Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
It is hard to imagine that at the beginning of the 20th century more than every third child you met in the streets of Berlin would be suffering some form of physical deformity. Tuberculosis and Rachitis (rickets, caused mostly by the lack of Vitamin D and typical of areas where children have no access to proper food and sunlight, like in big city tenements of the early 20th century) were the main causes of spinal malformation, left their victims with the so called O-Beine (bowed legs), twisted wrists (rickets wrists) and many other terrific physical problems.
Still, Prussian state refused to consider those victims “ill”. Disabled children and grown-ups, “the cripples” (Krüppeln, a word which has meanwhile become socially unacceptable but back then was used as a regular term describing those physically disabled) were classified as statisch leidende – suffering from a condition that would not change – and as such had no claim to any health insurance or social benefits. The state would not cover the costs of their hospital stay, would pay for no therapy and provide no basic help towards the improvement of their life.
Apart from some private and church charities they could not count on anyone but themselves and their families. Which does not mean that the society was heartless and cold or, even worse, completely indifferent to their suffering. It means that a lot still had to change.
The man who improved things at an up to that moment unknown scale was one Konrad Biesalski, born on November 14th, 1868 in Osterode (today Polish Ostróda) in former East Prussia.
After his medical studies and working in Halle as a specialty registrar in orthopaedics under Prof. Albert Hoffa (called “The father of orthopaedics”) he returned to Berlin and soon opened his first private surgery in Gneisenaustrasse 55. A year later, in 1902, he moves it to Camphausenstrasse 19a (Körtestrasse today).
At the same time he was treating patients of the orthopaedic ward of Krankenhaus Am Urban and running the first X-Ray station at the hospital – opened in 1895, three years after Röntgen discovered the way of looking inside the human body without having to open it first.
Biesalski also helped organise the so called Röntgen Haus, whose head he became on Werner Körte´s (the head of the hospital then and the same after whom Körtestrasse was named) explicit wish. Additionally, Körte entrusted Biesalski with the post of the head of the orthopaedic ward.
As a general practitioner, hospital and school doctor in Kreuzberg, Konrad Biesalski had plenty of contact with the so called Krüppeln, both kids and grown-ups. And his intuition and experience told him that many of them could in fact be if not entirely cured then at least their condition could be alleviated. It was his strong belief that with proper care and therapy they would be fully capable of living independent lives. To make his argument more convincing to the state whom he wanted to get involved in the matter, he was talking about turning Almosenempfänger zu Steuernzahlern – the alms recipients should be converted into tax-payers. And that sounded serious.
Biesalski quickly found wealthy supporters for his then still revolutionary philosophy. The people who decided to contribute part of their money and time towards improving the situation of the disabled and of the mentally ill, believed just like he did that therapy, education and control could let many disabled leave the limbo of „Krüppeldom“. That many of them could be healed.
Winning the support of the state was paramount. Biesalski wanted a complete change of approach: the disabled were to be seen as sick and as such be offered all necessary help. He demanded a general count of all Krüppel in the country (here he had to obtain the help of the statistical office) in order to assess the situation. He also divided the disabled into two groups: those whose disability required all-round-the-clock help (heimbedürftige) and those who could live away from a shelter (nicht-heimbedürftige).
Together with Hans Würtz, a famous if later slightly controversial (the issue of eugenics) expert in the so called special education, he set out to prove that spending money on caring for the disabled, who could then work and earn their own upkeep, would actually save money to the state. And that argument never failed to speak to Prussian authorities.
In 1906 as a member of Deutsche Vereinigung für Krüppelfürsorge and encouraged by generous donations from Oskar and Helene Pintsch (who inherited part of the extensive fortune left behind by Julius Pintsch whose factory was providing Prussia and beyond with gas metres, and Prussian trains with modern gas lamps), Konrad Biesalski opens the first „Cripples´ Healing and Nursing Home for Berlin-Brandenburg“. There he wants to implement his simple yet very convincing sounding philosophy: „It is not one foot that is to be treated but the whole person“.
In December 1906 he moves his private surgery from Camphausenstrasse to the new location: a private Etagenwohnung (a flat occupying the whole floor of the building) in Freilingrathstrasse 1 in today´s Kreuzberg 61, paid for by the society. With the 22,500 Marks donated by Oskar and Helene Pintsch as well as another 2,000 offered by Oskar´s two brothers plus numerous smaller money and goods donations Biesalski could admit the first of the originally only eight very young patients on January 1st, 1907.
Soon the place was too small to meet the needs of the disabled children and Konrad Biesalski took over the upper two floors of the large orphanage and correction house down the street. In the Strasse Am Urban 10-11, in the old Erziehungshaus Am Urban (orphanage and correction house), the society had at their disposal not only over 100 beds but also the workshops in the cellars, where their patients could learn a profession that would allow them to pay their own living in the future.
The street known as Am Urban does not exist any more. It is today exactly the corner of Urbanstrasse and Fontanepromenade: Kreuzberg Gesundheitsamt (Local Health Office for the Borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) and the former Nurses´ Hotel stand on the very spot where the old orphanage used to cast its huge shadow over the pavement.
The place where Konrad Biesalski began the historic reform of the disabled care in Germany is still there: if you stand on the corner of Fontanepromenade and Freiligrathstrasse and look up to the first floor of the house No. 1 you will be looking at an important piece of social history. At the house where things really changed for better.
In 1914 the Heim moved to Berlin-Dahlem, to the Oskar-und-Helene-Heim for the disabled children. It helped cure or improve the lives of tens of thousands of small patients. And it still continues to do so.