Leipziger Straße No. 30-31 photographed in 1880 (image: author NN, possibly FA Schwartz; in public domain).

“Leipziger Straße, now Berlin’s best shopping address, perfectly worldly and in the evening – with its pearl-necklace of electric street-lights – a picture to behold, made in the 1880s a rather provincial impression: unadorned houses with one of two storeys (…) Only a couple of small stores – some might still remember the early days of Wertheim in a small cottage on the corner of Mauerstraße. On both sides of the road filthy gutters covered with wooden planks before each house entrance and in the evening yellow flickering gas-lights.”

From Adolf Heilborn’s Die Reise nach Berlin, 1921

Hans Baluschek "Morgengrauen" (Stadtmuseum Berlin)
Hans Baluschek “Morgengrauen” (from the collection of Stadtmuseum Berlin)

The title of this 1930 painting by Hans Baluschek can be translated either as „At dawn“ or as “Morning Horrors”. It is one of the most moving documents of the era that came to be known as the Golden Twenties.

Die Goldene Zwanziger in Berlin, commonly understood as the time of endless fun, reckless abandon and testing the limits, were in fact one of the darkest chapters in city’s history. The 1920s saw the deepest financial crisis in the country’s history: the costs of the First World War followed by the crushing weight of war reparations which Germany had to pay in its aftermath destabilised its economy.

On top of that, the heavy industry as well as all other branches feeding the German war machine were gone. So were millions of men who were the only family providers. Suddenly deprived of their husbands, fathers and sons women were forced to seek other ways of supporting the families – of feeding their children and themselves. Born and bred as housewives or contributing to the family budget mostly by performing menial jobs, this unqualified army of single mothers or impoverished wives and daughters faced the cruel choice between sinking or swimming.

With a terrifyingly high number of suicides or even extended suicides (where mothers killed their children before killing themselves) reported daily by Berlin newspapers and with hardly any chance of finding a so-called “decent” job if not young, childless and unmarried, many women resorted to prostitution to survive.

There is nothing golden about the Golden Twenties: they were reckless and fun for but a few. And this is what Hans Baluschek captured so perfectly in this painting: the fat cigar in the man’s hand, his elegant coat and hat speak of money and comfort in life. While the pretty young woman’s face bears a slightly frightened and resigned expression of someone who knows there is no other way. These women’s lives were neither reckless, nor fun…

The painting was part of the 1920s Berlin exhibition organised in 2015 go by Stadtmuseum Berlin and entitled “Tanz auf dem Vulkan” (Dancing on a Volcano).

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.

“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.

Hans Baluschek “Sommernacht”, 1929 (now in the collection of Berlinische Galerie, Berlin-Kreuzberg)

And I am thinking about how each return to Berlin made my heart beat faster. How blessed I felt as a child when after four weeks of holidays I finally saw from the train the tall buildings of Berlin’s East, the tenements. Yes, the grey tenements of my hometown, Berlin.

Or when, as a grown-up man, I had to keep my lips from trembling each time I came back from foreign lands after long months of absence. How tears rolled down my face when in December 1918 – having fled the bloody killing, that whole misery and chaos – I returned from France and saw the first houses of Berlin, at night, by moonlight.

From the introduction to Adolf Heilborn’s 1925 book Die Reise nach Berlin, first published in 1921 as a series of articles for the local newspaper, the “Berliner Morgenpost”. (Translation own)