Walking into the Palace of Tears is stepping back in time. The floor tiles, the wall clock, the “modern” design of the building: all hearken back to a 1960s aesthetic in interior design.
Standing on East German territory since 1962, the Palace of Tears was an addition to the older Friedrichstraße train station. This station stood on East German soil but still held connections to the West Berlin metro and train systems. After the Berlin Wall cut the city in two, the Palace of Tears was built to serve as a border crossing between the East and West German rail systems.
It was (and is) known as the Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast) because of the many tearful farewells that took place here. People emigrating to the West didn’t know if they’d ever be able to see their loved ones again.
The Design of the Palace of Tears
Stepping inside, I descended a short stairway to the hall’s main floor. Looking around, I saw huge glass windows, sweeping around the hall on three sides, but the floor of the hall is low, below ground level. People passing through this space could not see out to the street.
Between the windows are vintage light fixtures, and the wall clock is the original clock, in a style I remember from my 1960s childhood.
The Palace of Tears is still recognizably a train station hall, with the addition of museum elements within this large space. It includes a row of booths where immigration officials checked documents.
Museum visitors can walk through one booth as those emigrants and business travelers did during the period when Germany was divided. The booths intentionally intimidate. Standing in the narrow space, looking up at the customs official across a high counter, they must have felt like children, begging to be allowed out.
A mock-up of the Friedrichstraße station shows how the East German apparatus controlled travelers’ movement. They walked from this hall into the station itself through a carefully managed maze of hallways, designed to prevent anyone escaping East Germany without permission.
Other Exhibits in the Palace of Tears
A free audio guide explains the other exhibits in the museum. Suitcases used as display cases illustrate individuals’ stories of leaving East Germany and the few items they took with them. Similar suitcases near the exit do the same, but focus on individuals who moved back to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Moving through the small museum, I saw an array of Western consumer goods that the East German government sold to earn hard currency. A section on surveillance emphasizes how closely the police, along with informants, scrutinized everyone in this railway station as they came and went. And a section on protest movements explains the gradual build-up to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. This part was particularly intriguing to me because from the US perspective, the Wall’s fall seemed very sudden. In fact, it was the culmination of a long effort by some very brave people.
The focus of many of the displays is individuals who passed through the Palace of Tears. It’s hard to imagine, from my privileged point of view, how people felt leaving East Germany. They knew that they were unlikely ever to go back and see the families they left behind. And yet their families might live within just a few kilometers of them. The Palace of Tears museum is a good way to get an inkling; its intact structure, passport control booths and rather sparse but well-chosen displays fill out this piece of the puzzle of divided Berlin’s history.
If you have the time, I would recommend visiting both the Palace of Tears and the DDR Museum. The two museums – one about everyday life in East Germany and one about the decision to leave East Germany – complement each other. They combine well to answer the questions “What was it like?” and “Why didn’t they just leave?”