Marienfelde refugee camp memorial museum

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -

A specialized memorial museum on the wider topic of divided Germany, and Berlin in particular, and especially on the issue of refugees from the GDR, who used to be housed at this site as their first abode on arrival in the West. 

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More background info: The refugee centre in Berlin Marienfelde was set up in 1953 to serve as a first emergency housing facility for those who had fled the GDR/East Berlin. Of the total of roughly 4 million people who left the East between 1949 and 1990, when the GDR ceased to exist and the whole of the Eastern Bloc collapsed, 1.35 million passed through Marienfelde. It was thus a most significant "gate to freedom" – a transitional place for new arrivals, where they would be looked after before being sent on to their new lives in the West, either in West Berlin or, more often, to various places in the West German mainland (if you consider West Berlin a virtual island, which it effectively was).
 
For the GDR, the large numbers of refugees were both a sign of political defeat and an economic loss inasmuch as it was skilled workers and well-educated people who formed the majority of these refugees. The GDR was supposed to be a socialist paradise for workers, but in reality many people voted with their feet – and opted for the capitalist West, for freedom over socialism. Because of this continuing exodus and brain drain, the Berlin Wall was eventually built in 1961. It did its job in curbing the number of refugees, but not completely, of course. People still risked their lives, and some lost their lives, in attempts at overcoming this concrete obstacle (and in particular the death strip next to it!). Those who made it, either by more or less ingenious means, as well as bravery and luck, would then first have arrived at Marienfelde. Likewise legal emigrats - which was also sometimes officially alloweded by the GDR authorities, though it was a hard process and frequently rejected. In any case, Marienfelde would have been the first port of call for new arrivals. Hence the special historical significance of this site.
 
When the GDR collapsed in 1989/1990, the refugee centre as such became redundant too. But it continued to serve a similar function, now housing refugees or "repatriates" from other countries; until 2008 primarily ethnic Germans emigrating from Russia and other Eastern countries of the former USSR/the Eastern Bloc.
 
A first memorial exhibition at the site was set up as early as 1993, gaining a ranking as a memorial of national significance in 1998, and in 2005 the much enlarged permanent exhibition of today was inaugurated. Since 2009 it's been run under the umbrella of the Berlin Wall Foundation, together with the Wall memorial site at Bernauer Straße
 
The place is obviously of particular importance from a German perspective, but to some degree it may also be of interest to international visitors, including dark tourists with a special interest in the Cold War era division of Germany and the dark and often deadly consequences this had. These aspects are also well documented in the museum, although a proportion of the exhibition is naturally also focused on the more uplifting aspects of successful emigration and integration into the West.
 
What there is to see: More than you might think. From the outside, the building that the museum is housed in is not much to look at – a typically drab concrete block of 1950s design (i.e. cheap and with little regard to aesthetics). The cluster of buildings that formed the rest of the centre (a whole housing estate) doesn't look much better. Outside in the courtyard there's a segment of the Berlin Wall to mark the location, as well as a small old-style wall plaque, and the wording "Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde" over the wing with the entrance to the museum.
 
Inside, the exhibition is modern, fairly varied (also to a degree multi-media based) and certainly educational.
 
Most explanatory texts on the photo, document and information panels, as well as all spoken-word material (audio recordings and videos) are in German only. It is only the main, general introductory panels that bear English translations as well – and often in less than well polished translation quality, frequently being far too literal and thus somewhat clumsy sounding. So if you can't read German you should make use of the option of hiring an English-language audio-guide from the reception desk by the entrance – or even go on a guided tour. I haven't done either, so I can't vouch for the quality of these services. But it has to be better than relying solely on the scant and somewhat deficient English in the exhibition itself, which, being mostly information-heavy rather than reliant on lots of original artefacts, wouldn't really speak for itself enough without such additional language aid.
 
Content-wise, the exhibition is subdivided into thematic sections: reasons for leaving the East, ways into the West, arrival at the refugee centre, reactions in the GDR (for whom Marienfelde was an "enemy object"), embarking on a new life in the West, and finally a section on the topics as reflected in the arts.
 
The first couple of sections are probably of most interest to the dark tourist – and indeed, photos and footage of the sinister fortified border that was the Berlin Wall stand out in that respect.
 
In contrast, the bureaucratic procedures and obstacles facing refugees will presumably be of less interest (at least to the "outsider" – visitors who had actually been refugees here will view this differently, it can be assumed).
 
The exhibition designers have tried hard to liven these sections up with "interactive" exhibits, such as a series of mock doors you can open to find out more about the various bureaucratic routes which are also represented on a wall flow-chart diagram. I found it a bit bizarre rather than livening things up, and the subject remained rather dull despite these efforts.
 
I found some of the objects on display more captivating – which include personal effects belonging to refugees (even fluffy toys, such as one used in smuggling money across the border).
 
The most remarkable original artefact of them all, I found, was the large wire-cutting pliers with which the Iron Curtain was first ceremonially opened on the border between Austria and Hungary in 1989.
 
The section on GDR propaganda and its treatment of Marienfelde as an "enemy object" also holds a certain (if somewhat perverse) dark attraction.
 
Upstairs, the exhibition concentrates more on Marienfelde itself. Here various rooms of a typical small flat like those that the refugees were housed in here can be seen – as kind-of walk-in displays. The bunk beds, kitchens and bathrooms with sparse 1950s furnishings are not all that exciting to look at, but provide a glimpse of the living conditions at the refugee centre – not luxurious but not too bad either.
 
When I visited the museum in January 2010 there was a special exhibition on, which I actually found more interesting than the permanent exhibition: it was about the Berlin S-Bahn, regional metro trains, formerly run by the GDR, also going through Western territory. In earlier years of the division of the city, the S-Bahn provided an especially tempting loophole for Easterners to get to the West. But that loophole too was more or less sealed off from 1961, when the Wall was built. For the S-Bahn, this also resulted in the infamous "ghost stations", disused, dimly lit, sealed-off and guarded stations, which trains passed through without stopping (see why this interest and Nordbahnhof). I remember when I was on my first visit to Berlin as a kid, it was a special thrill to pass through such ghost stations, especially the stop "Unter den Linden" (now called "Brandenburger Tor", and today featuring memorial museum elements itself). This  underground element of the Wall left a deep and lasting impression on me … This may explain my fascination with those ghost stations to this day. Thus the photos and video footage of them here at the Marienfelde memorial site were for me the best bit of the whole museum. But of course, this was only a temporary exhibition, replaced by successive others since.
 
Overall: provided you have the prerequisite special interest in its topic, the Marienfelde refugee camp memorial museum has a lot to offer, despite its few shortcomings, e.g. regarding English provision. Also: I found the audio points occasionally a bit on the loud side. At those points where there was a lot to listen to, however, stools were thankfully provided, which was a relief.
 
The darker aspects of the Iron Curtain division of Germany and the dramatic stories of escape attempts (successful or unsuccessful) are certainly the most interesting parts for the foreign visitor. The more specific bureaucratic-procedure-related parts, on the other hand, could easily be skipped. 
 
Location: in the southern suburbs of (West) Berlin at Marienfelder Allee 66/80.
 
Google maps locator: [52.4205,13.3684]
 
Access and costs: way out in the south of the city, but fairly easy to reach, free.
 
Details: the easiest way to get out here from central Berlin is to take the S-Bahn regional train, Line S2, e.g. from Friedrichstraße or Potsdamer Platz in Mitte. The journey time to Marienfelde station is ca. 20 minutes. From there you can take the bus (line M77 for two stops going towards Waldsassner Straße, get out at Stegerwaldstarße) or simply walk it, it only takes about 8-10 minutes: on exiting the western side of the station turn left and then right via Kiepertplatz/Kiepertstraße, which merges with Marienfelder Allee. The entrance to the memorial museum is just a block down the road from there. It's also signposted – look out for the little blue signs saying "Erinnerungsstätte Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde"
 
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., regularly scheduled guided tours take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 3 p.m. – guided tours for groups can be arranged at other times as well (email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or phone: +49-30-7500-6400, also for availability of English-language tours).
 
Admission free, but donations are welcome. Audio-guides in English cost 2.50 EUR (1.50 concession), the same as guided tours.
 
No photography is allowed inside the exhibition.
 
Time required: if it's any gauge: guided tours last 90 minutes, and the audio-guide is said to have ca. one hour running time. How long a self-guided visit without audio-guide will last depends crucially on whether or not you have a sufficient knowledge of German. If you don't, you can be out again in less than half an hour. If you do and want to exhaust every bit of information the exhibition offer, then even two hours may be tight.
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity – in general see under Berlin.
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: the area of Marienfelde could hardly be less touristy (in fact it's an almost depressingly dreary suburban residential district); better head straight back into central Berlin proper.
 
 
  
  
  
  

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