Photo. Visitors at the opening of the exhibition, 'Drawings by Refugee Children,' August 29, 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin - Willy Kiel

The Refugee Center

The refugee Center at Marienfelde was built according to the latest standards of subsidized housing. In contrast to the types of accommodation typically set aside at the time for refugees (makeshift dormitories were the norm), in Marienfelde, small, self-contained apartments, complete with kitchens and bathrooms, were made available to refugees. A recreation room and a lawn were also set aside for newcomers. The aim was clear: to ease people’s arrival in the West.

During the opening year, in 1953, the camp consists of fifteen structures with room for 1,200 individuals; three years later, in 1955, the completion of an additional eleven buildings meant the facility could now accommodate 2,800 people. A third construction phase was never realised, as the flow of refugees from East Germany after 1961 was disrupted by the construction of the Berlin Wall. The sharp reduction in the number of refugees led to the transfer of part of the camp in 1962 to a municipal housing association, the DEGEWO. In 1969, these parts of the camp were sold to the DEGEWO association.

The question of how the camp would be used in the future once again occupied minds during the 1960s . As the flow of refugees appeared to have come to an end, plans were discussed to convert the facility, without significant modifications, into a resident development.

Life at Marienfelde

The refugee camp was a place of transition. The average length of stay was one to two weeks; typically, this is how long it took to pass through the twelve stations of the application process. As long as the refugees were taking part in the application process, the federal state of Berlin bore the costs for their housing and meals. The indigent also received support from the Berlin Senate, various charitable organizations, and associations: among these were the Protestant and Catholic Churches, the German Red Cross, the main political parties, and the National Farmers’ Union. These organizations offered advice to refugees and distributed donations. The Churches also offered pastoral care; they also arranged celebrations in the camp, including christenings, confirmations, and weddings.


Notwithstanding the support the refugees received at Marienfelde, the center was not an easy place for the newcomers. Life at the camp placed significant demands on individuals who now found themselves in an exceptional place in their lives. The sense of relief they felt in having successfully escaped the East mixed with feelings of loss and concerns about an uncertain future. In this state of mind they had to undergo the laborious routine of the application process and – especially during the periods when refugees were leaving the East in large numbers – come to terms with many other residents of the camp.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber