Building in Neue Schönhauser Straße 13 around 1892 (from “Blätter für Architektur und Kunstwerk”, December 1892; image via Zentrale Landesbibliothek Berlin).

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.

Ladies reading room at the Volks-Lesehalle in Neue Schönhauser Straße with (most probably) Bona Peiser – as the lay wearing specs – among the guests. Image via Ireck Lidzbarski at Flickr).

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.

Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.
Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.

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).

Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstrasse 11 (today Lobeckstrasse). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small "Siedlung" (group of smallish blocks of flats).
Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstraße 11 (today Lobeckstraße). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small Siedlung (group of smallish blocks of flats).

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.

berlin 19 03 1911 women marching

The photo above was taken on March 19, 1911 in Berlin, on the eastern side of the Garnisonskirche in Berlin-Kreuzberg, at a roundabout known today as Südstern.

The marching women belong to a group of nearly 45,000 who joined one of the 42 official rallies (not counting the spontaneous ones) organised by Berlin’s trade unions together with the German Social-Democratic Party – with Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz (first female in a leading party position in Germany as well as the first female member of the 1919 Reichstag) as their main female leaders. By 1911 as many as 107,693 women had joined the SPD.

On March 8, 1914 the International Women’s Day was celebrated in Berlin for the fourth time. However, the date was not so much symbolic as a matter of convenience: March 8 was a Sunday that year. The rallies and marches had one main goal: general suffrage for all adult German women. It would take another four years and a war as well as the Kaiser’s abdication for women to be granted the right to vote. It happened on November 12, 1918.

Although celebrated in Europe and North America since the beginning of the twentieth century, March 8th did not become an official holiday until 1975 when the United Nations proclaimed it as one. The date the 8th of March commemorates several historical events which led to that proclamation: firstly, the New York garment workers’ march in 1908, when 15,000 female (but not only) sweatshop employees came together on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, to demand better working conditions as well as salaries which would guarantee them decent and dignified life.

Nine years later on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar observed at the time in Russia) another group of textile workers – approximately 15,000 women – took to the streets of Petrograd (now Sankt Petersburg), the capital of the Russian Empire, demanding “Bread and Peace”. Seven days later, the Russian Tsar abdicated and women were given the right to vote. Afterwards the day, March 8th, was celebrated in Russia as Women’s Day.

The 1917 strike in Petrograd. (photographer unknown, image PD).

In Germany of the 1930s and early 1940s, International Women’s Day – too socialist and too feminist in the eyes of the Nazis – was replaced by the Muttertag, Mother’s Day, clearly showing the world what role the German Woman was supposed to fulfill. Hitler himself made a point of instilling in women the “right” sense of their role within the new order: “The term ‘women’s emancipation’ is nothing but a product of a Jewish mind.”

Women whose sons died on battlefields and/or whose daughters proved themselves in the Geburtenschlacht (Battle of Births), or who – alternatively – produced a particularly high number of new Reichsbürger themselves, received medals, known as Mutterkreuze (reference to the Iron Cross given to their “heroic” men). So even though Muttertag was not sensu stricto a Nazi invention – it was called to life in 1923 by the Association of German Flower Sellers – it became synonymous with Nazi propaganda and their national politics.

Interestingly, after 1945 the divided “Germanys” went in two different directions in this respect, too: while in West Germany the Western Allies, especially the US forces, promoted the celebrating of the Muttertag again, East Germany – like all other Eastern Bloc countries – rejected it as a Nazi tradition and chose to celebrate exclusively the International Women’s Day instead.

For those who grew up in the DDR or the PPR (Polish People’s Republic), March 8 and the International Women’s Day are bound to bring up some of the best (and the worst) memories.

Those might have been only perfunctory celebrations – full of wilting carnations, sweet wine, cheap pralines and extra coupons for a pair of new tights (like with meat, butter, oil and flour, there was also a great shortage of those) – but it is hard not to think that in many ways, we were closer to women like Zietz, Zetkin, or Luxemburg then than we are today.

According to Karl Scheffler – and what must be the most often used Berlin quotation ever – Germany’s capital is “dazu verdammt, immerfort zu werden und niemals zu sein” (cursed never to be and forever to become).
Scheffler famously voiced this opinion in his 1910 book “Berlin- ein Stadtschicksal” and it was by no means meant as praise. Like the rest of the book, it reflected the paradox of the author’s relationship with the city. He loved it and he hated it at once. One could say, a conundrum faced by every Berliner before or after Scheffler.
Probably never before was Berlin’s typically unfinished, unready condition more visible than today. Modern digital technologies allow people like us to follow its permanent state of flux almost in real time broadcast. And never are those changes as striking as when you compare images from only a short while ago with its today’s look.
The ‘Berliner Zeitung’ has just published several Google Street-View images from only ten years ago juxtaposing them against photos of the same Berlin vistas today. The pace at which this city has been changing truly matches that of our time. Which might not be as much of a blessing as it is Scheffler’s curse.
Click the image to enter.
berliner zeitung cipping 1.03

(poster image by Museum für Kommunikation).

The latest results of research into our nightlife behaviour are merciless: around 40% of all Europeans, children included, do not get enough night rest. Living in a world where both light and sound are nearly omnipresent (just think of that glowing little screen you might be reading this on), we are on the best way towards un-learning how to sleep.

Also we tend to forget that night is everything else as just another well-illuminated time of the day. Something we notice very quickly when suddenly located in

a place where the night still is pitch-dark, dead silent and ominously empty of other human beings carrying glowing smartphones in their hands, like Brandenburgian forests or historical villages in Derbyshire (my warmest greetings to Sudbury!).

That is why it might be helpful to remind ourselves what Night is and should be about. And what it used to be for people for a better part of our existence. The latest exhibition at Berlin’s Museum for Communication is a very interesting place to begin.

Berlin’s Museum für Kommunikation in Leipziger Straße (image by notmsparker).

Called Die Nacht – Alles außer Schlaf (”The Night: Everything But Sleep”) it shows the time between dusk and dawn as a space in which we rest (if capable of resting), work, enjoy various forms of entertainment (and since this is Berlin, clubbing plays a huge role) as well as one where our fears tend to take on particularly acute forms (be ready to face Nosferatu again).

It also presents our weapons against the latter: the exhibition shows how both Science and Art have been used to understand and disarm those fears. Wonderful maps of night sky and night-sky globes, which you will find in the Sternenklar (Clear as Stars) section, were not only meant as scientific tools, they were also supposed to reassure us: “Look, it is all science. Nothing to be afraid of.”

Die Nacht und Ihre Kinder Schlaf und Tod by Adolf Senff (property of Staatlicher Museen zu Berlin, photo by Karin März).

Art, on the other hand, represented by, among others, a beautiful 1822 painting by Adolf Senff, “The Night with Her Children, Sleep and Death”, tried to bring more peace into people’s minds by showing the Night as a gentle mother, someone who would make sure you rest when you need it the most (including its ultimate form when we die).

But what about those who cannot sleep, either because they may not or because they don not wish to? The exhibition sheds light onto their nights, too. Night-shift workers, prostitutes (not without a reason known as the “Ladies of the Night”) or the homeless – whose rest is disrupted and might be the most perilous part of their life. They are an entirely different group from those whose nights are the time of frivolous abandon and fun.

In the 1920s, often referred the as the “Golden Twenties” (although in Berlin they were everything but that), German capital was a place that never slept. The latest TV series, Babylon Berlin, based on Volker Kutcher’s bestselling novel Nasser Fisch, shows that very clearly: nights in the city were filled with cabarets, clubs, dancing, alcohol and drugs. Die Nacht: Alles außer Schlaf exhibition makes an elegant and clever reference to that in its section “Zwilicht. Salon, Bordstein, Club” (Twilight. Salon, Street Curb, Club).

Objects from the Die Nacht: Alles außer Schlaf exhibition (image by notmsparker)

You enter a room appearing to be literally breathing pink plush, fringes, sequins and beads and you do not want to leave it until somebody passed you a dry martini and a cigar. Surrounded by feather fans, perfume bottles and table-telephones from long-forgotten Berlin Etablissements (Museum for Communication has an original table-phone from the legendary “Ballhaus Resi” on display), you do understand the urge to celebrate the night instead of sleeping through it.

However, the next section, devoted to the Night as work time is a clear wake-up call. Not even the exquisite objects displayed in that room – neither a miniature replica of a Junkers F13 aeroplane used to transport mail between German and European cities at night and a machine which flew at night from NYC to Chicago in 1923, nor a map of all Baltic Sea lighthouses along the Pomeranian coast and not even the original 1930s map of night-train lines in Germany – could convince anyone that working when others sleep could be considered a dream job.

Photo for an audio-walk accompanying the exhibition (image via MfK).

Even though the exhibition, arranged as an enfilade leading you slowly through the museum’s rooms, is not particularly large (a blessing in disguise, really, since – considering the topic – anything bigger would run the risk of being too exhausting), by the time you have reached the end, you get a sense of having learnt something. You cannot put your finger on it, describe it in hard, solid terms but you feel that there are some things you might have to sleep on that night.

Die Nacht: Alles außer Schlaf at Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Straße 16 (corner Mauerstraße), Berlin.

Opening hours and prices here. A separate “museum trail” for children available (“BeGEISTert”) – details here (in German).

To find out more about the exhibition visit the following page (in English).