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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Marienfelde Refugee Centre: Talking About Exile

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

The memorial poses the question of exile with great empathy.

The Marienfelde Refugee Centre is both a memorial and a museum reflecting on the GDR and West Berlin. It notably provides an insightful perspective on the current issue of migration. Regrettably, it is often overlooked.

A Visit Is Optional

The end of the Berlin Blockade in 1949 led to the formation of two separate German states, following the lines of the occupational sectors. In the GDR, the popular protest of June 1953 was brutally suppressed by the Red Army, and political violence was inflicted on real or perceived opponents of the regime.

Numerous individuals chose to flee to the West. Although the inter-German border between the FRG and the GDR was challenging to cross during this period, the unique circumstances of the division left West Berlin isolated within East German territory. Without an effective border system, the western zone became the preferred route to the rest of West Germany. The migration was immense. Within a few years, nearly two million East Germans passed through West Berlin and the refugee transit centers established by the Red Cross and the West German state.

The primary center was located in the American sector in Marienfelde. Today, it still serves to receive refugees from around the world. One of the buildings has been converted into a memorial, featuring an exhibition on exile and identity loss.

Highlighting the Issue of Exile

The exhibition space spans two floors of the center's former administrative building. On the ground floor, three rooms are sequentially aligned along a corridor. The corridor walls briefly present the significant events of the German division in chronological order. The exhibits illustrate the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people chose exile up to 1961 and the various methods used to leave the GDR after the Wall's construction. The museography is minimal, and the space is relatively compact, which further amplifies the exhibition's almost intimate nature.

Biographical notes provide insight into different life trajectories and several everyday objects, from a pair of shoes to a little girl's doll, humanize the narrative. The third room recounts the administrative obstacles a refugee had to overcome, not to stay in West Germany, but simply to secure work rights and gain the necessary social protection to start anew.

On the first floor, the reception organization is discussed, with a display of canteen menus and human stories that were disrupted and restructured. A photographic exhibit shows the daily life at the center from 1953 to the present day. Black and white photos gradually give way to color images. East German families are replaced by others from Syria, Bosnia, or the former Soviet Union. Finally, visitors pass through bedrooms where quotes from past and current refugees mirror similar fears and emotions: the promise of a fresh start and the apprehension of renewal.

Relevance of Historical Inquiry

Through the lens of German division, the Marienfelde Centre thoughtfully examines the reasons why people embark on paths of exile. The fears and anxieties of past and present refugees are not so different, and aspirations for an ordinary life are remarkably similar across time.

The memorial updates historical events and situates them within the broader context of Germany's immigration policy since 2015. Nonetheless, the site is also marked by shortcomings such as lack of comprehensive information and a general presentation that may leave visitors unsatisfied. This reveals a lack of ambition and, by extension, the absence of political will to transform this emblematic location into a full-fledged museum of exile.

Reasons to Visit

  • The human dimension of the exhibition

  • A space shared between memorial work and refugee reception

  • The timely and relevant exploration of the issue of exile

Reasons to Skip

  • A sometimes overwhelming and unreadable museography

  • A memorial site that is gradually fading

  • A rather limited exhibition space

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