Photo. An art class for refugee children of the Curvy Street Center in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, May 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin

Thematic Area 4: The Refugee Center

The thematic area “The Refugee Centre” traces the history of the refugee camp in the Berlin district of Marienfelde. It also provides insights into the organisation and lived experience of the camp from the residents’ perspective.

With the construction of the Marienfelde Refugee Centre in 1953, the Berlin Senate and the West German federal government were reacting to the steadily rising tide of refugees from the Soviet Zone of Occupation (after 1949, the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). Given the dramatic living conditions in war-torn Berlin – housing shortages, a lack of foodstuffs and mass unemployment – the admission of the newcomers presented the city with major problems. The Marienfelde camp was intended to help manage the challenges involved in integrating the refugees.

For the refugees, Marienfelde was not an easy place. True, they were offered accommodations, fed and provided with other bare necessities. But at the same time, 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 concern about an uncertain future. In this state of mind, they underwent the laborious routine of the application process and – especially during the periods when refugees were leaving the East in large numbers – had to come to terms with many other residents of the camp.

In video interviews both refugees and former employees recall their time here, sharing with us their experiences and recounting their impressions of Marienfelde. Their accounts vividly demonstrate how differently life at the camp was perceived by each individual.

An abundance of objects once part of life at the camp – such as initial personal and household articles, meal vouchers, guard and donation books – attest to, on the one hand, the accommodation offered by the camp administration and engagement of numerous relief organizations. They also testify to the strict camp regime and conflicts among the residents.

In addition, a photo gallery displays scenes of life at Marienfelde from the 1950s to the 1990s. Because photography within the camp was only allowed with special permission, these images reflect an official perspective. Photographs of ethnic German families from eastern Europe, taken at the time of the exhibition’s preparation in 2004, shows Marienfelde’s function as the Berlin Central Reception Centre for Repatriates (ZAB) until summer 2010.