Building in Neue Schönhauser Straße 13 around 1892 (from “Blätter für Architektur und Kunstwerk”, December 1892; image via Zentrale Landesbibliothek Berlin).

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.

Ladies reading room at the Volks-Lesehalle in Neue Schönhauser Straße with (most probably) Bona Peiser – as the lay wearing specs – among the guests. Image via Ireck Lidzbarski at Flickr).

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.

Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.
Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.

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).

Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstrasse 11 (today Lobeckstrasse). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small "Siedlung" (group of smallish blocks of flats).
Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstraße 11 (today Lobeckstraße). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small Siedlung (group of smallish blocks of flats).

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.

Rixdorf on the 1895 Straube-Plan von Berlin (technically, Rixdorf was not part of the city yet) with the old Bohemian village sites marked in yellow. (map in PD via Harvard Map Collection 990107769010203941)

On April 1, 1899 Rixdorf – once the largest village or rural community in Prussia – was at last granted its city right. Twenty one years later, together with six other cities, 59 rural communities and 27 estates, it became incorporated in the new metropolis, Greater Berlin.

But if you look for the name “Rixdorf” in Berlin today you will only find it referred to only indirectly, as in Rixdorfer Schmiede (Rixdorf Smithery on Richardplatz), Rixdorfer Höhe and Rixdorfer Teich (a rubble hill and a pond in Volkspark Hasenheide) or in locally-produced beverages (Rixdorfer Galgen and Rixdorfer Brause, a herbal liqueur and a – highly recommended – fizzy lemonade brand respectively). But what happened to Rixdorf itself?

In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his royal consent to the re-branding of a place which suffered ill reputation but wished to improve its ratings along potential sponsors and investors. Rixdorf, (in-)famous for its funfairs, its distilleries and rich entertainment offer as such (especially in and along today’s Hasenheide), wished to shed its colourful old skin and become a serious player on the property market. In short, the city elders wanted to attract “a better sort of people”. In 1912 the Kaiser kindly helped by letting them re-name the place “Neukölln”.

Rixdorf’s coat of arms 1903 (via berlin.de)

Still back in May 1903 Rixdorf, after several years of consideration and debating 25 different designs, the city finally decided on its coat of arms: a shield divided into three fields (each in a different old imperial Reich colour: black, white and red) with a brickwork crown above them. Today’s coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln is the 1956 version of the original design.

Coat of arms of the borough of Neukölln

And as with all city coats of arms, it tells a story of the place itself.

The brickwork crown with three towers stands for the city rights granted to Rixdorf in 1899. Today the middle tower features a small picture of a bear: a clear sign that Neukölln became part of the Greater Berlin – the 1903 coat of arms showed a city gate instead.

The top left shield beneath the brickwork crown – the black field – refers to the part of Neukölln once known as Böhmisch-Rixdorf, whilst the white field stands for its sister-community, for Deutsch-Rixdorf.

Böhmisch-Rixdorf, or Bohemian-Rixdorf, was established by protestant refugees from Bohemia, the Hussites. They arrived in today’s Berlin in the first half of the eighteenth century invited by King Friedrich Wilhelm I (aka the Soldier King). The Hussites were fleeing religious persecution they suffered at home in then re-catholicized Bohemia and the Prussian monarch was happy to welcome new, industrious and thankful residents in his still partly depopulated (hashtag: Thirty Years Wars) realm. The king needed hands to work and the Bohemians a place to stay – it a was a perfect match. What started with eighteen families soon turned into a strong colony of Czech-speaking Prussians.

The silver chalice on the black field symbolises the “common-” or “communion chalice” used to offer wine to members of the Hussite community during the church service. One of the four principal dogmas of the Hussites, described in the “Four Articles of Prague”, was “communion under both kinds”: during the communion, church members received both the host (a thin white wafer representing the body of Christ) and a sip of red wine which stands for Christ’s blood.

This common chalice became the symbol of the Hussites – while the popular name of the movement refers to Jan Hus, the ill-fated forerunner of Protestant Reformation, in Czech (their mother-tongue) his followers were known as Kališníci -“Chalice People”.

Their new settlement outside Berlin was dubbed Böhmisch-Rixdorf to differentiate between them and the other, older Rixdorf, which henceforth was known as Deutsch-Rixdorf. The top right field – the white one – on Neukölln’s coat of arms commemorates this settlement.  The red Brandenburgian eagle was the sign of Brandenburg’s Askanian rulers. The eagle and the golden clover on its wings were already featured on Berlin’s oldest seal. The symbolic of the eagle is quite obvious – the trefoil (three-leaved) clover stands for the holy trinity and is a Christian symbol.

To sum up: so far we have a silver Bohemian chalice for Böhmisch-Rixdorf and the red eagle for its Deutsch counterpart. But what is the meaning of the eight-pointed silver cross in the bottom – red – field?

If you know the history of the Crusades or modern history of charity organisations, you will quickly recognise it as the Maltese Cross, symbol of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, also know as the Hospitallers. And what do the Crusaders have to do with Rixdorf? Reader, they created it. Or, rather, developed further. After their Holy Land brothers-in-arms from the Knights Templar (in German Tempelherren) had established it as a farm and settlement on the land they were offered to live on by Brandenburgian rulers upon Tempelherren’s return to Europe (they got it together with, among others, today’s Tempelhof and Marienfelde which owe their names to them). The Hospitallers took it over and turned into a village in 1360 after the Templars met their sad end at the hands of French king, Phillip the Fair. The village was christened Richardsdorp. The said “Richard” was most likely a high-rank knight from the Order of the Cross and and the estate’s, called Richardshof, former administrator.

So there we have it, Rixdorf/Neukölln: the city wall, the bear and the eagle, the silver chalice and the Maltese Cross. Coats of arms are not only aesthetically pleasing and a symbol of status – they also tell often complicated stories, honouring the Past in one elegant snapshot.

Today’s mood in Berlin – it must have been April, too, when Lesser Ury made sketches for this painting in 1910 on Kurfürstendamm. Back in the days when Charlottenburg was an independent city said to have been the wealthiest municipality in Prussia.

Ury himself lived at Nollendorfplatz 1 in Berlin W30 (the old postal code for Schöneberg). At the time his biggest “enemy” (it was more of a bitter competition but not one marked by malice) had his studio almost exactly 3.3 km north-east of Ury’s, in the very heart of fine Berlin. Professor Max Liebermann, the heavy-weight of Berlin art-world, and his family resided on the second floor of the house Pariser Platz No. 7.

The anecdote has it that when Lesser Ury allegedly began to spread a rumour that it was him and not Liebermann who created the exquisite light-effects in the master’s famous 1887 painting, “Flax Scourers in Laren”, Liebermann – famous for his direct ways and sense of humour – responded: “I can’t be bothered to sue Herr Ury – unless he starts telling people that it was I who painted his paintings.”

Lesser Ury “Am Kurfürstendamm”, 1910 (image PD via Wikipedia, original painting in a private collection )

Everybody knows and dreads the moment: the loudspeaker voice on your U-Bahn or S-Bahn platform makes the announcement, “Due to technical problems/medical intervention/wild ponies rambling freely on the tracks, train traffic on this line will be irregular/must be interrupted completely.”

Fear not, however, for now – thanks to Kristin Baumann – you have this incredible map at your disposal: a walking map of Berlin public transport network with clearly indicated walking times for the distance between individual stations.

Before the pandemic releases its firm grip it has had upon us for the past twelve months, take this opportunity to explore the city on foot and use Ms Baumann’s map as an inspiration to discover Berlin in its less congested incarnation. Convert your morning public-transport rage or your bursting energy-levels into something pleasurable: become a flaneur or a flaneuse! Just walk.

Map created by Kristin Baumann indicating walking distance and time between U- and S-Bahn stations (source: Medium)