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Germany

Berlin Refugee Camp Closes After 55 Years

For many, the Marienfelde Refugee Center in Berlin was a first stop-off point, a place where people could prepare for a new life in the West after turning their backs on Communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Marienfelde Refugee Camp in 1958

The camp saw over one million refugees through its doors

But the refugee center, which served as a temporary home for close to two million people during its busy 55-year history, closed its doors for good on Wednesday, Dec. 31.

Refugee arrivals from eastern Europe have dwindled to a trickle in recent years, negating the usefulness of such a facility.

The Marienfelde camp was set up in 1953 and operated first by US, British and French allied officials and later by West Berlin authorities.

Initially, the center consisted of 15 structures with space for 1,200 individuals, but as the number of refugees swelled, 11 more buildings were added to the facility in 1955, increasing its capacity to 2,800.

The refugees were housed in small, self-contained apartments, complete with kitchens and bathrooms.

A camp official says Marienfelde was "a place of transition," where the average length of stay was one to two weeks -- this being the time it took refugees to pass through the 12 stages of vetting.

Most refugees were Germans fed up with life in communist East Germany and eager to start over again in the West.

Despite welcoming such disaffected hoards, West German officials remained cautious of just who they were letting in to the West. In the early years of post-World War Two Europe, at the height of the Cold War, dozens of agents from the Communist bloc attempted to infiltrate West Germany.

Marienfelde inundated

An East Berlin soldier secures a steel bar to hold the barbed wire atop the Berlin Wall on sector border in Berlin near Friedrichstrasse

As the situation in East Germany worsened, the camp became more important

Berlin bore the costs of the refugees' housing and meals, while charities offered advice and were generous with donations. The Lutheran and Catholic churches provided counseling services and christened, confirmed and married refugees if asked.

Of the four million people who fled westward from East Germany between 1949 and 1990, 1.35 million passed through the Marienfelde camp. In the late 1980s, when the Communist world started to unravel, large numbers of refugees again began turning up at the camp.

In the spring of 1989, the Marienfelde camp was deluged with new arrivals, among them people of German origin from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

In April 1989, 6,000 arrived. In May it was double that number. By November, the camp was jammed with 100,000 refugees.

New beginnings

Among them in the spring of that year was Katrin Lange. After waiting four years for permission to leave East Berlin, she suddenly received word she could depart for the West.

At a mass-transit station in East Berlin, she bid farewell to her father and brother before making the crossing. Soon after arriving at the Marienfelde camp she learned she would be allowed to remain in the West.

A student who had passed examinations qualifying her for university, Lange had been denied university admission by East German authorities

She says she was not distraught at having to leave her home in the East. "I had no painful feelings about leaving, but wondered if I would ever see my relatives again," she says.

But Lange needn't have worried. Less than five months later the Berlin Wall fell and she was joyously reunited with her mother at a crossing point in southern Berlin.

Lange was later allowed to attend Berlin's Free University and then secured a grant to study in Montreal, Canada. She is now a reporter working for Berlin newspaper Der Morgenpost.

Memory continues

A segment of the Berlin Wall

Sites of significance during the partition of Berlin hold memories for millions

While the Marienfelde Center officially closed on Wednesday, a handful of refugees still remain on the premises. They will stay until alternative accommodation is found for them, said a camp official.

"In any case, we won't have to worry about the camp being demolished because it has been placed under protection as an historic building," says Bettina Effner, who is involved in arranging exhibitions on the remains of the camp.

"We exist so people can continue to understand the atmosphere of a camp like this."

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