Did you know that before it was named Großbeerenstraße (commemorating Prussian victory at the Battle of Großbeeren in the Wars of Liberation that Prussia fought with its allies against Napoleon), the now nearly 1.3 kilometre long street leading from the city centre to Viktoriapark in Berlin-Kreuzberg was called Monumentenstraße?
Completed in 1864 (the reason why you cannot find it – together with Yorckstraße or Gneisenaustraße – on the 1846 map above), the new road was first given a label commemorating as well as serving as a direction to the by then famous National Memorial to the Wars of Liberation installed on top of the old Weinberg (Wine Hill) in 1821.
However, not long afterwards that label changed hands: a bit of castling took place on the chessboard known as Tempelhofer Vorstadt (a district to which the area belonged), and the name Monumentenstraße was passed onto another road – the one leading to the Nationaldenkmal from the west.
By the time Viktoriapark was built (albeit only one – eastern – half of it as the western one would have to wait until the First World War), the streets around it had all been named after famous battles or military leaders in the wars against Napoleon. Well, almost all: Kleine Parkstraße – a 100-metre long street connecting Kreuzbergstraße with the park and the no-longer exisiting popular café – took its name from the enchanting, leafy recreation grounds named after the daughter of British Empress Victoria – Prussian Kaiserin Victoria.
If you want to learn more about the history of this fascinating and still very much beautiful Berlin-Kreuzberg district, you might enjoy a little audio-tour created by yours truly for her favourite walking itinerary in her old neighbourhood: the GPS-controlled audio-tour (with a GPS on you don’t have to do anything else but walk) is available via Voicemaps and can be downloaded to listen during a leisurely stroll.
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.
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.
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.
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