“East or West?” the taxi driver asks in the course of our conversation while driving from Mitte to Kreuzberg. It goes without saying that I am also a Berliner by birth, like him. We talk about the resurrection of the Kurfürsten Damm and the crime on Kottbusser Tor, about the inadequate rents in the city center, and about those who have moved to Berlin, both new and old. “Uh, both,” I reply, biting my tongue at the same time. I realize what’s coming now. “Well, both doesn’t work” he corrects me, wise-assed. “Where did you go to school?” I could just lie and spare ourselves further questions. But we are right there, so I say: “In the West, but we lived in the East. That was before the fall of the Wall. “Now he is quite confused. I know the reaction. Anyone who grew up in Berlin in the 80s is either from the West or the East of Berlin. Only I can not answer this question clearly, because between 1986 and 1990 I lived in East Berlin, but went to school in West Berlin. I crossed the border daily in the Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears), as the commute to my school in West Berlin was called. I am neither Ossi nor Wessi, rather maybe Wossi: a child of both sides. I am familiar with the gray East with its bullet holes in the walls of the houses, the empty shelves in supermarkets, and the cozy East German atmosphere.
On the other side: a colorful, consumer-oriented west, with KuDamm, Coke, Pepsi, and Cornetto ice cream. For five years I traveled from east to west and back, living in both worlds. I bought Kinderriegel at Edeka in West Berlin and consumed delicious powdered sugar donuts in front of the Markthalle on Alexanderplatz all on the same day.
Every morning I passed the border and passed by hundreds of people waiting to leave. I could just go through into the West, which so many dreamed of back then. “You have to tell it all, you’re a contemporary witness,” people told me over the years. I struggled with it for a long time, because what others found exciting was a difficult time for me. As a child, for a long time, I didn’t know where I belonged, and I suffered a lot from it.
A Forbidden Love
How did we end up in the East but never left the West?
I am the product of a forbidden love story, of which I have only recently learned from my mother. My parents, an East German military officer’s daughter, and an Egyptian doctor in law met on the train from Berlin to Leipzig in the late seventies. My grandfather was a senior aircraft engineer for Honecker’s flying fleet, and he did the last check before the GDR’s officials entered the plane. In this position, he or his family were not allowed to contact foreigners from the West. Egypt was then one of the most modern Arab countries and was considered to be Western. My parents fell in love despite the difficult political situation and initially had a secret relationship, but finally, the Stasi discovered them and it began a period of interrogation and harassment for my family. The Stasi demanded that my grandfather renounce his only daughter, which he refused despite the consequences. He lost his position as chief engineer, was released from the army, and was no longer allowed to fly a plane. My mother was discredited at the behest of the Stasi during her studies and later at work, finally, when she became pregnant. The Stasi demanded her to end the relationship with my father. She was severely threatened; if she did not leave my father, she would go to prison, and I would be sent to a children’s home. When my father got a job at the Egyptian embassy, it saved us from this situation. However, when the intimidation of the Stasi did not stop, my mother fled with me as a baby over Cairo to West Berlin.
There we lived until the year 1986 in the contemplative Mariendorf, where we quickly became indigenous. Until I was 7 years old, I lived a suburban childhood with green fields and countless friends in the neighborhood.
Back to East Berlin
One day in 1986, almost four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my father came home from work in East Berlin and told me that we would move there as a family. I was shocked. He could not mean that, could he? But he was serious. With tears, shrieks, and nagging on my part, all my things were stowed in boxes and gradually transported to the East. We would live there as members of the embassy and were considered immune, so the Stasi could not harm us. I would continue to go to school in West Berlin.
A small children’s diplomatic passport was made for me and from the age of seven, I took the S-Bahn at Hackescher Markt station to Friedrichstrasse, where I crossed the diplomatic lock of the border inside the Tränenpalast. Then I took the train down to Mariendorf, where my school was located. In the afternoon I crossed the border again to get back home.
In East Berlin and especially in Berlin Mitte, where we lived, everything was gray at that time; the beautiful old buildings in the small streets around the Hackescher Markt and Oranienburger Strasse were crumbled, the facades riddled with shots from the Second World War. Every day I dove from the gray of the East into the colorful world of the West – and then returned again to the dull gray.
My childhood friendships suffered a lot: My friends in West Berlin could not visit me or spontaneously meet me. Sometimes making calls was almost impossible: To reach someone in the West by phone, you often had to try for two to three hours, until you caught a free line. In school, I made an effort to hide the fact that I lived in East Berlin. Every mention brought with it a lot of questions that I could not and did not want to answer. In the East, I stood out like a sore thumb with my Western clothes and was initially a very interesting figure for the kids there. But out of fear of trouble with the Stasi, many parents didn’t allow their children to hang out with me- the girl from West Berlin. When I finally found a friend in the East, she later turned out to be a spy for the Stasi.
The fall of the Berlin wall finally changed everything. It was an unexpected stroke of luck for me. For a while, I was convinced that the wall had fallen simply because I had wanted it to so much.
Palace of Tears
Every morning at 6:30 a.m. I left our house at Hackescher Markt and drove to Friedrichstrasse, where the border crossing into the Palace of Tears was located.
In front of the almost completely glass-enclosed terminal hall, there was an incredible number of people every day; the atmosphere was always tense. All ID cards were checked in the front of the hall. Those who did not have valid papers were not allowed to stay. Many people were scared, some were angry because the border guards did not squeamishly deal with them. I fought my way through the nervous crowd and slipped through a separate entrance in the steel fence, which was only for diplomats.
Then I was in the big hall, passed the torturously slow luggage control at the side, where everything jammed. As I passed, I held up my little children’s diplomatic passport. The border guards waved me to the diplomatic lock, they already knew me- the singular child who passed through the sparsely visited diplomatic entrance twice a day. In all these years, except for myself, I seldom saw anyone else using the diplomatic entrance in the Teardrop Palace. As a child, I did not realize that besides diplomats, several spies also used “my” diplomatic lock.
The first few weeks my parents drove the route together with me, but then I drove the route alone and joined out of timidity still in the several hundred-strong serpents.
The border guards became aware of me and blared in the finest Saxon, “You’re diplomat, you do not have to stand here, there’s your passage ahead”. Everyone was staring at me now. Their astonished yet disapproving eyes burned in my back and remain there to this day. Which is understandable. People were dying while trying to escape and a small child was allowed to go right through, uncontrolled. I felt bad.
I still cannot pass a waiting queue well today. Priority boarding makes me feel ashamed, and even if I am on the list at Berghain, I would stand in line anyway.
The Palace of Tears is popularly known as this: There are dramatic scenes that I sometimes witnessed and that shocked me a lot. People were denied transit, some cried, suffered nervous breakdowns. Sometimes I saw people there fold up, and they were then transported by ambulance. Later I read that a total of around 200 people died there, death from weakness and stress. Old memories of this place come up. It’s not a good place that I passed every day: When leaving and reentering, the GDR border guards harassed people wherever they could: I clearly remember an old woman who was dragged off crying and shouting, “But I have not seen my son for ten years,” and, “I only want to see my grandchild once.”
This scenario haunted me for a long time.
Passing the baggage check, I then passed “my diplomatic lock”, with the small house for passport control. The two border guards never changed during those four years I was crossing the border. I called them Lolek and Bolek, like the Polish carved children figures who were so popular in the GDR. So every day the same procedure would await me: the respective border guard was seated behind a desk and looked down at me. Without saying a word, he looked into my eyes, then back to my passport photo, which repeated itself several times. He combed through my three-sided passport as if there was a secret code to discover there, which could be made visible only by particularly strained looking. One of them even smiled now and then, but mostly both did not move. They were not really rude, just cold. Day in, day out, over a period of five years, the same faces and the same professional cold. When I got older, around nine or ten years old, I finally got used to a kind of indifference, because I realized there was nothing I could do to change my situation.
The Berlin Wall Falls
In 1989 the first demonstrations started, but none of us could imagine that such an uprising would stay peaceful. Finally, the wall fell. We watched everything in disbelief on the television, in the weeks that followed I saw the border controls subsiding and people pouring freely across the border. The Palace of Tears was more crowded than ever, everyone wanted to head over to the west.
At the beginning of the 90’s we moved to the upper end of Friedrichstrasse near the Underground station Stadtmitte – no-man’s-land at that time. At age eleven, I grew up a stone’s throw away from Tresor, Bunker, and E-Werk, the big Techno clubs of the 90s. So around 1991, my dad and I did our Saturday morning walk, which took us past the E-Werk with its many colorfully dressed visitors, or ravers, as I would later find out. We continued this walk for weeks, and for weeks we burst with curiosity. Once, my father grabbed my hand and pulled me to the entrance. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and I was so awfully embarrassed. Since my dad was a cool, well-dressed guy, he let him in and because it was daytime, I was allowed to join. Of course, it was great. It was the period after the fall of the wall, Berlin was in total anarchy, but in a positive way, everything was new. The ravers were completely ecstatic, so my father and I stood there in the club with open mouths, and from that moment I knew this was something so special. I never felt that much energy in one place again. I often searched for this energy, went to parties all over the world, but I did not find this kind of energy from the early 90s again. This spirit of optimism prevailed at the time. Of course, despite my young age, my father had involuntarily planted a seed and only two years later I started raving on a regular basis at Bunker, Tresor and E-Werk, all within walking distance of our apartment.
Later I studied at Humboldt University, and at night we celebrated in the abandoned houses around Hackescher Markt and Oranienburger Strasse, which there were a lot of back then. We visited clubs such as Ostgut and Cookies on a regular basis. There were basically no rules; it was a magical time. In the morning we stumbled out of the clubs and ran home via Museum Island. It was exactly how I knew everything from before the wall came down, where every street reminded me of at that time. Later, when the tourists came, I moved away. I felt like they were destroying my carefully preserved memories.
photo: Nils Schwarz
Despite everything, I sometimes like to think back. I would think back to the time with my grandparents in Frankfurt / Oder. At that time they lived in a typical GDR apartment which I remember as very homely. There, I was just a visitor from Berlin, not from the West. I remember the apartment on the sixth floor, with a view over all of Frankfurt Oder, down to the water. There were also plush stools and a plush cover on the toilet lid, relics of the 1960s that were still fashionable in the East. In their garden, my grandparents had white eggshell chairs. They wanted to get rid of them after the fall of the wall, as they were focused on buying new things. Everyone wanted to make the East disappear quickly. You’d have to search with a magnifying glass to find the remains of the wall in Berlin. That’s a pity; why do we Germans always want to get rid of our history so fast? The time of the GDR belongs to us, how should we otherwise build up if we forget it? My story is inextricably linked to the GDR. Today, a lot of money is spent on nostalgia to reclaim a piece of the GDR. When I’m in Alexanderplatz, I always think of Club Cola (the GDR had their own coke brand) and Broiler (their name for roasted chicken). I also think of the empty streets on the banks of the Spree, along Museum Island, which are full of people today. Berlin was very quiet at that time and compared to today, it was almost deserted. I miss that very often.
Many do not know the Tränenpalast, though it is still there, hosting an exhibition in the main building. There you can see what crossing the border looked like. I rarely talked about that time, trying to avoid upcoming memories. But I had to make peace with it. Since I started writing about it, I have a better understanding of myself. I understand why I sometimes did not want to commit myself to one thing only, or why I was driven by an indefinite yearning for a long time. I wrote a book about my time between the East and West, and it frees me to know where I come from. So to the next taxi driver that asks, (in that particular Berlin slang): “Well, both West and East. If you want to learn more about it, just read my book.”