Berlin History

A Palace of Tears

In front of Friedrichstraße station, along the Spree River, the Tränenpalast or ‘Palace of Tears’ has reappeared out of the construction dig of the much criticised (brutal and severe) Spreedreieck office development.

The Palace of Tears is what Berliners called the departure terminal from which travellers left by rail from East Berlin to the West. It was here that families were separated, where a traveller granted a visa to exit the Soviet zone might leave behind a spouse and children as guarantee of return. While the wall was the symbol of the physical division of the city, the Tränenpalast must be the symbol of the personal tragedy –of how ideology and international politics tore people from one another.

It is March 2010 and I can finally look in from outside, after many years when the Tränenpalast was off limits because of the nearby building of Berlin’s newest (and I think heartless) Spree-side skyscraper. This office block is sadly reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s designs, like a slap to the face to recall his exquisite and unrealised plans for the same site. Ernst and Young have installed themselves inside, the barriers have been taken away. I can now walk right up to the windows of the disintegrating ‘Palace’ nearby:


The clock stands stopped on the wall. A light fixture unravels from the ceiling to the ground. The floor is swept clean, but I think I can see the scuff marks of so many people rushed through controlled lines and police checkpoints. Customs officers worked from the windows in the sheds, counters where documents were scrutinised, decisions made. I can imagine an irregularity noticed, a woman asked to wait, and a phone call made. She looks to one side, and notices the guards discussing. Then one detaches from the group, and approaches, her way.

At the end of the terminal is the descent, the tunnel which leads underground and then back up to the railway platform. Imagine crossing that threshhold to somewhere where only the chosen are allowed to go. It is now boarded up.



Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

7 thoughts on “A Palace of Tears

  • Can't wait to read more of these!

  • It is true that every building has a story. In the case of Berlin this story is world history.
    I reeeeeally like your approach when you say "I can imagine…". Could this maybe be the second name of the blog? I would love that. It makes me fantasize…
    Now I can imagine you writing more cool pieces like that;)

  • Geoffrey Armes

    It was rarely 'rushed', so often the opposite.

  • Joseph Pearson

    @ Geoffrey, many thanks for the correction!

  • Geoffrey Armes

    Oh sorry, didn't mean to sound like a 'correction,' I suppose more of a memory ghosting through. In fact one went through quicker if one stumbled around and looked helpless and lost, that was when the Grenz Polizei would wave you forward impatiently… if you acted as if you knew the routine they would invariably pull you up and have a chat.

  • Joseph Pearson

    I like the idea of a tactical stumbling through the Grenze!

  • I crossed this place from west to east on december 1989 with three gay friends.
    And it was exactly like Geoffrey writes.
    We tried to look extra-cool – and betweenn hundreds of eastberliners coming back from a tour to the west we ended up the only ones “gründlich gefilzt“.
    One “Grenzer“ found a small bottle in my pocket, opend it and sniffed on it. Stared at the bottle. Sniffed on it again. And again! Well, obviously this was no parfume, wich would have been liable to customs duty. So he gave me back my bottle. I was glowing red with embarassment. He was glowing red on three shots of poppers. And it wasn‘t funny! Not in the palace of tears.

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