Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
When WW2 swept over Berlin in its final salto mortale in the early 1945 and when hurled tens of thousands of bombs onto the houses and their inhabitants, the old life of the city as well as the city itself were gone forever. Rebuilt, or rather resurrected later, it never regained its old frame. Like a face transplant, the new architecture covered the wounds but would never be able to undo the irreversible.
Waterloo Ufer in Berlin-Kreuzberg is one of those deeply scarred places. This handsome avenue lined with impressive-looking houses and originally running along the Landwehrkanal from Blücherplatz (U-Bahn station Hallesches Tor) to Alexandrinenstrasse and Waterloo Brücke ended up an empty stump of its old self, with only one still inhabited house at No. 8 today. It is also the only original building left from before the war. However, today it will tell you nothing about the street´s former glory.
The only other house at Waterloo Ufer, the flat-roofed shed at No. 5-7 was constructed at the beginning of the 1970´s. One look at it will tell you it was not put there to please anybody´s eye: some would call it “ugly”, others show more kindness by calling it “functional”. In fact, hardly anybody notices it at all. The street in front of it might be throbbing with the endless drum&base of car traffic, speedy cyclists might be shooting past its doors every day but the only pedestrians on the pavement are those who are either lost or on their way to Dersim Kulturverein, a small Kurdish culture club using the building since the mid-1990s.
Still, it is worth everybody´s attention – however unimpressive the shed´s outer shell, it is packed with History like U-Bahn with sweating passengers in the morning rush hour. And between 1972 and the beginning of the 1990sprobably just as many people saw its interior.
THE COLD WAR
After Berlin Wall sliced the city in half in August 1961 there was no free human traffic between its Eastern and its Western part. The first time West Berlin citizens could see their relatives from the East was over Christmas and New Year´s Eve 1963/1964. Before 1966 four further special agreements between East and West Germany enabled them to cross the border four more times. Then the wind changed and the co-operation between East and West Berlin was again over.
Until on June 3rd, 1972 the so called Vier-Mächte-Abkommen (the Berlin Agreement) was signed. The four powers ruling Berlin after WW2 – the USSR, the UK, France and the USA – re-established the ties between the divided parts of the city as well as enabled West Berliners to travel to East Berlin on more or less regular basis. A curious thing about the agreement itself is that even though it was all about the West and the East, especially in the case of Berlin, the words “East Berlin” are not used in the text even once! The sides of the agreement were discussing the future of the “relevant areas” or “the areas bordering on the Western Sectors of Berlin” and “the areas of the German Democratic Republic which do not border on these Sectors” instead.
The above document stipulated the opening of five Büros für Besuchs- und Reiseangelegenheiten: visa offices for West Berliners wishing to visit East Berlin. The offices were bi-national hybrids: standing on West Berlin land, with Berlin Senate having the Hausrecht (the right to decide about the property), they employed West Berlin staff to hand out the visa applications and help with filling them out, while the East German staff took care of processing them and issuing (or not) the necessary permits. Every day grey estate cars brought the East German visa office employees to Jebenstrasse in Charlottenburg, to Reformationsplatz in Spandau, to Forum Steglitz in Steglitz, to Schulstrasse in Wedding and to the flat little building in Waterloo Ufer 5-7 in Kreuzberg.
Büro für Besuchs- and Reisenangelegenheiten next to Hallesches Tor was a very busy place. Every week for almost 20 years thousands of people went through the same unpleasant ritual here. A necessary torment in order to be allowed to see their relatives on the other side of the Wall. Or just to see The Other Side itself. And every day the same grey estate car brought the Easterners from or straight back to the said Other Side lest they came into direct or more personal contact with the rotten imperialist from West Berlin and liked it. That car used to stand parked behind the building on the now empty, paved, terrace-like space.
Inside the building, the applicants walked into the first room to pick up their application forms from the West Berlin staff – an important fact which clearly shows the division of rights and duties between the two “Berlins”. After presenting the behelfsmäßiger Berliner Personalausweis (West Berlin ID) and filling the forms in, they could ask for a day- or for a multiple visa for up to nine “crossings”. The applications were then passed to the back room where the East Berlin staff – West Berliners were not allowed to enter this office – processed them and issued their decision later.
The permits they issued (or not) were, in fact, no visas as such – those could not be issued within the territory of West Berlin. The Passierscheine (their official name) allowed their owners to approach a particular check-point – always clearly stated so there was no choice as to where to cross the border – and hope to get a visa written and stamped on the other side while they were waiting. That is why the office in Waterloo Ufer, just like the other three establishments at the time and those before them (used in the 1960s like, for instance, in Nachbarschaftsheim in Urbanstrasse in Kreuzberg) was known as Passierscheinstelle.
Even though the office was not as besieged as the first four Passierscheinstellen ever opened in Berlin, which over Christmas and New Year´s Eve 1963/1964 had to make sure than 1,2 million visitors and 140,000 could cross the border to East Berlin, it was still a very busy place.
THE WAR REFUGEES
After the Wall came down in 1989 and the office closed down forever, the empty building was taken over by Ausländerbehörde – Berlin Immigration Office – who established their refugee department there. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990´s – the name Balkan Wars is misleading as it refers to two other conflicts in 1912 and 1913 – made hundreds of thousands of former Yugoslavs leave their country (or countries, as they were now). Some of them found their way to Germany´s capital.
By 1991 Berlin became home to as many as 18,500 refugees from the region. The majority lived in the adapted school sports halls and temporary shelters, others – those more lucky – could stay with relatives. But all of them had to come to one place: Waterloo Ufer 5-7 in Kreuzberg. Hours or even days of queueing with often very small children, the fear and the exhaustion, constant fights among those waiting (some of them sold their places in the queue, others tried to jump the queue using fists or knives) – all this was part of the sad fate that Waterlooo Ufer had to witness again. In only one week in the autumn of 1992 over 8,000 people waited for its doors to open. They waited outside.
The ship ordered by Berlin authorities to provide a bit of shelter to the families waiting in the queue, moored right opposite the building on Landwehrkanal was an absolute minimum of what should and could have been done. By the time the Balkan refugees´ office was moved to Hohenschönhausen – the facilities at Waterloo Ufer were bursting at seams – some 260,000 people applied for asylum or for refugee status here. It is interesting to know that most of them preferred to remain refugees with a Duldung status (“postponed aliens” temporarily safe from deportation) in order not to be accused of being traitors and persecuted upon their return to their country.
The spreading of the Yugoslav wars from Slovenia and Croatia onto Bosnia-Herzegovina and then into Kosovo brought further 45,000 people to Berlin. But by now Waterloo Ufer 5-7 had been abandoned.
THE REFUGEES OF FAITH
Neither attractive, nor historically significant and no longer needed the building was meant to be demolished. But then the third chapter in its history began: Dersim Kulturverein, a society for preservation of Kurdish-Alevi culture in Berlin rented it for their main seat. During the renovations the members, who are Turkish and Zaz religious refugees from Turkey (Alevi Zaz people come from the south-east of Turkey, from the Eastern Anatolian areas around Tunceli, Bingöl and Erzican, and were banned from practising their faith back home) had no idea about its past. They knew nothing about the Passierscheinstelle at Waterloo Ufer.
Neither were they aware of the story of the tens of thousands of war refugees who were camping around it in the hope of being allowed to flee the deadly feuds in the former Yugoslavia. But like all of them they were seeking their Berlin home. Today they are proud to be its tenants.
For even though the house at Waterloo Ufer 5-7 might be still far from attractive, it is needed again. And the word History is written all over its façade. Right underneath all that dust, peeling paint and the graffiti. So spare it a moment. It is not as small or as unimportant as it seems.