01:01 August 5, 2011 by Russell Swenson
I spent a lot of time at Marienfelde 1960-1962. Stationed in Berlin for American Army.

An amazing time. The mood of the refugees was upbeat. There was a bier garden

across the street. The previous author is correct. We found many agents, East Germans mostly who were low level "spies". They weren't harmed. Very few were turned away. But if suspect, their existence was closing monitored in West Germany.

You must remember that the East German Secret Service (Stasi) was feverishly

working to get its own (non-Russian) network in place.

The stories of families making the trek to Marienfelde were amazing. Courageous.
05:43 August 5, 2011 by wood artist
I spent a day at Marienfelde this spring. Amazing place. It's too bad we can't learn from that process about how to handle refugees in today's world. While the motivation might have been a little different, the need to find and make a new home were very similar. We'd be less likely to see "spies" in the current world, but the confusion, fears, desires, and dreams are no different.

Solzhenitsyn once said that the thing he missed most was Russia, even though the country had completely turned on him. In spite of everything, it was still his "home" and it hurt that he couldn't be "home."

15:31 August 10, 2011 by Gretl

" which, in turn, presented those seeking asylum from finding jobs"

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