Ella Fitzgerald described her as „the best singer without a voice“. Her mother pronounced her “talent-free”. And during her test performance at the State Film School in Babelsberg her typical Berlinerisch pronunciation and the habit of swallowing word-endings made the examiners cringe. Yet despite all those apparent shortcomings, Hildegard Knef, who never claimed to be a talent or a beauty, became a head-turner, a star and a legend. And not only in Berlin.
The longest of Berlin’s nearly 10,000 streets is Adlergestell: it stretches over 11.4 kilometres through the borough of Treptow-Köpenick. But where do you find the shortest? Well, that depends. On where you stand in your of appreciation of replicas.
If you are one of those people whose sense of aesthetic justice screams: “Nothing but the original!”, then look south towards Alt Mariendorf (a locality within the District of Tempelhof) – by these standards, the title of the Berlin’s shortest street should belong to their 19-metre long Pohligstraße. A little, pardon, stump of a road placed between Forddamm and Popperstraße.
If, however, you don’t mind a bit of solid make-believe and think that a replica is as good as the real thing (provided it traces the same lines), then you will find Berlin’s shortest street right in its middle: in Mitte. In Old Mitte, to be exact. Right next to the city’s oldest church, Nikolaikirche.
Eiergasse (Egg Lane) is but sixteen metres long but it was not always so short. In fact, it used to be almost twice as a long but the post-WW2 refurbishment of the historic plaza at its southern end – Molkenmarkt (Milk Market) – took a toll on Eiergasse’s dimensions.
The small medieval lane got its name from the tradition of placing egg-sellers’ stalls along its route. After in 1699 Elector Friedrich III (soon to become King Friedrich I) ordered that city markets be re-organised and set up anew following slightly more modern principles, like those of improved hygiene. But just as Molkenmarket kept its role as a “sales-point” for dairy products, so was Eiergasse allowed to keep its old, unbroken shell. Twice a week, always Wednesdays and Saturdays, farmers from around Berlin – but also local hen-holders – hurried to the small lane next to Nikolaikirche and offered their goods to hungry Berliners (eggs were one of the staples in their cuisine).
The lost Second World War brought an end to the historic district but the area was doomed whatever the war’s outcome would have been. The bombastic world-capital plans created by Albert Speer and his people for the Nazi Führer, the new über-city of Germania, had no need for the medieval. One of Berlin’s oldest neighbourhoods, inhabited for some 700 years and – admittedly – accordingly weathered, was to be demolished and replaced by an open-air museum presenting historic facades of other buildings torn down in other parts of the city to make space for Hitler’s new toy-town. For that purpose the church at its heart, Nikolaikirche, was promptly deconsecrated and since 1938 remains a profane building.
The war solved the problem of the open-air museum for good but what to do with whatever was left? After the ruins and the rubble had been removed, a new idea entered the stage: the now East Berlin authorities decided to include it in their planning for the future government centre around today’s Lustgarten and Marx-Engels-Forum. This “inclusion” would have meant turning the site into a Spree-basin, a river harbour for tourist boats operating along the river and the Spree Canal.
Like with everything in life, some plans are best left unfulfilled. A failure to succeed can be a blessing. Once more such failure saved Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel from irreparable damage. The government’s plans had to be adjusted to the lean DDR reality and the fact that perhaps no everyone thought the idea the best possible option.
And so, with a view towards celebrating the 750th birthday of Berlin (both East and West Berlin did it their own way), a new idea was born – to recreate what was lost. To rebuild the vanished quarters. To bring back what was gone forever. By that time it had become obvious that it would possible to combine the resurrection with East Berlin’s ambitious housing programme and that when realised, some 2,000 people could new homes in the new-old district.
The new Nikolaiviertel built within the silhouette respected its grid but is only vaguely a replica of the old. The pre-fab concrete residential buildings – often mocked for their being “painfully DDR” by those who forget that pre-fab concrete architecture was something their architect, Manfred Prasser, learnt how to design them in Paris from an eminent Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – stood the test of the public and the test of the time. Go for a walk through the narrow lanes on a quiet evening in May and you are almost certain to oversee the concrete and focus on the pleasant instead.
Turn into the new-old Eiergasse, Berlin’s shortest street, from Molkenmarkt and you are almost certain to feel that even a 1980s East German architecture can become a time-machine.
The terror did not begin in 1933. The Nazis brought to the surface and unleashed something that accompanied the life of the young German republic from the start. When we think of the 1920s in Berlin today, we mostly have two things in mind: the – by now almost proverbial – volcano on which people seemed to have been dancing in abandonment and with gusto, and the billion-mark banknotes used to paper the walls after the raging hyperinflation made money lose all of its old meaning.
Careful observers back then knew it: nothing good can come out of this brand new world where the few, wrapped in pricey fur-coats and silk, were pouring champagne into their throats while the many faced daily struggle not to go under – only to lose in the end. With still others, operating in the background to jam the world around them – even kicking and screaming – into the old mould.
The atmosphere in the streets of Berlin was raw. Fighting political groups clashed regularly, not even trying to attempt a dialogue or a negotiation. This was not how they learnt it. Auf die Fresse hauen (smack their gobs) was the only “dignified” reaction – it was easy as required no mental effort and spared the involved the difficult process of decision-making.
But this knee-jerk reaction present on all sides of all conflicts but mostly, of course, between the Communists and the Nazis, reflected a deep-seated problem that people like the pacifist and publicist Carl von Ossietzky or the journalist Gabrielle Tergit (the latter wrote about these clashes and their outcomes as the Berliner Tageblatt court reporter in the Criminal Court Berlin-Moabit) could see. It revealed a dangerous potential for violence simmering and coming slowly to boil right under the apparently smooth surface of – admittedly confusing and confused – social norms of the Weimar Republic.
Ossietzky was a pacifist. He declared himself an opponent to militarism and the typical Prussian worship of violent conflict early on. Which did not prevent him from being drafted during the First World War and being sent west. Like another self-confessed opponent of war, Kurt Tucholsky, whom he would later succeed as the editor-in-chief to the Weltbühne magazine. Their texts – Tucholsky’s full of wit and just the right amount of sarcasm and Ossietzky’s equally sharp anf filled with extremely apt comments on “the state of the nation” – contain words of warning that were promptly ignored by those they were meant to alert.
Early in the 1920s Ossietzky wrote: “Where men fail, a call for the One Man can be heard. Fascism, which in different places always presents itself in different cloaks but is invariably wrapped in new nationalist colours, shares one common feature whatever the country: the longing for a dictator. The listless nations search for one brain to do the thinking for them, for one back to carry the load on their behalf,” („Weltreaktion – Ihr Unsinn und ihr Sinn“, the Berliner Volks-Zeitung, 13 May 1923; translation own). That was ten years before the Nazis could claim uncontrolled power.
Carl von Ossietzky paid a high price for his steadfast rejection of violence, militarism and anti-Semitism (be it in words or in deeds). His far-sighted approach and unwavering will to warn others about possible consequences of not speaking up when speaking up was called for (as perhaps the only way available to some to help prevent the violence and terror that were spreading) had him first imprisoned and then sent to two concentration camps once the terror and the violence prevailed.
Ossietzky’s first sentence of eighteen months in the Tegel Prison in Berlin followed his decision as Die Weltbühne editor-in-chief: he supported and published a text by an engineer, Walter Kreiser, who revealed that despite the strict armament limitations put on Germany in the Versailles Treaty (numbers within the army, including air force, were to be kept at a bare-minimum level), behind the victors’ backs the military and reactionary forces within the Weimar Republic were busy creating a “new model army”. In this case, a new Luftwaffe.
The article explained the mechanism behind the trick and revealed the locations were the secret plan was being put into life. The article was signed by Hans Jäger which you can translate as “Hans Hunter” or “Hans Fighter” (like in an air force fighter). Needless to say, Die Weltbühne publication rubbed many (openly and secretly) uniformed backs up the wrong way. As the man in charge of the magazine, Ossietzky was pronounced guilty of revealing national military secrets and thus threatening national security and was duly punished. Kreiser fled to France.
Upon Ossietzky’s arrival at the Tegel Prison crowds of supporters who had gathered before the gaol openly showed their loyalty. He never took the advice given to him by friends and foes to leave Germany and go somewhere where he would be less present in German politics, like Switzerland.
His last chance of a pardon by President Hidenburg was not taken either. On the contrary, Ossietzky, who already in 1927 defined the elderly statesman as a “Venerable Zero”, kept up his criticism of the weathered general and politician who by that time had turned into a fossilized legend.
Carl von Ossietzky was released in December 1932 but it was the Germany he was feared could happen that he was released into. Only two months later, in February 1933, and just days before the ultimate Nazi victory – the claiming of the state power – von Ossietzky was arrested again. This time, however, he was sent to a new kind of prison: a concentration camp Sonnenburg near Küstrin. A year later, together with other prominent prisoners – like Social-Democrats Julius Leber, Theodor Haubach and Friedrich Ebert (son of the first president of the German Republic) – Die Weltbühne editor found himself in the KZ Esterwegen (KZ stands for Konzentration Lager or concentration camp) at the German-Dutch border.
In Esterwegen, a notorious place on wide-spreading Eifel moors (the drying of which was the prisoners’ task and torture), his path crossed with that of one of the best German cabaret artists of the time, Werner Finck. Finck described their first encounter as a proof of Ossietzky’s wit and humour: even though he was gravely ill and bed-ridden at the local “hospital ward” (the chalkboard sign above his head read “Kollaps”), Ossietzky greeted Finck with the words, “I never even dreamt that one day the two us will be in the same camp again…” (Lager stands for both a camp as a place and as a group of like-minded people). Finck was both touched and impressed – the man before him was, after all, wasting away. A rumour had it (one repeated after the war by at least one of the man’s fellow-prisoners) that Ossietzky was free game and meant never to leave the KZ alive – he was said to have been injected with myobacterium tuberculosis…
In 1936, shortly before the Berlin Olympics, Carl von Ossietzky was released from Esterwegen and brought to a military hospital in Berlin-Spandau. The Nobel Prize Committee finally responded to appeals to help save him by awarding the renown pacifist with the Peace Nobel Prize and announced that the 1935 award (none was given the year before) would go to Germany. Along with the money that the winner was entitled to (money soon squandered by a crooked accountant hired by the unsuspecting Maud Ossietzky, Carl’s English wife). By the way, Carl von Ossietzky was the last German Nobel Prize winner 1936-1945: Hitler ordered that no Germans needed be considered as candidates.
Ossietzky’s active TB meant he was in need of specialised health care and the choice fell upon a private TB clinic in the north of the city – Krankenhaus-Nordend ran in Berlin-Niederschönhausen by Dr Dosquet. This is where two years later, despite excellent care and the loving presence of his wife (they shared Carl’s small and, following Dr Dosquet’s orders, quite chilly clinic room for the whole length of his stay there), Carl von Ossietzky would die on May 4, 1938. Killed by the disease and by the violence and torture he had been exposed to during his time in the Nazi KZ. A year later another world war broke out.
On January 1st, 1895 in the house No. 13 in Neue Schönhauser Straße in Berlin-Mitte a group of invited guests and accidental passers-by celebrated the opening of the first public reading rooms in Berlin. The city had several public libraries, the first four of which opened in 1850, but these were largely located in high school buildings and rarely used by the working-class people.
T’was but a tiny venue – two rooms leased inside the Volks-Kaffee und Speise-Halle (People’s Coffee-house and Canteen) offered only eighty 80 seats but considering that Berlin had never offered such services before (at least not to the general public), eighty were plenty, indeed. The remaining rooms were places were the poor were offered food and non-alcoholic beverages at reasonably low prices.
The library in Neue Schönhauser Straße was a brain-child of two devoted readers and librarians: of Ernst Jeep, a man of many books working at the Royal Library, and Bona Peiser, the first professional female librarian in Germany. After spending several years in Great Britain, in Manchester, Peiser not only learnt from the best how properly organised reading rooms should operate but she also developed a deep wish to establish one in her home-town of Berlin.
And she went about it with both heart and skills. So much so, in fact, that she soon began to educate a new generation of female Prussian librarians and continued to do so for the rest of her life.
And, if the new municipal Lesehalle was anything to go by, they would be badly needed. Within just the first year of its opening the reading rooms attracted as many as 50,000 visitors. With the opening hours of 6PM – 10PM Monday to Friday (from 1897 on additional three hours were added between noon and 3PM) and 9.30AM – 1PM plus 5PM – 10PM on Sundays, it meant that 122 readers entered the rooms each week-day. On Sundays that number went up by over one hundred.
By the end of 1895 the place offered access to 3,500 books as well as 53 magazines and 43 newspapers. An incredible improvement, especially for those who due to their precarious economic position would have been prevented from reading literature and/or following the news. Something that in developed countries today sounds quite unimaginable (think of all those hashtags, memes and headlines we drown in these days) but which is bitter reality for those countries which had less luck. And something that Bona Peiser considered to be a serious problem: a social rise could not occur unless proper education were offered. With reading being its indispensable part.
Such was public interest in reading, in fact, that soon afterwards the reading rooms had to move: first to Alte Jakobstraße in Kreuzbeg and then to Köpenicker Straße 79 in Mitte (the building is still standing) and, eventually, to Rungestraße – where you will find a memorial plaque for Bona Peiser. At the same time, by 1900 four new municipal reading rooms opened in Berlin. Fourteen years later, when the First World War broke out, there were 13 of them altogether.
Bona Peiser, who in 1895 also became the head of the VWB library (VWB stood for Verband für Weibliche Angestellte or the Female Salaried-Employee Society) continued her work running public libraries and educating new librarians for the rest of her life. True to herself and the nature of her profession, she never sought limelight or attention. On the contrary, only one photo of Peiser is believed to exist. When she died in March 1929 few people were aware of the loss and with time her name came to fade away even more.
That’s why naming a small public library in Oranienstraße 72 was a very positive gesture. The library was not far from Brandenburgstraße 11 (now Lobeckstraße), the place where she lived for 54 years until her death (Peiser was born in Ausgustraße 73 on the edge of Berlin’s old Jewish district, Scheunenviertel).
So was the naming of a small street off Köpenicker Straße close to Schillingbrücke after Berlin’s benefactress. Still, her grave at the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee (the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe) is long overgrown with ivy and almost impossible to find. Unless you, like yours truly, are lucky and find it per chance while exploring this incredible, historic burial site (the cemetery management will also provide you with the “exact position” of the grave but do bring an extra hour or two for even with a map, the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee remains a riddle).
Die öffentliche Bibliothek muss jederzeit für jedermann unentgeltlich offenstehen (“Public libraries must be always free and open to everyone”), said Bona Peiser. Unfortunately – and somewhat ironically – the public library named in her honour had to close down. As a saving measure for the city of Berlin. As a small comfort, its follower – a public charity organisation with focus on neighbourhood projects in Kreuzberg – retained the name of Bona Peiser on their sign.
Bona Peiser was born on this day, April 26, in 1864. Exactly 155 years ago today.