More History Gone

There it goes: another piece of Berlin history is biting the dust.

That’s right, folks: by the time I get back from the States, the Tränenpalast will be no more. Apparently Deutsche Bahn has decided that this memory of the old East-West border has to be demolished immediately, the easier to excise the memory of what the building used to be.

I know for a lot of people, the Tränenpalast was a curiously-named entertainment venue, one which, if the experience my friend Gary Lucas had when he was booked there a few years ago is anything to go by, was horribly managed. In fact, practically from the day it opened in that incarnation, I heard sordid tales about the management, and the new managers didn’t seem to be any better than the first ones.

My first time there, though, wasn’t exactly for entertainment. The building’s name, “Palace of Tears,” came from its use as the processing terminal for Western visitors leaving East Berlin on their way back home. In retrospect, this seems like an odd name: Friedrichstr. station was an international checkpoint (the other being Checkpoint Charlie, further down Friedrichstr.), not a German-German one (which were scattered all over town), so the story that it saw the tearful separation of families who had come over to visit doesn’t hold water unless these families were from countries besides Germany.

When I made my first visit to East Berlin, it was in the company of a guy who apparently had raised some red flags at Checkpoint Charlie, and had suffered a cavity search on his last time over. He decided it might be easier to try Friedrichstr., and indeed it was, so my first view of East Berlin was the Admiralspalast theater. We quickly headed on to the Pergamon Museum, Alexanderplatz, and Frankfurter Allee, where we marvelled at the grandiose Russian-style apartment buildings.

But our ultimate destination was Prenzlauer Berg, where we met up with a guy named Norman. Norman was part of a group of vegetarians who met occasionally in East Berlin with some folks from the West, including some British and American soldiers, who were also vegetarians, for big dinners. Apparently (by which I mean maybe, see below), the day before, Norman had seen one of these guys on the street and waved to him. The morning of the day we met him, he’d been awoken by the Stasi secret police and interrogated for six hours. By the time we met up with him, Norman was a wreck.

Our solution to this was to get him as drunk as possible. This was also the solution to another problem: the 25 Marks one had to exchange one-for-one at the border. Eastmarks were worth nothing, and there was nothing much you could buy with them, but you weren’t allowed to take any back with you, either. To burn them up, we bought Norman dinner and found a bar where we drank ourselves silly. Finally, it was almost midnight, the time by which we had to be out of East Berlin, and we were just about out of money. We slipped Norman our spare change, and headed to the checkpoint in the building which is now called the Tränenpalast. Norman was still traumatized by his treatment at the hands of the Stasi, and was begging us to find him a black Jewish woman to marry. “That way, if the state tries to keep us apart, I can charge them with racism and anti-Semitism!” We tried to explain that black Jews of any gender were thin on the ground, let alone ones who might be inclined to marry him, but he told us we were lying, covering up for our unwillingness to help him.

On the one hand, Norman was being ludicrous, but on the other, I never forgot this rather intimate view into life in East Berlin. The guy I went over with later published a rather icky book called Once Upon a Time in the East, detailing the wacky fun he and his friends had had travelling in the East Bloc before the Wall came down, eating bad — but cheap! — vegetarian food in places like Romania and Czechoslovakia and generally behaving like the boorish British tourists they were. Norman’s story was in there, too, along with an interesting postscript. When the border to Hungary opened up, Norman was one of the first to leave East Berlin, and travelled the long way around, through Czechoslovakia, Austria, West Germany, and then back to West Berlin, a trip of hundreds of miles to achieve a journey from Prenzlauer Berg to Schöneberg. But once he was there, he began acting very strangely, and there are some among that circle who think, today, that Norman was a Stasi agent keeping track of them, and that it’s not impossible that the whole interrogation story he told us that day had been made up.

I have no idea, but I do think of Norman, who was last heard of living with his mother back in Prenzlauer Berg, when I walk past the Tränenpalast.

Or, as with so many other things here, maybe I should put that in the past tense. Once again, an uncomfortable souvenir of Berlin’s past is extirpated. In two years, no doubt, there’ll be a little pocket park there (to compensate for the one on the other side of the station, on which rose yet another untenanted office building), or maybe a Tränenpalast Museum sponsored by Deutsche Bahn, where the story the exhibits tell might not jibe exactly with the memories a bunch of aging people seem to have of the reality. The Palast der Republik is pretty much down by now, the Tränenpalast is going down…What’s next?

On Sunday, one of the tabloids had a headline screaming that Deutsche Post is going to tear down the Fernsehturm. It’ll take a little more than the Berliner Kurier to convince me of this, but after what I’ve seen here, I’m not ruling it out, either.

Leave a Reply