“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.
To German Kaiser, Wilhelm I, the year 1878 was what the year 1992 was to be to British Queen Elisabeth II: annus horribilis. Between May and June two people tried to assassinate the monarch on two different occasions. Luckily for him, both attempts proved to be unsuccessful. However, whilst first time round no harm was done whatsoever, the second attempt left the 81-year-old Wilhelm incapacitated for months. In fact, had it not been for his thick military coat and his headwear – the typical Prussian Pickelhaube, or a hard-leather military helmet with a spike on top – he would not have made it at all.
The trigger was pulled on May 11, 1878 by one Max Hödel, a 23-year-old plumber apprentice and alleged anarchist. The young man who attempted to kill the 81-year-old monarch, but failed to hit either him or the Kaiser’s daughter travelling with her royal father in their coach, became promptly stamped-off as a mental case and locked up at the city prison, the Stadtvogtei, on Molkenmarkt (Berlin’s U-Bahn station “Hausvogtei”, by the way, is named after an older city prison which stood on the northern edge of the plaza).
Charged with high treason, Hödel got sentenced to death only two months later. He was to be beheaded (traditional punishment for high treason back then) at Moabit prison on August 16th, 1878. For his executioner, Julius Krautz, who went on to become the most famous Berlin Scharfrichter (the later traditional executioner’s garb comprising a black tailcoat, white gloves and a top-hat was his invention), it was the very first job in his new role as a headman. Performing well was, therefore, paramount but Krautz faced a seemingly unusual problem.
Krautz, still new to the decapitation business, did not have his own executioner’s axe yet. Berlin’s prisons were unable to provide one either – the last beheading was already a while ago. The solution was a masterpiece of resourceful thinking: the state borrowed the executioner’s axe from the local museum.
The tool displayed at Berlin’s Märkisches Provinzialmuseum (today Märkisches Museum, Berlin History Museum) was a 1:1 replica of that used by famous German headsman, Friedrich Wilhelm Reindel, from Magdeburg (Reidel sold his axe, beheading block and sword to the Berlin museum but his son, also int he decapitation business, bought the said axe back). On August 15th the replica was pulled out of the wooden block it was fixed in, sharpened and together with the beheading block transported to Moabit.
After Herr Krautz did his duty and poor Max Hödel’s head rolled as it was meant to roll, both the axe and the massive wooden block were returned to the museum and, as if nothing had happened, put where they used to stand before.
After in 1908, Märkisches Museum moved from Palais Podewils in Klosterstraße to its beautiful, new, mock-gothic building in Am Köllnischem Park, both objects moved along with the rest of the collection. And this is where you will still find them today, 143 years later. However, they can no longer be rented…
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.