Train Station Has Housed the World’s Refugees for More Than a Century

Ostbahnhof Station, Germany, Smithsonian


Past and present collide at Berlin’s Ostbahnhof

Refugees from Syria and other war-torn nations have poured into Germany in recent weeks, making an arduous trek across Europe in search of safety and shelter. This year alone, an estimated 40,000 will come to Berlin, Germany’s largest city. Many are arriving on trains from Munich, disembarking into a new life at the Ostbahnhof, Berlin’s eastern railway station; it’s one of five serving long-distance travelers to the city.

Built in 1842, the station today resembles an airport terminal; its glass façade and modern skylights convey openness and transparency. It is a place for commuters, where visible traces of the past are hard to find. The ordinary surroundings – the streets of what was once East Berlin – belie the station’s remarkable life as a crossroads of east and west in Europe. Aside from a few monotonous buildings, relics of the proletarian past, there are no indications of the many stories the station can tell.

The refugee crisis presents the largest movement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War. But the station, once known as “the gates to the East,” is no stranger to mass migrations. “Jewish migrants from Tsarist Russia arrived there,” explains Felizitas Schaub, a doctoral candidate in history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “Poles traveled through the station in search of seasonal work in the West, and again on the way home. That’s why Berliners called it ‘the Polish station’ or the ‘Catholic station.’”

Between 1905 and 1914, some 700,000 Jews, fleeing pogroms and poverty in Russia, Romania and Poland, reached Germany, the overwhelming majority on trains to Berlin. Last month, Götz Aly, a historian in Berlin, reminded readers of the station’s Auswanderersaal, or “Hall for Emigrants,” a large room in which volunteers supplied refugees, many en route to the United States, with tea, advice, and even temporary housing. The hall was the work of the German Jewish Aid Society, a relief organization founded in Berlin in 1901 in response to an earlier refugee crisis.

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