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.
Wherever he went during his 1937 trip through Germany – and Berlin in particular- the Norwegian engineer Thomas Neumann always kept his Leica camera ready. He knew the city quite well: he lived and worked here from 1928 until 1933. Now, happy to be back, he sauntered through central Berlin, taking photos of the swastika-filled cityscape.
Only few of his photographs are free from visible Nazi symbols – which in itself reflects the atmosphere in the city pretty accurately. This is one of them. The scene captured by Neumann at the Zeughaus (today the seat of the German Historic Museum) on the corner of Unter den Linden and the street Hinter dem Gießhaus, is stunningly peaceful and dynamic at the same time. The colours are beautifully understated but clear. And the fruit vendor’s cart loaded with bananas and oranges invites the passers-by to “Eat more fruit” to “stay healthy”. Ironically Germany had already entered the most unhealthy period in its own and the world’s history, but the people in this picture as well as nearly everyone around them were still happily unaware of the approaching end of their world.
For his Leica Thomas Neumann chose a fairly new product offered by a German manufacturer, the Agfacolor Neu film first released one the market a year before. Until 1932 Agfacolor products were sold under the name Agfa, a company established – you guessed it – in Berlin. But that is not the only “small revelation” concerning Agfa (between 1873 and 1897 it was still known under its original name, Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation – later replaced by its acronym). Established by two entrepreneurs whose paths crossed in the Berlin university chemistry lab, Carl Martius and Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. From the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys – the descendants of the philosopher and great promotor of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), Moses Mendelssohn, who arrived in Berlin as an impoverished teenager on foot and was refused entry at the southernmost city gate known as Hallesches Tor (at the time Jews were banned from using any other city gates but the northern Rosenthaler Tor).
Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was not only Moses’ great-grandson. His father was none other than Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, musician and composer enjoying world fame and undying devotion of many fans until this day. After Felix’s early death at 38, followed by that of his beloved wife,Cécile Sophie Jeanrenaud (she sadly died of tuberculosis at 35), Paul – born and bred Leipziger – lived in Berlin at his uncle’s house in Französische Straße. His passion for chemistry was at the root of the future world-famous brand.
That passion also helped Thomas Neumann capture this incredible, cinematic moment in Berlin’s life in the spring of 1937. Without Agfacolor neu film (soon to become the favourite for big Hollywood productions such as Gone With The Wind – many of you might have noticed the resemblance already), the photos made by the Norwegian engineer might have lacked that gentle breath of life.
You can learn more about the history of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, of Agfa and their breakthrough products (one of which is the longest used photography material in history) reading my Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit” – as always, about everything you never even knew you wanted to know about Berlin. The text about Agfa (in German) is available here: Farbfilm ab 1893: Mit der Berliner Agfa zum scharfen Bild (tagesspiegel.de)
On the hottest day of 2022 mercury levels in Berlin’s thermometers hit 37.5°C. That was the official reading. The unofficial ones – as in many places in the city the temperatures exceeded the latter – had both guests and residents perspire profusely and gasp for air in sizzling desperation. And by the look of it, with our climate spinning even further out of control, this year we are likely break that record.
What you need to survive such scorchers are, first and foremost, water plus protective headgear. The latter has, however, one significant disadvantage: most hats tend to develop sub-tropical conditions inside the crown. You sweat, you suffer and eventually you use the hat to fan yourself with in order to cool down the overheated scalp. But what if your headgear cannot be used for that purpose? If you cannot take it off or if frantic flapping fails to produce the desired cooling effect? A Berlin inventor, convinced he had solved that problem, applied for a patent as early as in 1878.
In the 1870s no respectable person ventured into the public space bareheaded. Only children and the poor would have been seen with no hat or bonnet in the streets. However, although a covered head might have been a marker of one’s social standing (those who could afford a hat, made sure to wear it) but, from the practical point of view, it could also be a blessing and a curse. While ladies’ hats tended to be rather “airy”, providing a tad more ventilation to the often highly decorative (and it itself rather tricky in the heat) hairdos, men’s hats caused their wearers’ scalps to swelter and sweat. The greatest culprit among those headpieces was at the same time the then sacred symbol of Prussian militarism: the Pickelhaube. Its wearers, clad in thick uniforms and marching up and down Berlin’s exercise fields, often ended up feeling unwell und even collapsing. The spring and autumn army manoeuvres on the Tempelhofer Feld (former site of the Tempelhof airport, where the largest Berlin park spreads today) were nothing for the weak-hearted…
According to Berlin’s 1879 address directory, potential help was to come from Admiralsstraße 15 in today’s Kreuzberg. The neighbourhood where Herr Niemann lived and worked, a stone’s throw from Kottbusser Tor, was also in a walking distance from several famous army barracks. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the engineer saw a sound business opportunity in his venture. Selling a functioning Pickelhaube ventilation system, or what Niemann described as Ventilationseinrichtung für Kopfbedeckung, to the Prussian military would have set him up for a lifetime. It is equally possible that Herr Niemann, professionally active in the field of ventilation anyway (sadly, History largely ignored the undoubtedly fascinating life of Gustav Niemann) simply wished to alleviate the pain of all profusely and uncontrollably sweating hat-wearers.
His invention was meant to offer relief in that air would be able better to circulate between the inside of the hat’s crown and the outside world. A small wind wheel or turbine – with ten wings made of a “light yet sturdy material” – was to be installed on top of the crown. The leather sweatband – which every Pickelhaube was fitted with to make it sit on the head firmly – was to have small, approximately 1-centimetre wide sections carved out at regular intervals to create small openings. The leather sweatband would be held together by a cleverly inserted wiring. According to Herr Niemann’s computations, the rotating wind wheel inside the hat would have helped transport the “perspiratory vapours” outside, thus preventing draught inside the hat, “conserving” one’s hair and helping keep rheumatism, nausea and sunstroke at bay. As to whether it produced the desired effects, the patent offers no answers. The press, too, failed to report any potential triumphs.
Six months later two other gentlemen, Herr Block and Herr Günther, applied for a patent of their own. Registered under the number 6073 in the same category, it safeguarded the inventors’ rights to a “Sponge wreath – where but several drops of Schnaps [for soaking the sponge with, author believes] would be enough to lower the temperature through alcohol’s evaporation”. Did the sponge and the Schnaps help? Alas, yet again our curiosity must remain unfed and doubting. However, the Schnaps – in whichever form it might have been applied – was guaranteed to bring light, if temporary, relief to the sufferers.
And today? A quick search in the EPO (European Patent Office) databank shows that the exhausting race of human kind against the sweaty scalp has not been decided yet. However, with the next scorcher ante portas and no reliably functioning hat-ventilation in sight, remember: a glass of cold beer, enjoyed in the shade while fanning yourself with a just-read, folded newspaper is a perfectly reasonable alternative. And it’s completely patent-free.
Running a blog is a wonderful but time-consuming job, one that requires plenty of reading, plenty of writing and even more research and double-checking. If you have enjoyed reading this post and like what you find on kreuzberged.com, a website for all Berliners and Berlin fans worldwide, please consider making a small donation or subscribing to access longer posts published especially for regular readers. It will help cover the costs of running the page and allow the author to focus on what she does best: digging for fascinating stories in Berlin's past and present to share them with you.