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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Marienfelde Refugee Centre: Talking about exile

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

The memorial poses the question of exile with great empathy.
A suitcase symbolises the departure... and the arrival

The Marienfelde Refugee Centre is both a memorial and a museum about the GDR and West Berlin. Above all, it makes intelligent reference to the current migration issue. Unfortunately, it is not highlighted at all.

A visit to the Refugee Centre in Marienfelde is optional.

The end of the Berlin Blockade in 1949 led to the creation of two German states, following the demarcation lines of the occupation sectors. In the GDR, the popular protest of June 1953 was violently repressed by the Red Army, and political violence was unleashed on real or perceived opponents of the regime.

Many decided to flee to the West. Although the inter-German border between the FRG and the GDR was difficult to cross at that time, the particularity of the division isolated West Berlin in East German territory and, in the absence of an efficient border system, the western zone became the preferred place of passage to the rest of West Germany. The movement was massive. Within a few years, almost two million East Germans passed through West Berlin and the transit centres for refugees set up by the Red Cross and the West German state.

The main centre was in the American sector in Marienfelde. Today, it is still used to receive refugees from all over the world.One of the buildings is now used as a place of remembrance, with an exhibition on exile and loss of identity.

The question of exile in the spotlight

The exhibition space is spread over two floors of the centre's former administration building. On the ground floor, three rooms follow one another along a corridor on whose walls the major events of the German division are briefly discussed in chronological order. The exhibits show the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people went into exile until 1961 and the various methods used to leave the GDR after the Wall was built. The museography is uncluttered and the space is relatively small, thus reinforcing the almost intimate aspect of the exhibition.

Biographical notes inform about the different life paths and several everyday objects from a pair of shoes to a little girl's doll. The whole is deeply human. The third room recounts the administrative difficulties that the refugee had to overcome in order to hope, not to stay in West Germany, but simply to obtain the right to work and to obtain all the social protection necessary to start a new life.

On the first floor, the organisation of the reception itself is dealt with, with a presentation of the canteen menus and the human stories that were turned upside down and reconstructed. A photographic exhibition shows daily life at the centre from 1953 to the present day. Black and white photos are gradually replaced by colour photos. East German families are replaced by others from Syria, Bosnia or the former Soviet Union. Finally, the visitor passes through bedrooms on whose walls quotations from past and present refugees reflect the same apprehensions and feelings: the promise of a new beginning and the fear of renewal.

When the historical question is updated

Through the history of the German division, the Marienfelde Centre intelligently questions the reasons why men and women take to the roads of exile. The fears and anxieties of the refugees of the past and the present are not so different, and the aspirations for an ordinary life are, in the end, quite similar from one era to the next.

The memorial updates the historical fact and places it in the broader context of Germany's immigration policy since 2015. However, there are also limitations to the whole, such as the lack of completeness and the general presentation, which can leave the visitor wanting more. This betrays a lack of ambition and, by extension, the absence of a political will to make this emblematic place a real museum of exile.

Reasons to go

  • The human dimension of the exhibition

  • A space divided between memory work and the reception of refugees

  • The question of exile finally addressed and updated

Reasons to avoid

  • A museography that is sometimes unreadable because it is overloaded

  • A place of memory that is gradually disappearing

  • A rather limited exhibition space

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