“Some hundred and twenty Jewish refugees from the East lived in that lodging house. Many of the men were soldiers who’d just returned from Russian captivity. Their clothes were a grotesque melange of Rag-Internationale. In their eyes thousand years of suffering. Women were there, too. Carrying their children on their backs like bundles of dirty linen. And the children, crawling through the rickety world on bowed legs, sucked on pieces of dry bread-crust.”Joseph Roth about the Lodging House “Center” in Grenadierstraße 40 corner Hirtenstraße 11 in October 1920. The lodging house stood in what used to be Berlin’s old Jewish district, Schuenenviertel (Barn District), partly demolished in 1905-1907 and further refurbished int he 1920s.
In only two days the Berlin Wall would have turned 60 years old. Would have as luckily for all of us the monster was slayed and the deep cut that ran through the city, the wound that hurt millions, could at last begin to heal.
The scars it left are slowly fading, too, but nothing ever goes away without a trace. For years I have been taking amateur photos of the places where they still could be found. One of them reminded me of a certain spot in Kreuzberg: right off Oranienplatz (where I was once priviledged to share a fantastic, history-laden co-working space with a group of kind and witty people). Right around the corner, down Dresdner Straße and towards Berlin-Mitte where the Wall used to run right through the middle of the street. Corner Sebastianstraße and Luckauer Straße at what is today Alfred-Döblin-Platz.
Several years ago, while construction works for a new residential building on that historic street junction in Kreuzberg were picking up the pace, workers unsealed old cellars of the nineteenth-century tenements which had stood there before the Second Generation of the Berlin Wall was erected. As the wonderful photo by Willy Pragher taken on June 9, 1965 shows, the houses were still there when the First Generation Wall was built (Berlin Wall went through several stages of evolution and this image presents the early one).
Demolished somewhere around 1970 (the sources quote different dates but the most likely year is 1968), the buildings were not removed completely – the cellars remained. For years, after the Wall had been torn down, people walking down Luckauer Straße next to today’s Alfred-Döblin-Platz on hot summer days wondered about the strangely chilly draft sweeping their ankles as well as about the earthy, musty smell of the cellar in the air where no cellars could be. Several narrow gaps on the edge of the pavement where large stone steps typical of Berlin tenement entrance stairs led nowhere, proved the existence of the old basements which, contrary to everyone’s expectations, had not been filled.
The construction works I witnessed several years ago uncovered them again and brought to light what had remained buried for 56 years. It seems they had been used, at least parts of them, in the meantime, too: the tiles on the wall of one of the cellars were held by some sort of black foam that was neither nineteenth century nor pre-Berlin Wall. Perhaps the guards spent their time there? Or the place served some other Wall-related purpose? We will never know.
Within a week, maximum a fortnight, the old cellars were gone. It was a strangely satisfying feeling to be able to look into them after having known for years they were there, unreachable under the ground. They were another trace of Berlin’s past which had to go. But not all of it did. It never does.
Between 1961 and 1989 border crossing Heinrich-Heine-Straße joined/divided West Berlin and East Berlin. It was erected along Prinzenstraße in western Kreuzberg and former Neanderstraße in what used to be East-Berlin district of Mitte. The name “Neanderstraße” vanished in 1960 when on July 22 the street officially became Heinrich-Heine-Straße.
Interestingly, the change also applied to a section of Prinzenstraße between Sebastianstraße and Annenstraße – obviously to the one located in the Eastern Zone of the divided city. The name “Prinzenstraße” commemorated Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm who went on to become first King and the Kaiser Wilhelm I. A fact which caused some unease on the eastern side of the divide (the Hohenzollerns were high on the pet-hate list of the East German ruling party) and led to the aforementioned adjustment.
The photo above, taken by an amateur Berlin photographer, Roehrensee, in December 1989 shows the Kreuzberg side of the crossing seen from the island in the middle of the Moritzplatz where the photographer’s shadow points towards the east. But the crossing you see in the background was just a small section of the facility – its western entrance/exit as it was.
In between the latter and a similar arrangement on the opposite side of the crossing in East Berlin there lie a slalom of massive concrete blocks whose main purpose was to slow down the traffic and prevent anyone from gaining enough speed to endanger the security of the control point in both Prinzen and in Heinrich-Heine-Straße. Maximum speed within the border-crossing route was 10km/h.
This more or less standard precaution – not only between Kreuzberg and Mitte but on other border-crossings, too – proved to be lethally efficient. On April 17, 1962 Klaus Brueske, a 24-year-old lorry-driver from Berlin-Friedrichshain, and two of his friends, sped towards the border at 70km/h, trying to break through the border road-barriers in Heinrich-Heine-Straße in a truck loaded with gravel. Brueske, disillusioned with the situation in East Berlin and still mourning the loss of his job with the West Berlin engineering company, AEG (which he gave up after the Berlin Wall separated his home-district from his workplace), hoped to be able to reach West Berlin territory by simply going through the boom barriers put there into place.
The plan could have worked – the border was not as impermeable yet as it became later – and, in fact it, it did. But at the ultimate price. One of the border guards opened fire at the vehicle, shooting 14 times and hitting two of the three young men inside. The lorry came to a halt already in West Berlin, crashing heads-on against a wall in Prinzenstraße 34.
After all three escapees had been taken to Urban-Krankenhaus in Grimmstraße on the southern side of the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, where Karl Brüske was pronounced dead upon arrival. However, the cause of death were not the two bullets which hit his neck. It was asphyxia. Klaus Brueske died of suffocation, buried under the gravel he had earlier loaded onto the lorry. He was the 16th victim of the Berlin Wall – 16th person to die trying to leave the Eastern Sector of Berlin. The 16th Maueropfer, “the wall victim”.
Two years later another young man would attempt an escape on the same spot and using the same method. Although his escape was part of a drama and not of a plan. On December 25, 1965 27-year-old Heinz Schöneberger from West Germany was lethally wounded by a hand-gun bullet shot at him as the young man was only five metres away from the West Berlin territory.
He and his brother, driving a Ford Taunus hoped to be able to smuggle two East-German women out of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). The women, hidding under the front and the back seats, risked their lives as much as the Schöneberger brothers. It became terribly clear after the car had been stopped by the East German border control.
After ordering the brothers to step out of the car, the guards discovered one of the young women under the back seat. Not waiting for the handcuffs to be snapped around his wrists, Heinz Schöneberger jumped back into the vehicle, locked all doors from inside and sped towards the West Berlin side of the border. Unable to go faster – the concrete slalom route did its job just as expected – he stopped, sprang out of the car, in an attempt to sprint the remaining ten metres.
He died on the western side of the border.