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)

Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt by Franz Skarbina, 1892.

In 1892 Franz Skarbina, one of Berlin’s leading nineteenth-century painters, captured a scene close to every Berliner’s heart: the city’s annual Christmas Market – an event as eagerly awaited and as important to the city’s tradition then as it is today when despite COVID-related restrictions duly vaccinated and carefully masked crowds flock to the few still open locations.

The Christmas Market painted by the artist eight years before the end of the nineteenth century was located in Berlin’s Lustgarten: in the background on the left you can see the western edge of the old Stadtschloß, the Royal City Palace, while the buildings on the right form the line of the soon-to-be-demolished Schloßfreiheit.

Schloßfreiheit was a small street which used to run along the city palace’s western front facade, separating it from the Cöllnischer Stadtgraben (now the Spreekanal). Built in 1672, it comprised ten buildings whose owners, having carried the exorbitant costs of constructing houses on very unstable, marshy grounds, enjoyed a series of financial privileges such as freedom from many forms of taxation practised in Berlin at the time. They were also free from obligation to put up royal troops at own costs -until first proper Kasernen (barracks) were built in the Prussian capital, providing accommodation to soldiers was one of the most hated, burdensome duties faced by Berliners. The very name of the street indicated its special status: Freiheit stands in German for “freedom”.

Schlossfreiheit and Berliner Stadtschloß after 1853: seen from Schloßbrücke (image via Stadtschloss-Berlin).

By the end of the nineteenth century this small but very central street, built by the order of the Great Elector who wished to see more life around the palace, became a permanent thorn in his distant Hohenzollern successor’s, Wilhelm’s II, side. The last Kaiser often complained about its unsightliness and its unfortunate location blocking the view from the palace towards Schinkel’s Bauakademie on the other side of the canal. Eventually and rather unsurprisingly, despite protests the tenacious emperor got his way. Demolished in 1892-1894 the street had to make room for Wilhelm’s tribute to his Grandpapa: to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Denkmal, a humongous memorial installed in honour of Wilhelm I.

As a side-note: the fact that this oversized melange of stone and bronze giants and endless collection of animal figures (Berliners referred to it as the Kleine Zoo von Wilhelm Zwo) obstructed the view just as much as the Schloßfreiheit did, did not seem to bother His Imperial Majesty much.

Christmas Market in Breite Straße, 1796 (by Schubert & Halle, from the digital collection of Stadtmuseum Berlin).

Lustgarten, a large plaza between the Royal Palace, the Berliner Dom and Altes Museum (flanking it from the north), was the site of Berlin’s largest Christmas Markets since 1873. Before that they traditionally took place in Breite Straße – a location used since approximately 1750 until Rudolph Hertzog, the owner of the vast department store in Breite Straße, complained about the market’s negative impact on his pre-Christmas profits. The very first ever recorded Christmas Market in Berlin opened, by the way, in 1530: it stretched between Petriplatz, Mühlendamm and today no longer existing Heilige-Geist-Straße. But mentions of Weynachts-Marckt (historic spelling) could be found in the city records of Cölln – one of the sister-cities that formed today’s Berlin – already in mid-fifteenth century.

Lustgarten in 1945 (image by Roy Skelly via Flickr Collection of Mr Patrick Skelly).

Lustgarten Christmas Markets were a Berlin institution and a highlight of every winter. Until the end of 1893 when the construction of the new Berliner Dom brought a temporary end to the annual fair on this spot. Luckily, the idea to do away with the tradition for good – presented by the Polizeipräsidium in 1891 – found enough prominent opponents.

The Weihnachtsmarkt did not return to its central location until 1934 – a change enthusiastically welcomed by Berliners who missed the Lustgarten event. No wonder then than as soon as the Second World War ended, the first post-war Christmas Market opened right there, too.

A short text about the 1945 event in one of the local newspapers.

Despite ice-cold wind, ruins, hunger and luck of nearly every thinkable facilities, it began on December 9, 1945. For many survivors, especially for children, it was the first opportunity to have a cup of hot barley-malt-coffee and a warm sausage in a a very long time. Despite Berlin’s division into East and West, the Lustgarten remained the market’s venue for the next thirty years, albeit only for East Berliners (West Berlin’s main Christmas Market occupied – and still does – today’s Breitscheidplatz). The last one closed in January 1974.

Christmas Market in Lustgarten with the ruins of Berliner Dom in the background, in 1948 (image by Rudolph Bratke, via Budensarchiv).

The destroyed and never rebuilt Waisenbrücke (however, we are keeping our fingers crossed for Berlin’s Stadtmuseum initiative to have the bridge reconstructed again) (image via @StadtmuseumBLN from the collection of Landesarchiv Berlin)

Berlin is like a bridge without guard rails. You are allowed to fall down, unlike in the rest of Germany.

From the 2019 survey “DNA der Hauptstadt” (DNA of The Capital City) carried out of Berlin’s Senate