In central Berlin, next to busy Friedrichstrasse station and overlooking the River Spree, is a single-story Modernist building. Its sloping roof, wide doorways and soaring windows seem to suggest post-war optimism and transparency, but the building’s original purpose couldn’t be further removed from those qualities.
The building dates from 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall was built, and it essentially forms part of the same barrier. Friedrichstrasse was, you see, the main terminus for trains going to and from West Berlin, and the building was erected to cope with the flow of passengers. The ruthless East German security forces were at their most vigilant here. Passengers shuffled one by one into booths to be interrogated before they were allowed to advance to the train platform while luggage was scrutinized for contraband items. Officially named the “Customs Clearance Terminal”, the emotional scenes which took place there as friends and family members emigrated or returned to the West led to the unofficial name which has stuck to the present day: “Palace of Tears”.
Now in the shadow of the adjacent Ernst & Young building, the Palace of Tears has survived as a reminder of the dark days of the Cold War. The structure has been renovated and now hosts a free exhibition which highlights the everyday absurdity and cruelty of the East-West divide. As well as the forbidding control cabins and uniforms of the border guards, personal mementos illuminate the thousands of individual destinies that passed through this bright, unhappy place.