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)
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. ↩︎
“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 demolishedin 1905-1907and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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