Photo of “George Smiley” shot from the hip while travelling on an escalator at U-Bhf “Rotes Rathaus”, which – with 10 minutes to spare – I decided to explore a bit. The gentleman, who looked like a time-traveller among groups of Funktionswäsche1-clad tourists from Nordrhein-Westfalen or Baden-Württemberg and confused-looking guests from the Far East, headed briskly for the exit, with myself trailing him in the hope of catching him “on film”. Stood on the escalator behind the man, I discreetly pointed my smartphone up and hoped for the best – this was a “blind” picture. The stars aligned:-)

(Berlin, the plaza before Rotes Rathaus – Berlin City Hall – facing Alexanderplatz, with Fernsehturm on the left)

  1. Funktionswäsche: lit. activity underwear; in Germany it often stands for very a very practical, no-frills attitude to life, which might be considered a tad boring and a bit too streamlined for perfection by others. ↩︎

A small Jewish shop in Grenadierstraße (now Almstadtstraße) in the historic Scheunenviertel, 1933. Photo by P. Buch; Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0413-508 / P. Buch / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“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. There were women in that house, 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.

Until 1951 Almstadtstraße in Berlin-Mitte used to be called Grenadierstraße and belonged to one of Berlin’s poorest, by now vanished, districts called Scheunenviertel (the Barn District). The district – interwoven into many classics of Berlin film and literature – was traditionally inhabited by East-Europeans Jews fleeing both pogroms and the bitter poverty of the shtetls of today’s central and eastern Poland, western Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and parts of Romania which belonged to a region known as the Bukovina.

Georg Bartels’s photo of the Lodging House “Center”, the first address for many East-European Jews arriving in Berlin at the end end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

To most of them Berlin was a promise of a temporary home before they set off to the much more promising yet distant destination, the USA. Still, many chose or were forced to grow their new roots in the heart of the German capital. This is where the streets spoke, sang and whispered in Yiddish – the language they brought with them from home and one which made them feel part of a community. The community, made up chiefly of Polish Jews, centred around Grenadierstraße with its many stibbeleks (small houses of prayer, a Yiddish word from German Stube – a room), a ritual bath-house, schools and small shops offering products the inhabitants knew so well from home. “The ghetto with open doors” is how the Scheunenviertel and Grenadierstraße were often described. It was a world of its own.

Father with children on a street in Scheunenviertel in 1925; photo by Walter Giercke (scan of the cover of Eike Geisel’s book “Im Scheunenviertel”)

The street’s name, Grenadierstraße – as well as that of the parallel road, Dragonerstraße (now Max-Beer-Straße) – referred to the old military barracks which used to stretch nearby before the area became a mostly residential one.

But did you know that was not its original name? Before 1817 today’s Almstadtstraße was known as Verlorene Straße (Lost Street) or Verlorene Gasse (Lost Lane). The reason for it was the fact that in the eighteenth century when it was built, its northern end reached outside the populated area and beyond the city wall. Such “open-ended” streets, disappearing beyond the city gates in what was felt to have been a rather undecided, unruly manner, were often described as verloren, or “lost”. Another example would be today’s streets Am Friedrichshain and Kniprodestraße – before the Park Am Friedrichshain was created in the 1840s and gave the former its name, the road marked on Berlin maps as Verlohrener Weg, the Lost Road.

Almstadtstraße as “Verlorne Straße” in 1816.

Like Grenadierstraße once, it passed one of the old city gates, the Bernauer Tor, and carried on beyond the city limits. In the 1840s it became the only access road to the then new park. In 1880, when Berlin’s Jewish Community bought land in Weißensee, on the border to Berlin, to build a large Jewish cemetery, the road – whose extension to the north to Lichtenberger Weg (now Indira-Ghandi-Straße) had been planned but not yet realised – cut right through the Jewish cemetery. It, too, had an open end.

Berlin street with a fruit stand, 1937. By Thomas Neumann; collection of the National Archive of Norway. Image PD.

Wherever he went during his 1937 trip through Germany – and Berlin in particular- the Norwegian engineer Thomas Neumann always kept his Leica camera ready. He knew the city quite well: he lived and worked here from 1928 until 1933. Now, happy to be back, he sauntered through central Berlin, taking photos of the swastika-filled cityscape.

Only few of his photographs are free from visible Nazi symbols – which in itself reflects the atmosphere in the city pretty accurately. This is one of them. The scene captured by Neumann at the Zeughaus (today the seat of the German Historic Museum) on the corner of Unter den Linden and the street Hinter dem Gießhaus, is stunningly peaceful and dynamic at the same time. The colours are beautifully understated but clear. And the fruit vendor’s cart loaded with bananas and oranges invites the passers-by to “Eat more fruit” to “stay healthy”. Ironically Germany had already entered the most unhealthy period in its own and the world’s history, but the people in this picture as well as nearly everyone around them were still happily unaware of the approaching end of their world.

For his Leica Thomas Neumann chose a fairly new product offered by a German manufacturer, the Agfacolor Neu film first released one the market a year before. Until 1932 Agfacolor products were sold under the name Agfa, a company established – you guessed it – in Berlin. But that is not the only “small revelation” concerning Agfa (between 1873 and 1897 it was still known under its original name, Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation – later replaced by its acronym). Established by two entrepreneurs whose paths crossed in the Berlin university chemistry lab, Carl Martius and Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. From the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys – the descendants of the philosopher and great promotor of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), Moses Mendelssohn, who arrived in Berlin as an impoverished teenager on foot and was refused entry at the southernmost city gate known as Hallesches Tor (at the time Jews were banned from using any other city gates but the northern Rosenthaler Tor).

Agfacolor Neu 35-mm film and roll film, 1937. Image via Chemiepark Bitterfeld-Wolfen GmbH, CC 3.0 Licence

Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was not only Moses’ great-grandson. His father was none other than Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, musician and composer enjoying world fame and undying devotion of many fans until this day. After Felix’s early death at 38, followed by that of his beloved wife, Cécile Sophie Jeanrenaud (she sadly died of tuberculosis at 35), Paul – born and bred Leipziger – lived in Berlin at his uncle’s house in Französische Straße. His passion for chemistry was at the root of the future world-famous brand.

That passion also helped Thomas Neumann capture this incredible, cinematic moment in Berlin’s life in the spring of 1937. Without Agfacolor neu film (soon to become the favourite for big Hollywood productions such as Gone With The Wind – many of you might have noticed the resemblance already), the photos made by the Norwegian engineer might have lacked that gentle breath of life.

You can learn more about the history of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, of Agfa and their breakthrough products (one of which is the longest used photography material in history) reading my Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit” – as always, about everything you never even knew you wanted to know about Berlin. The text about Agfa (in German) is available here: Farbfilm ab 1893: Mit der Berliner Agfa zum scharfen Bild (

Lesser Ury, Bülowstraße am Hochbahn (1922) (image in public domain, via Manfred Heyde at Wikipedia).

Es ist ein Jammer*... Forget your flip-flops, picnic blankets and straw hats. It is wellies and umbrellas this summer in Berlin. While only last year the city was sizzling under merciless rays of unforgiving sun, begging for shade and cooling beverages, in July 2023 the city saw rainfalls of approximately 75 litres per one square metre – that’s over 20 litres more than the median. It is August now and the wet blanket has not been lifted yet. It’s raining cats and dogs.

Luckily, the city’s well-functioning system of stormwater mains, detention tanks and sewers – a system, which whilst still imperfect, has been protecting Berlin from deluge for the past 150 years and is being heavily modernised as we speak – came a long way from the days of knee-deep gutters and regular flooding. And Berlin used to see enough of the latter as it was.

Take the Panke. With winter slowly coming to an end and snow melting along the riverbed, the rather gentle little river arriving in Berlin from the north and mouthing at the Spree at Schiffbauerdamm, tended to lose its grip on itself. The 29-kilometre long Panke – one of Berlin’s six rivers (next to the Spree, the Dahme, the Havel, the Erpe and the Wuhle) – would turn wilder, and wider, and louder, and sooner or later would leave its regular bed, flooding the nearby areas. Elsewhere in the city the situation wasn’t much better. Every heavy outpour was a potential catastrophe. Since until the second half of the nineteenth century Berlin had no proper sewerage system to speak of and Berliners had to rely on pits, gutters and sluices, during heavy rains, most of the rainwater would have ended up sloshing down the streets and courtyards, washing up whatever unappetising matter the above contained straight under your feet.

Flooding in Yorckstraße after the heavy storms over Berlin in April 1904 (here, on the border between Kreuzberg and Schöneberg; elsewhere in the north of the city several buildings collapsed). For 10 Pfennig you could navigate the deluge sat on a horse-drawn cart.

As you can imagine, that was not only highly unpleasant – it was also potentially life-threatening (think typhoid or cholera). For that reason, Prussian physicians, engineers, and social reformers, like Rudolf Virchow and James Hobrecht – to mention just the two among hundreds, if not thousands – raised alarm: without a functioning, reliable sewer system Berlin would soon become a cesspit.

On top of suffering the consequences of rapid population boom without an infrastructure to match, quite a few Berliners also resorted to straightforward cheating. To save the costs of emptying their cesspits – which in often heavily overpopulated tenements would fill up quite fast – the night-pots and buckets were emptied into the up to one metre wide and some 60 cm deep street gutters before their house. Or straight into the river Spree. Plumpsklos (very basic wooden outhouses erected in the courtyards) were the most popular form of a toilet – in 1871, the year when Germany became an empire and King Wilhelm I turned into Kaiser Wilhelm I, this was the most common facility used by around one million Berliners. The city had only 16,000 water closets and in most of them the foul water drains ended either over street gutters or – yes, you have guessed it – over or in the Spree again.

Both, the authorities and the residents were quick to recognise the problem; however, planning and arriving at the solution took decades. Before that happened, among the usual disputes over costs and responsibilities, many plans had been rejected, including the one presented by Eduard Salomon, the architect of the Prussian Ostbahn – Eastern Railway – connecting Berlin and the East-Prussian cities of Königsberg and Eydthkuhnen.

Eventually, in 1873 the construction of the Berliner Kanalisation began. It took over twenty years to complete the system, but when it was ready, it was quite a thing. James Hobrecht’s Radialsystem, with Berlin divided into twelve sections where wastewater could be transported outside the city using a system of brickwork mains, drains, pumping stations and gravitation, was ingenious. The wastewater ended up on one of the Rieselfelder – or septic drain fields – created on the city’s own estates. The latter had been purchased by Berlin outside the city limits especially for that purpose. Seeing how well the system worked, the then independent municipalities and communities such as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg or Spandau followed suit and did the same. Hobrecht’s Radialsystem became known as the highly effective „Berlin System“ and was duly emulated by other cities abroad, like Cairo, Tokio and Moscow to name just a few.

The 1884 map of Hobrecht’s twelve Radialsysteme for Berlin (fromt he collection of Berliner Wasserbetriebe and Water Museum in Berlin-Friedrichshagen).

The generously designed and built mains and sewers – the city was, after all, expected to expand further – could also take in plenty of rainwater from heavy outpours. Next to the sewers transporting household or commercial wastewater, the network was also fitted with rainwater sewers, and later even with massive subterranean tanks for “temporary parking” of the stormwater that would otherwise threaten to flood the streets when the outpour was particularly heavy.

Today Berlin has over 3,300 km of rainwater canals – if you placed them in one line, they would reach Egyptian Luxor. And they are just one element of the system protecting Berlin from the yet again increasing number of floodings: add to it around 1,900 km of mixed sewers that serve that purpose, too. Those are usually the older canals built mostly in the city centre for, first and foremost, household wastewater, but serving as a kind of an emergency or back-up system in stormy weather. The problem is, these sewers cannot be made bigger, or longer, or wider – they were built under Mitte, or Moabit, or Kreuzberg and it is easy to imagine, how tricky subterranean construction in those areas is. It is quite full down there. And the need to find a solution becomes clear with every heavy rain hitting Berlin, when not only the streets and cellars get flooded but when passing under the railway viaducts becomes a risky venture. The internet is full of short videos showing stormwater deluge at Berlin’s U-Bahn stations. Or those showing tens of thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the Landwehrkanal – another practically annual occurrence, caused by contaminated stormwater flowing from the streets into the canal as well as by releasing contents of mixed sewers into the city’s bodies of water after a particularly heavy summer storms. Oxygen levels in the city canal plummet and the fish suffocate as a result.

Two waterworks employees manually cleaning the rainwater sewers under Hohenstaufenstraße in Berlin-Schöneberg, 1930). Image via Berliner Wasserbetriebe.

The answer to both problems are giant – humongous! – underground stormwater tanks, like the one built under one of Berlin’s most popular city parks, the Mauerpark. It can hold up to 7,500 m³ of stormwater. By 2026 another such facility, lovingly dubbed “Berlin’s largest rainwater butt” – the stormwater detention tank with the capacity of 17,000 m³, will take up its work. It will intercept the excess of stormwater from the district of Berlin-Mitte, preventing it from spilling into the river Spree instead. New concepts are being tested, too – like the one in Berlin-Grünau, in the residential estate known as “Quartier 52° Nord”, where rain- and stormwater falling onto the roofs and the pavements is re-directed into the large open basin. It doubles up as both a landscape feature (a pond) and a natural water-processing facility. The body in charge of rain- and stormwater management in the city, one whose purpose is help it become the Schwammstadt (Sponge-City) of the future, is Berliner Regenwasseragentur (Berlin Rain-Water Agency).

We have every reason to believe that Berlin will be able to deal with this challenge just like it did with similar challenges back in the 19th century. One thing is certain: Herr Virchow and Herr Hobrecht would have approved.    

*Es ist ein Jammer = It’s a crying shame

A shorter, German version of this text was published in my weekly Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit”.