Photo. Refugees waiting to be admitted to the Marienfelde Refugee Center, August 14, 1961
© DHM-Schirner

October 2017

A Long Journey

A long way
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An old, gray and blue fake leather suitcase with a leather handle and zipper. In the typical style of the time, the case has a small pocket on the outside for an address label and two additional compartments. It looks like an ordinary small travel case from the 1970s, but it holds a special story.

The 21-year-old Silvia K. was carrying this suitcase in April 1979 when she entered the border crossing at the Friedrichstrasse Station and left East Germany forever. She had been working towards and yearning for this moment for more than two years, but now, moving into a completely new and unknown future, felt difficult.

Silvia K. was born in East Berlin in 1959 and grew up in Prenzlauer Berg. Her mother was born in Austria, but had moved to East Berlin to live with her husband long before the Berlin Wall was built. When her parents divorced in 1970, her mother decided to leave the GDR. She applied for permission from the East German government to resettle with her two daughters in the West. The processing of her case dragged on for many years, but in the end the government chose not to approve the emigration of the entire family. The emigration permit her mother received had an expiration date, so despite all her efforts to the contrary, Silvia K.’s mother was forced to leave the GDR without Silvia K., who was sixteen years old at the time. After her mother left, the Stasi monitored Silvia K. and forbade her from having contact with her mother. Silvia K. applied for a permit to emigrate as part of the measure to reunite families. As she waited for her application to be approved, she grew actively opposed the state. As a consequence, she was subjected to government surveillance and harassment. Two years passed before she was granted permission to leave the GDR.

When Silvia K. left via the Friedrichstrasse Station, her mother was waiting for her in West Berlin and planned to take her home with her. But Silvia K. was required to go through the official West German reception procedure in the Marienfeld refugee center before she could receive a permanent residency permit for the Federal Republic of Germany.