We have quickly come to the conclusion that the seven days we allotted to exploring Berlin will only allow us to explore a very small portion of this sprawling city. Most of our time to date has been spent in what was the old East Berlin. The Soviets controlled the city center and a lot of the historical sites in the immediate post-war period. It was one of the spoils it earned for the Red Army being the first to enter Berlin.
Yesterday we took a 1.5 hour walking tour that explored the old Jewish Quarter of the city, led by Circus Hotel concierge Andrew. He’s an Aussie ex-pat who has lived in Berlin the last 15 years or so. (Circa 2006-2008 must have been an exciting time to be in Berlin because it seems to have been when a lot of foreigners migrated to the city. He’s the third ex-pat guide we’ve encountered with a similar backstory.) Our route took us into the Schuenenviertel portion of the Mitte district. I know, lots of weird German words. It was originally an area for housing livestock hundreds of years ago, we were told, and Jews from around Europe began settling there. We are officially staying in another part of Mitte but our evenings have taken us more toward a neighborhood known as Prenzlauerberg.
The Mitte area is home to the oldest synagogue in the city, which survived Kristalnach in 1938 through the bravery of a single police officer, who evidently used a ruse to get the marauding Nazis to stand down. We understand he latter paid with his life but the building and its golden dome survived the night.
One can see small memorials throughout Berlin to Jews murdered during the Holocaust in the form of small golden medallions in the pavement called “stumbling stones.” They are prevalent in the Mitte district but visible elsewhere. They note the name of the person who used to live at that location, and where and when they were killed.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, young people flocked to the Mitte area to squat in the numerous abandoned buildings. Among the largest was one called Tacheles. It was home to a huge underground dance club, simple bars and makeshift apartments. It’s now being redeveloped as a modern, and rather boring, office/apartment/shops complex that is using the Tacheles name. It bears no resemblance to the original, Andrew told us. Our first Berlin guide managed one such squat – perhaps even this one.
We also visited the old Jewish Cemetery. In front of the cemetery was a Jewish retirement home where the Nazis assembled people from the neighborhood before they were marched off to the nearby train station for deportation to one of the concentration camps. Most of the headstones were destroyed by the Nazis and the old cemetery is now intentionally a largely overgrown park. The sculpture below commemorates the events of the period.
Adjacent to the cemetery is an active Jewish school. But also notable is that down the street from the school is the Protestant church below, and almost across the street is a Catholic hospital. Very diverse area.
Exploring the area also reveals that it is dotted with courtyards that can be home to shops, restaurants and galleries and connect different streets. There is also a lot of street art. The images below are from an alley that is home of a small museum commemorating a man named Oscar Weidt, who was something of an Oskar Schindler type. He ran a broom and brush factory that employed a lot of the area Jews, many of them blind, and he kept many alive during the war years. There is also a cafe/cinema called the Volksbuhne Theatre that stages avant-garde productions, and a funky building containing art studios and a shop.
We followed up tour number one of the day with our first kebap. Given the Turkish influence in Berlin, kebaps are everywhere and are a ‘must-do,’ like beer and curry wurst. I think the shop where we ate was a bit upscale, but the kebaps were absolutely delicious, and so filling we didn’t need dinner. For anyone who know us, that’s unusual. It kept us sated through tour number two (of underground bunkers) and the Drive-by Truckers concert. Another jam packed day in Berlin.