Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
The best thing about the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, is the multitude of its interests: from fossils to aeroplanes, from Persian manuscripts to the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer´s fantastic production of The Wizard of Oz. The second best thing about their collections is their size: monumental.
There is one thing that the Smithsonian and I have in common: we are both devoted to working “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” – James Smithson who bequeathed the money to the government of the United States did so under the condition that the said government uses it to set up an Establishment for that very purpose.
Chaos in our storage rooms might be another thing that we share – although mine would be significantly smaller (both chaos and the storage rooms).
Still, now and then I manage to have a closer look at the things I have collected, particularly when I am threatened with having my storage space reduced and must decide what should stay and what might be passed onto others.
This time it was the Tin. The Tin is an original WW2 container used for the Auer-CO-Anzeiger – a carbon monoxide detector used on board of German U-Boots (submarines) in the 1940s. It was a present from by now sadly deceased neighbour in Poland who lived door-to-door with my family for years.
He brought it back from the Soviet Union where he fought during the war. From the Ukraine, to be precise. From the Black Sea coast to go even further. Coincidentally, that is where the drama of the latest Ukrainian conflict with its former occupant, Russia, is unfolding right now. It was from here that our neighbour started his march towards Berlin in 1944/1945.
He picked up the tin in the Ukraine and kept some of his small belongings inside. In this way the tin crossed Poland, made it to Germany (not into Berlin, though) and then went back to Poland again. Finally, after many years of moving around the country, it was put on top of the wardrobe in a living room in the 6th floor of a high-rise in the former Pommern (Pomerania).
Then it became mine. I picked it up from my parents and the Tin and I, both weathered travellers, crossed the border to Germany again. The old thing found its place on the window sill and then on top of another wardrobe but this time in Berlin.
I never really gave it a thought that this is where it in fact came (Berlin, not the window sill) from until two weeks ago I finally did. After almost four years spent on a little ledge in the wall in the nursery (out of all places!) in another Kreuzberg flat, the Tin had to go – the nursery was being refurbished and turned into a big-boys´-room.
I considered parting from the Tin, seeing no particular use for it apart from as a place to store my other souvenirs from The Past (but for that I would need a whole tank instead). But before offering it to someone as a generous if slightly disputable gift, I had a final go at checking its roots.
Produced by AUER-Gesellschaft with the serial number 479, it was one of the first carbon monoxide detectors of this kind made by the company (likely around 1941). By the way, although the name AUER-Gesellschaft might not ring any bells, the name of OSRAM, the light-bulb producer, surely will.
OSRAM (short for two elements used for the light-bulb´s production, OSmium and WolfRAM) was established in 1920 by three Berlin companies: the original Auergesellschaft, our good friends from Schöneberger Strasse 19 in Kreuzberg, Siemens & Halske (more about the history of Siemens here) and AEG or Allgemeine Elektrizität-Gesellschaft whose legal “daughter” with Siemens & Halske was the radio and TV apparatus company TELEFUNKEN, another Berlin-Kreuzberg native.
After AUER-Gesellschaft was taken over by the “Arian” Degussa company (its owner, Leopold Koppel, might have been a generous supporter of many German scientific bodies and an excellent manager but he was also a Jew), its Berlin plant began increased production of military equipment. Gas masks and carbon monoxide detectors became their regular output (along the company´s uranium sheets and cubes for the so called Uranium machine or simply “nuclear reactor” – more about this chapter in their history here).
So some time in 1941 or 1942 my Tin left the production line and was ready to serve the Vaterland on the fronts of WW2. And after accompanying its owner through the land and the sees, it came back almost right where it came from: the relief sign on the small metal Schild attached to it says “Berlin O17”. I checked the old post code.
The Tin was made at the main AUER-Gesellschaft factory in Berlin-Friedrichshain in Rotherstrasse – at the old OSRAM light-bulb factory complex. And the funny thing is that when I brought the Tin back to Berlin I lived exactly 1.04343 km away from its birthplace. Right on the other side of the river Spree.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But I guess the Tin is here to stay.