A Journalist Remembers Joy At the Palace of Tears

It's been six years since the Berlin Wall came down, and though in some ways Germany remains as divided as ever, the memory of that day hasn't lost its wonder. I was living in West Berlin at the time, often crossing over to the East through the subway station at Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin to visit friends. That nerve-racking moment of crossing was the most graphic reminder of the split between the two worlds.

When foreigners passed through the checkpoints, we were routed through the doorway marked Burger anderer Staaten - citizens of other countries - and had to be back by midnight (like Cinderella, I always thought). Some of the guards liked to throw their weight around. Arbitrary searches and long waits were the rule.

On the other side of the gates and barriers, I took the train away from the drab city center to my friends' homes. Their warmth and welcome turned the abstraction of communism I'd grown up with into a reality of faces and personalities, struggle and humor. But those visits to that strange, foreign world all ended the same way, racing back to Friedrichstrasse before my visa expired, facing another side of that reality.

Built onto the side of the train station was an ugly prefabricated structure through which visitors had to pass to be processed when leaving the East. Berliners called it the Palace of Tears; it was where East Germans came and cried as they took leave of relatives and friends going over to the other side, where those left behind could not follow.

One night early in 1989, I arrived at the Palace of Tears just before my visa ran out. The guards, feeling spiteful, questioned and searched me just long enough to make sure I missed the last train back to the West. That meant waiting for the trains to start running again. I was locked in a tiny fluorescent room with some homeless people and a bunch of rowdy West Germans who had also made it back too late and who kept yelling insults at the border guards.

When they let us out of the little room at 5 a.m., the West Germans must have done something particularly obnoxious; as I stood on the underground subway platform waiting for the train, a contingent of guards suddenly stormed down the stairs in their jackboots and began roughing them up.

They seemed more interested in scaring them than hurting them, but that was little comfort to me, alone on an eerie, deserted platform, surround- ed by police in uniforms and shiny boots that recalled an earlier period in German history.

During the euphoric days of protest and change in October 1989, I found myself in East Berlin with some journalists who had been interviewing and photographing opposition leaders. One of the women had brought her baby.

We returned through the Burger anderer Staaten line at the Palace of Tears, their notes and film hidden in the baby carriage. The woman pushed her passport under the glass partition.

As the stony-faced young guard behind the counter began examining it, the child in her arms looked up at him innocently and said, ''Papa?'' The guard's face lit up. Grinning from ear to ear, he stamped our passports and waved us through.

The day the Wall fell, Nov. 9, 1989, I was also in East Berlin, watching Party boss Gunther Schabowski's famous press conference with dissident friends, wondering whether he'd really announced the opening of the Wall; eventually, I decided it couldn't be.

A little before midnight I returned to Friedrichstrasse. That night, a long line of astonished people were waiting patiently, saying happy things like ''I don't believe it,'' ''Incredible!'' and ''I only want to go over to look, I'll be back in time for work tomorrow.'' The Wall was open, they said, not really believing it themselves. The woman in front of me tried to take the border guard's hand as she showed him her ID, but he refused to smile.

She muttered, ''Put a German in uniform....'' Still, that evening the tears shed at the Palace of Tears were joyful ones. After that night, crossing between the worlds suddenly became easy, even fun.

Not that things changed overnight, or even over weeks. Months later, as the barriers and guard booths at Friedrichstrasse were being taken down, I tried to take photographs.

A guard, seemingly unaware that times had changed, ordered me to stop or he'd take away my film. No one in the crowd of travelers around me said a word. And I, unable to change my behavior, fearfully put my camera away.

Still later, around the time of unification, when the guards were gone and only the last deserted, half-dismantled booths remained, I looked behind one and found a twisted metal sign saying anderer Staaten - other countries. It hangs on my wall now, a reminder of the strangeness, excitement, and fear of crossing over to that alien other world of communism and friends.

Today, Friedrichstrasse is a big, open train station, cluttered with salespeople and shops; it's hard to remember where the partitions, booths, and barriers used to be. The memory of crossing has all but faded.

The Palace of Tears, that ugly prefabricated structure, is still there - but now it's called the Palace of Tears Disco and hosts concerts, parties, and movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect, absurd commentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.