A stroll on a quiet autumn day at the Neue See, a small artificial lake in the Tiergarten Park, painted by one of Berlin’s leading artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wonderfully named Lesser Ury.
Ury is mostly known for his incredibly atmospheric paintings of rainy Berlin streets and plazas but he could clearly also master less inclement conditions. The painting, dated at some time between 1910 and 1920, is filled with cool mellow light of an autumn afternoon – light which seems to be almost radiating from the picture and as much as the calmness it presents. Happy the soul whose walls it decorates today!
In only two days the Berlin Wall would have turned 60 years old. Would have as luckily for all of us the monster was slayed and the deep cut that ran through the city, the wound that hurt millions, could at last begin to heal.
The scars it left are slowly fading, too, but nothing ever goes away without a trace. For years I have been taking amateur photos of the places where they still could be found. One of them reminded me of a certain spot in Kreuzberg: right off Oranienplatz (where I was once priviledged to share a fantastic, history-laden co-working space with a group of kind and witty people). Right around the corner, down Dresdner Straße and towards Berlin-Mitte where the Wall used to run right through the middle of the street. Corner Sebastianstraße and Luckauer Straße at what is today Alfred-Döblin-Platz.
Several years ago, while construction works for a new residential building on that historic street junction in Kreuzberg were picking up the pace, workers unsealed old cellars of the nineteenth-century tenements which had stood there before the Second Generation of the Berlin Wall was erected. As the wonderful photo by Willy Pragher taken on June 9, 1965 shows, the houses were still there when the First Generation Wall was built (Berlin Wall went through several stages of evolution and this image presents the early one).
Demolished somewhere around 1970 (the sources quote different dates but the most likely year is 1968), the buildings were not removed completely – the cellars remained. For years, after the Wall had been torn down, people walking down Luckauer Straße next to today’s Alfred-Döblin-Platz on hot summer days wondered about the strangely chilly draft sweeping their ankles as well as about the earthy, musty smell of the cellar in the air where no cellars could be. Several narrow gaps on the edge of the pavement where large stone steps typical of Berlin tenement entrance stairs led nowhere, proved the existence of the old basements which, contrary to everyone’s expectations, had not been filled.
The construction works I witnessed several years ago uncovered them again and brought to light what had remained buried for 56 years. It seems they had been used, at least parts of them, in the meantime, too: the tiles on the wall of one of the cellars were held by some sort of black foam that was neither nineteenth century nor pre-Berlin Wall. Perhaps the guards spent their time there? Or the place served some other Wall-related purpose? We will never know.
Within a week, maximum a fortnight, the old cellars were gone. It was a strangely satisfying feeling to be able to look into them after having known for years they were there, unreachable under the ground. They were another trace of Berlin’s past which had to go. But not all of it did. It never does.
Between 1961 and 1989 border crossing Heinrich-Heine-Straße joined/divided West Berlin and East Berlin. It was erected along Prinzenstraße in western Kreuzberg and former Neanderstraße in what used to be East-Berlin district of Mitte. The name “Neanderstraße” vanished in 1960 when on July 22 the street officially became Heinrich-Heine-Straße.
Interestingly, the change also applied to a section of Prinzenstraße between Sebastianstraße and Annenstraße – obviously to the one located in the Eastern Zone of the divided city. The name “Prinzenstraße” commemorated Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm who went on to become first King and the Kaiser Wilhelm I. A fact which caused some unease on the eastern side of the divide (the Hohenzollerns were high on the pet-hate list of the East German ruling party) and led to the aforementioned adjustment.
The photo above, taken by an amateur Berlin photographer, Roehrensee, in December 1989 shows the Kreuzberg side of the crossing seen from the island in the middle of the Moritzplatz where the photographer’s shadow points towards the east. But the crossing you see in the background was just a small section of the facility – its western entrance/exit as it was.
In between the latter and a similar arrangement on the opposite side of the crossing in East Berlin there lie a slalom of massive concrete blocks whose main purpose was to slow down the traffic and prevent anyone from gaining enough speed to endanger the security of the control point in both Prinzen and in Heinrich-Heine-Straße. Maximum speed within the border-crossing route was 10km/h.
This more or less standard precaution – not only between Kreuzberg and Mitte but on other border-crossings, too – proved to be lethally efficient. On April 17, 1962 Klaus Brueske, a 24-year-old lorry-driver from Berlin-Friedrichshain, and two of his friends, sped towards the border at 70km/h, trying to break through the border road-barriers in Heinrich-Heine-Straße in a truck loaded with gravel. Brueske, disillusioned with the situation in East Berlin and still mourning the loss of his job with the West Berlin engineering company, AEG (which he gave up after the Berlin Wall separated his home-district from his workplace), hoped to be able to reach West Berlin territory by simply going through the boom barriers put there into place.
The plan could have worked – the border was not as impermeable yet as it became later – and, in fact it, it did. But at the ultimate price. One of the border guards opened fire at the vehicle, shooting 14 times and hitting two of the three young men inside. The lorry came to a halt already in West Berlin, crashing heads-on against a wall in Prinzenstraße 34.
After all three escapees had been taken to Urban-Krankenhaus in Grimmstraße on the southern side of the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, where Karl Brüske was pronounced dead upon arrival. However, the cause of death were not the two bullets which hit his neck. It was asphyxia. Klaus Brueske died of suffocation, buried under the gravel he had earlier loaded onto the lorry. He was the 16th victim of the Berlin Wall – 16th person to die trying to leave the Eastern Sector of Berlin. The 16th Maueropfer, “the wall victim”.
Two years later another young man would attempt an escape on the same spot and using the same method. Although his escape was part of a drama and not of a plan. On December 25, 1965 27-year-old Heinz Schöneberger from West Germany was lethally wounded by a hand-gun bullet shot at him as the young man was only five metres away from the West Berlin territory.
He and his brother, driving a Ford Taunus hoped to be able to smuggle two East-German women out of the DDR (German Democratic Republic). The women, hidding under the front and the back seats, risked their lives as much as the Schöneberger brothers. It became terribly clear after the car had been stopped by the East German border control.
After ordering the brothers to step out of the car, the guards discovered one of the young women under the back seat. Not waiting for the handcuffs to be snapped around his wrists, Heinz Schöneberger jumped back into the vehicle, locked all doors from inside and sped towards the West Berlin side of the border. Unable to go faster – the concrete slalom route did its job just as expected – he stopped, sprang out of the car, in an attempt to sprint the remaining ten metres.
The longest of Berlin’s nearly 10,000 streets is Adlergestell: it stretches over 11.4 kilometres through the borough of Treptow-Köpenick. But where do you find the shortest? Well, that depends. On where you stand in your of appreciation of replicas.
If you are one of those people whose sense of aesthetic justice screams: “Nothing but the original!”, then look south towards Alt Mariendorf (a locality within the District of Tempelhof) – by these standards, the title of the Berlin’s shortest street should belong to their 19-metre long Pohligstraße. A little, pardon, stump of a road placed between Forddamm and Popperstraße.
If, however, you don’t mind a bit of solid make-believe and think that a replica is as good as the real thing (provided it traces the same lines), then you will find Berlin’s shortest street right in its middle: in Mitte. In Old Mitte, to be exact. Right next to the city’s oldest church, Nikolaikirche.
Eiergasse (Egg Lane) is but sixteen metres long but it was not always so short. In fact, it used to be almost twice as a long but the post-WW2 refurbishment of the historic plaza at its southern end – Molkenmarkt (Milk Market) – took a toll on Eiergasse’s dimensions.
The small medieval lane got its name from the tradition of placing egg-sellers’ stalls along its route. After in 1699 Elector Friedrich III (soon to become King Friedrich I) ordered that city markets be re-organised and set up anew following slightly more modern principles, like those of improved hygiene. But just as Molkenmarket kept its role as a “sales-point” for dairy products, so was Eiergasse allowed to keep its old, unbroken shell. Twice a week, always Wednesdays and Saturdays, farmers from around Berlin – but also local hen-holders – hurried to the small lane next to Nikolaikirche and offered their goods to hungry Berliners (eggs were one of the staples in their cuisine).
The lost Second World War brought an end to the historic district but the area was doomed whatever the war’s outcome would have been. The bombastic world-capital plans created by Albert Speer and his people for the Nazi Führer, the new über-city of Germania, had no need for the medieval. One of Berlin’s oldest neighbourhoods, inhabited for some 700 years and – admittedly – accordingly weathered, was to be demolished and replaced by an open-air museum presenting historic facades of other buildings torn down in other parts of the city to make space for Hitler’s new toy-town. For that purpose the church at its heart, Nikolaikirche, was promptly deconsecrated and since 1938 remains a profane building.
The war solved the problem of the open-air museum for good but what to do with whatever was left? After the ruins and the rubble had been removed, a new idea entered the stage: the now East Berlin authorities decided to include it in their planning for the future government centre around today’s Lustgarten and Marx-Engels-Forum. This “inclusion” would have meant turning the site into a Spree-basin, a river harbour for tourist boats operating along the river and the Spree Canal.
Like with everything in life, some plans are best left unfulfilled. A failure to succeed can be a blessing. Once more such failure saved Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel from irreparable damage. The government’s plans had to be adjusted to the lean DDR reality and the fact that perhaps no everyone thought the idea the best possible option.
And so, with a view towards celebrating the 750th birthday of Berlin (both East and West Berlin did it their own way), a new idea was born – to recreate what was lost. To rebuild the vanished quarters. To bring back what was gone forever. By that time it had become obvious that it would possible to combine the resurrection with East Berlin’s ambitious housing programme and that when realised, some 2,000 people could new homes in the new-old district.
The new Nikolaiviertel built within the silhouette respected its grid but is only vaguely a replica of the old. The pre-fab concrete residential buildings – often mocked for their being “painfully DDR” by those who forget that pre-fab concrete architecture was something their architect, Manfred Prasser, learnt how to design them in Paris from an eminent Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – stood the test of the public and the test of the time. Go for a walk through the narrow lanes on a quiet evening in May and you are almost certain to oversee the concrete and focus on the pleasant instead.
Turn into the new-old Eiergasse, Berlin’s shortest street, from Molkenmarkt and you are almost certain to feel that even a 1980s East German architecture can become a time-machine.
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