EAST BERLIN -- In the past year, more than a half-million people have fled East Germany in search of better lives. In the past month, more than 50,000 East Europeans have arrived in East Germany with the same goal.
Each night at Lichtenberg Station, they step gingerly off the 11:08 train from Bucharest and Budapest. They find a hard bench or a piece of stone floor beneath the glaring sodium-vapor lamps, and there they stay, some for weeks.
The station is a mess, a littered field of chicken bones sucked clean, filthy shawls that serve as blankets, bundles of belongings, and, at nearly every family grouping, a comically huge boom box -- for many immigrants, their first purchase here.
The men stand in clusters, trying desperately to drum up money-changing business, approaching travelers in a cacophonous jumble of German, French, Russian, Italian, English and Romanian.
Sorin Rocsoreanu is a 27-year-old father of two from Bucharest, a Gypsy who came to East Germany because it was the closest he could legally get to the affluent West. "At home, revolution; bad," he said. "Come here, make good money, take home. Good for the wife, good for the babies."
He understands the difference between East and West Germany only vaguely, but he knows that West German money is good, while the East's marks are little better than his own Romanian lei. In four days at Lichtenberg Station, he has made 1,000 West German marks ($600), several months' salary in Romania.
Not long after midnight one recent morning, there were about 200 refugees huddled in corners around the station -- large families and single men, Gypsies, Romanians, Poles, Bulgarians. A few were Soviet Jews, who said they are fleeing the threats and abuse of antisemites in the Ukraine.
That Jews from anywhere in the world would choose East Germany as their refuge deeply pleases the new government here, which as its first act this spring apologized for the antisemitism of its people and the former Communist regime.
"The feeling of guilt is enormous," said Anetta Kahane, an East Berlin official in charge of caring for the foreigners. "There is a great desire to show the world that Jews can be treated well by Germans."
Being a magnet for the poor and troubled of the world is a new role for East Germans, and neither the government nor the public quite knows how to handle it. There are no volunteer charities here; they were considered unnecessary under the old Communist system. "We no longer know how to control this enormous influx," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Gerhard Kielmann.
As long as East Europe's economies continue to suffer severe shortages, East Germany and its new access to Western ways will stand as a beacon, an easy train trip to relative plenty. East Europeans are permitted to enter East Germany for 30 days without a visa, a relic of the formerly close ties among Soviet Bloc countries.
The new East Berlin government wants to distinguish itself from its Stalinist predecessor in every possible way, so its leaders are loath to treat the immigrants cavalierly. But East Germany is not equipped to absorb refugees; its economy is sputtering along, straining to survive until the July 1 economic unification with the West.
East Germans are losing jobs faster than new positions are being created, and widespread citizen resentment against foreign newcomers has flared in painfully public ways. Crowds have gathered in the streets to insult Turks. A gang of skinheads tried to throw a Vietnamese man off a speeding train; the man managed to hold on to the exterior of the car.
Railroad police sweep through Lichtenberg Station each night, trying to persuade the immigrants to go to a camp the government has set up for them at a former secret-police barracks. About 500 Romanians were in the camp earlier this week, but the East Germans have no translator there, and the refugees fear anyone in uniform, a police officer said.
"We are only tourists," a recent Bulgarian arrival protested when police tried to persuade him to move his family of nine to the camp. "We just want to take a nice walk, see the sights. We will go back to our country. We don't want to work."
He laughed as he said it. The police laughed with him. No one believed a word he said. But it did not matter. The man and his family were left to curl up on the station's cold stone window sills, staying close to the all-night luggage check counter for protection from a group of rowdy East German drunks who were smashing vodka bottles against the lockers.
The foreigners are not supposed to be arriving here quite so freely, not since two weeks ago when East Germany toughened its immigration rules to require that East Europeans have an invitation from an East German citizen. Yet still they come. During the day, hundreds of Romanians stand outside the city's main department store on Alexanderplatz, begging, offering to change money, trying to resell cheap tape recorders or cigarettes.
The new arrivals "really want to go to West Berlin, but they can't get in," a Red Cross worker here said. That will change by July 1, the deadline for removal of all border controls within the long-divided city.
Some of East Germany's new refugees need not cross any border. They are "guest workers" -- Vietnamese, Cubans, Mozambicans whose Communist governments sent them to their German ally to learn a trade or fill jobs that East Germans would not.
East Germany is trying to send many of the workers home. The 40,000 North Koreans who were here were pulled out several months ago, as soon as their hard-line government sensed that the East German Communists would fall. But many of the remaining workers are trying to stay rather than be sent back to countries still under Communist control. Radio Hanoi reported this week that 4,000 of the 60,000 Vietnamese in East Germany have applied for asylum.
The East German parliament is drafting an asylum law because, as Foreign Minister Markus Meckel explained, it would be wrong to close off the frontier of a new democracy. When the law is passed, it will be East Germany's first on asylum. For the past 40 years, the issue never came up.