Memento mori

Memento mori

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A walk through a cemetery during Easter week is the perfect combination of place and time. In Berlin there are over 230 graveyards, all with their own distinct character and most of them well worth discovering. I have described a few of my favourites in a previous post, ‘Walking with Angels’ from June 2014. The photo above of Martin Luther’s statue, which stands in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Chaussestraße, was taken last summer.  Berlin poet and novelist, Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), said that for him, great peace came from a memento mori; he only needed a quarter of an hour in the Lichtenberg Cemetery, contemplating mortality, to feel fully at one with the world.

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Fontane’s grave in the Französischer Friedhof in Liesenstraße

But there are two Berlin cemeteries in central Berlin where brutal regimes have desecrated the hallowed ground in pursuit of their own crazed political ends. Here the remaining graves have particular poignancy. The first is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, on Große Hamburger Straße, which was in use from 1672 until 1827. The graves included several prominent members of Berlin’s Jewish community, including the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), Veitel Heine Ephraim (1703-1775, Frederick the Great’s court banker), and Jacob Herz Beer (1769-1825), the father of operetta composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

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An undated photo of the Old Jewish Cemetery before its destruction

In 1943, this cemetery was destroyed on the orders of the Gestapo. The Nazis razed the graves and turned the entire grounds into air raid shelters whose walls were reinforced with demolished headstones. The Jewish old people’s home next door to the cemetery became a transit camp for Berlin Jews destined for deportation. More than 55,000 Jews were deported from there to the extermination camps in “the east.”

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The memorial to the deported Jews, just outside the cemtery 

In April 1945, the authorities used the grounds as a mass grave for soldiers and civilians killed during Allied air raids. In the 1970s, the East Berlin authorities removed the remaining Jewish gravestones as well as the wooden crosses marking the graves of air raid victims and turned the cemetery into a park. In 1988, the few surviving graves that had been set into the wall of an adjacent building were transferred to the Jewish Weissensee Cemetery. In memory of the tragic events during the war a symbolic grave for Moses Mendelssohn as well as a sarcophagus filled with destroyed gravestones were left at this spot. Finally, in December 2009, after extensive renovation work, the 20 tombstones that had been removed were reinstated. They include the epitaph of Gumpericht Jecheil Aschkenasi who was buried in 1672.

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Visiting the Jewish Cemetery today

It wasn’t only the Nazis who destroyed cemeteries in the German capital. The GDR Government had no qualms about building the Berlin Wall through graveyards, including the historic Invalidenfriedhof, the traditional resting place for the Prussian Army. This cemetery was first established in 1748 to provide burial grounds for those veterans wounded in the War of the Austrian Succession and was built on the orders of King Frederick the Great. It was then used to bury German officers who were killed in the First World War and in the Second World War. The latter included Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, former Army commander Werner von Fritsch, Luftwaffe commander Ernst Udet, Munitions Minister Fritz Todt, the notorious ‘Reichsprotector’, Reinhard Heydrich, and General Rudolf Schmundt, who was killed in the July 20, 1944 plot by the bomb intended for Adolf Hitler.

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The Invalidenfriedhof in 1925

In 1945, the Allies ordered that all Nazi monuments (including those in cemeteries) should be removed. There is now no trace of the graves of Heydrich and Todt, although their remains were not disinterred. Then, in 1961, the East German Government brought in their bulldozers and destroyed one third of the cemetery’s headstones, some of them over 200 years old. The area which they cleared was replaced with a concrete strip lined with watchtowers and searchlights.

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Clearing the cemetery to make way for the Berlin Wall

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The same scene today

Over the years that followed, the cemetery continued to fall into disrepair with further tombstones removed so as not to impair the sightlines of the border guards. After German reunification in 1990, the cemetery was placed under the monument protection scheme and restoration work began. Today, a walk through the Invalidenfriedhof is something quite special. Linden trees again line the paths and the cemetery wall bordering the water has been restored to its historic appearance.

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The restored Invalidenfriedhof

Despite the years of destruction, the 200 remaining tombs and gravestones give some idea of the cemetery’s original atmosphere. The monument designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the Prussian General and army reformer, Gerhard von Scharnhost, is particularly remarkable; his tomb is crowned with a slumbering lion and decorated with inscriptions and a relief illustrating scenes from Scharnhorst’s life.

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The sleeping lion on Scharnhorst’s tomb

But now, military grandeur has been superseded by a more contemplative setting. Some sections of the Berlin Wall have been preserved and there are memorials to people who lost their lives trying to escape across the water into West Berlin. The battle for life and death echoes back across three centuries.

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The memorial to Günter Litfin, the second victim at the Berlin Wall

To return to Theodor Fontane (who was of Huguenot descent), it is worth visiting his grave in the ‘Friedhof II der Französisch-Reformierten-Gemeinde’ in Liesenstraße, This cemetery was also partially destroyed by construction for the Berlin Wall, which used to cut through it. Fontane’s gravestone was destroyed in the Second World War, but later restored. During the city’s division his grave in East Berlin was only accessible with a special permit.

 

 

The Konzerthaus – Unwrapped

The Konzerthaus – Unwrapped

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The Gendarmenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin and its glorious central building, the Konzerthaus, is an architectural gem and the musical soul of East Berlin. It finally rose again from the ashes of wartime destruction in 1984 and has come to embody the courage of the human spirit as well as artistic inspiration. During the ‘Cinema for Peace’ awards at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrapped 14,000 bright orange life jackets around the columns of the city’s Konzerthaus to highlight the risks refugees are taking every day to reach Europe by sea.

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The Konzerthaus columns wrapped in life-jackets

The Konzerthaus has a fascinating history. Its origins lie in the theatre and in opera and go back to 1776 when Frederick the Great had the ‘Französisches Komödientheater’ built on this site, which had strong associations with the French Huguenot community. Ten years later it was renamed the Royal National Theatre and in 1789 Mozart came to Berlin to hear a performance of his opera, ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’. In 1802 a new ‘Nationaltheater’ was opened, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, whose best known work is the Brandenburg Gate. The great German playwright, Friedrich Schiller, attended many performances of his plays at the Nationaltheater and his monument stands in front of the flight of steps leading up to the Konzerthaus. Schiller is surrounded by four allegorical figures; Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, History and Philosophy.

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The Schiller monument

In 1817 the Nationaltheater was destroyed in a fire and King Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned the famous Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, to create a new theatre in the Greek classical style. The ‘Schauspielhaus’ (‘Playhouse’) opened in 1821 with the acclaimed premiere of Karl von Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’,  full of emotional overtones of national identity.  1826 saw the Berlin premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, 1838 the Berlin premiere of Goethe’s ‘Faust I’ and in 1844 Wagner conducted the Berlin premiere of his opera, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ there. During the 1848 Revolution the main auditorium of the Schauspielhaus housed the Prussian National Assembly for several weeks in September, with the Gendarmenmarkt a major arena of political events.

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Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus

For almost another 100 years the Schauspielhaus continued to enjoy performances of all that was best in German theatre, opera and music. The actor Gustaf Gründgens, considered by many to have sold his soul to the Nazis, was Artistic Director of the Schauspielhaus from 1934 until 1945; the 1981 oscar-winning film, ‘Mephisto’, tells the story of Gründgen’s career. The Schauspielhaus was destroyed in a bombing raid in April 1945.  Reconstruction finally started in 1979 and Schinkel’s original exterior design was recreated in careful detail.  The main entrance used for most concerts is on the ground floor under the large staircase, just as in Schinkel’s time, where the horse-drawn carriages used to arrive. The interior, on the other hand, is a completely new construction – although its design cleverly gives the impression of the original. The former Schauspielhaus reopened on 1st October 1984 with a gala concert performed by the GDR Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester.

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The Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt in 1910

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The ruins of the Schauspielhaus in 1970s East Berlin

East Berlin opened its celebrations of Berlin’s 750th anniversary on 1st January 1987 in the Schauspielhaus and just two years later, Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony there on Christmas Day 1989. Inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he changed the text of the final chorus into ‘Ode to Freedom’. On 2nd October 1990, the GDR government chose the Schauspielhaus for their celebration of German reunification, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. To reflect its new purpose as a concert hall, the Schauspielhaus was officially renamed the Konzerthaus in 1992 and in 2006 the resident Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester became the ‘Konzerthausorchester Berlin’.

2.10.90, Berlin: Vereinigung Mit einem Festakt der DDR-Regierung im Berliner Schauspielhaus begann am Dienstagabend die Reihe der offiziellen Veranstaltungen zum Tag der deutschen Einheit. In seiner Rede betonte Ministerpräsident Lothar de Maiziére: "Was für die meisten nur noch ein Traum war, wird Wirklichkeit: daß die selbstverständliche Zusammengehörigkeit wieder gelebt werden kann." (ZB/ Thomas Uhlemann)

The GDR reunification ceremony, October 1990

The Konzerthaus has hosted most of the world’s most famous orchestras and every summer the Classic Open Air Festival is held on the Gendarmenmarkt, with the Konzerthaus as its stunning back-drop. I have been to many excellent concerts in this building since 1984, but none more moving than the annual New Year’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which seems to have its spiritual home in this concert hall. It has also been interesting to see the changing profile of the audiences at the Konzerthaus over the years. In the late 1980s the concerts were mainly attended by a politically-correct and somewhat reserved section of GDR society. But things are much livelier these days. Gala concerts are packed with vocal fans and a recent piano recital was full of young people whose enthusiasm was rewarded with three encores.

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A performance in the grand ‘Großer Saal’

Both the ‘Großer Saal’ (main auditorium) and the ‘Kleiner Saal’ (chamber music hall) of the Konzerthaus are visual feasts, as are the two elegant foyers, the ‘Carl Maria von Weber Saal’ and the ‘Beethoven Saal’, where you can enjoy a drink in the concert interval. In 2003 the modern ‘Werner-Otto-Saal’ was added to the facilities and also the ‘Black Box’ which lends itself to performances of more avant-garde music. To find out more about the Konzerthaus, its programme of concerts and their guided tours, go to  their excellent English website. You can also  treat yourself to a recent performance by the Konzerthausorchester. Just follow this link to a Guardian article about the concert given on 1st March by top Berlin orchestras to welcome refugees to their city. Or go to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall where you can also watch the concert.

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Ivan Fischer conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the ‘Welcome to Refugees’ concert

 

MGB: A Memorable Grand Building

MGB: A Memorable Grand Building

Among all the wonderful Berlin museums and galleries, the Martin-Gropius-Bau (aka MGB) has a special place in my heart. Originally built in 1881 and designed by architect Martin Gropius, it is a visual treasure and lends its renaissance-style grandeur to every exhibition that passes through its doors. Golden images around the top of the building glitter in the sunshine and inside, the soaring atrium features mosaics with allegories from different ages and coats of arms of various German cities.

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Walking towards the Martin-Gropius-Bau from the Topographie des Terrors

The Martin-Gropius-Bau started life as an arts and crafts museum and after the First World War it became the Museum of Ethnology. It was badly damaged by bombing in 1945 and lay in ruins until 1965 when Walter Gropius (Martin’s great-nephew and co-founder of the Bauhaus) campaigned to have it placed under a historical preservation order. Reconstruction started in 1978 and the museum was reopened in 1981 with an exhibition on Schinkel, Berlin’s renowned classic-style architect. This was followed by an exhibition on Prussia and in 1987 the ‘Berlin, Berlin’ exhibition was staged to mark the 750th Anniversary of the city.

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The Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Berlin Wall in 1972

I often visited the Martin-Gropius-Bau during the 1980s and it was quite unnerving to find a building of such palatial grandeur standing just a couple of metres from the bizarre and cruel vision of the Berlin Wall. In those days the entrance to the museum was through a side door and there was an Alt Berlin café on the ground floor that opened out on to a rough area of grass. On warm days you could sit outside and contemplate the absurdity of the world. On the wasteland on the other side of the building, excavations had begun to reveal the underground cells of the Gestapo Headquarters, demolished after the war.

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In summer 1982 Photo by Chris Dewitt

After the fall of the Wall and German Reunification, the Martin-Gropius-Bau was closed for further renovations and has now been meticulously restored to its former glory. The impressive entrance is once again located on Niederkirchnerstraße opposite the Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin House of Representatives and formerly the Prussian Parliament) and alongside the MGB, on the site of Gestapo Headquarters, is now the Topographie des Terrors which documents the Nazi terror regime in Europe.

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The grand entrance

For the past 25 years the Berliner Festspiele has managed operations at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. About 10 major exhibitions are staged each year in the fields of art, archaeology, photography and cultural history. Famous names including Frida Kahlo, Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei and David Bowie have drawn large crowds as well as large-scale exhibits such as treasures from Ancient Egypt and Buddha sculptures from Pakistan. Currently (until May 16th) there is a fantastic exhibition on ‘The Art of Prehistoric Times’, featuring the ‘Rock Paintings’ from the Frobenius collections. These amazing canvasses, painstakingly copied from prehistoric art in Africa, Oceania, Europe and Australia, were produced over a period of many years between 1912 and the 1960s. They have provided inspiration for modern art and are, in many cases, the only surviving evidence of such rock art as the original sites have been destroyed.

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Rock Art from ZImbabwe

Forthcoming attractions at the Martin-Gropius-Bau include ‘Lee Miller- Photographs’ (19 March – 12 June 2016) and ‘The Luther Effect. Protestantism – 500 years in the World’ (12 April- 5 November 2017). But there are plenty of other exhibitions to choose from as well; a full list can be found at the Berliner Festspiele website. The MGB is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am until 7pm and entrance prices vary according to the exhibition. It is an easy walk from either Potsdamer Platz or Checkpoint Charlie or bus M29 stops nearby. You will find an excellent and elegant café at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and a very good bookshop too. They are both on the ground floor off the atrium and can be accessed without entering the exhibitions.

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Browsing in the MGB bookshop

Olympian Ghosts

Olympian Ghosts

Berlin is vibrant and contemporary, but it is also a city of ghosts. History hides in every corner and in some places it parades in the open. Last week I took a walk in the ‘Olympiapark’ and the past accompanied me every step of the way. It was a cold, grey day and there were few people about, lending the whole site a sense of eeriness. The monumental buildings and the virile statues appeared as stark phantoms of Nazi grandeur and the ground resonated with a legion of personal memories.

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Aerial view of the Olympic Stadium in 1936

Originally called the Reichssportfeld (‘Imperial sports field’) and constructed for the notorious 1936 Olympic Games, the Berlin Olympiapark is one of world’s most significant 20th century sports complexes. Surrounded by forest to the west of Berlin, the ensemble of buildings and open spaces represent the epitome of the Nazi ideal of architectural and natural perfection.  On July 1st 1945 this area was taken over by the occupying British troops as it became part of the British Sector of Berlin. The 1936 Olympic stadium was handed back to the West-Berlin authorities in 1949 and a year later it became known as the ‘Olympiastadion’. But most of the complex remained in British hands until after German Reunification.  The British Military Government was based there until 1990 and the British Berlin Garrison remained until 1994.

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Plan of the Olympiapark site

For almost 50 years the site was inaccessible to the population of Berlin. Now, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the Olympiapark is gradually coming back to life. Hertha Berlin FC has their training centre and pitches there (where the British used to play cricket) as well as a fan shop on Friesenhof. A secondary school for elite sports students, ‘Sportschule im Olympiapark – Poelschau Oberschule’ has just moved into newly renovated premises in a building originally opened  in the 1920s as the ‘Deutsches Sportforum’, dedicated to the teaching of professors of physical education and the study of sport science. They are using a swimming pool which dates back almost a hundred years.

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The grand 1920s swimming pool – still in use

The main administrative building of the complex is the impressive ‘Haus des deutschen Sports’, its entrance flanked by two golden eagles mounted on stone columns and completed in 1936 for the Olympics. During the Cold War it served as the Headquarters of the British Military Government. The ground floor is currently used by the Sportmuseum Berlin for their temporary exhibitions, but this will soon be moving to a new site under the spectator stands at the Maifeld, the large field behind the Olympiastadion, used by Hitler for parades and for the 1936 Olympics.

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Main entrance of ‘Das Haus des Deutschen Sports’

Before 1990 the Maifeld was used by the British Forces for their rugby, polo and football pitches as well as for the annual Queen’s Birthday Parade and large rock concerts with big names such as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Tina Turner. These days the Maifeld hosts a variety of sports matches and tournaments and the annual ‘Pyronale’ fireworks display in September. It is also now Berlin’s main cricket pitch.

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Queen’s Birthday Parade on the Maifeld

The entire Olympiapark site is under ‘Denkmalschutz’ (Protection of Historic Buildings and Monuments) and in 2011 an initiative was launched inviting ideas for its possible future development. Now is the time to walk round while the past is still palpable. Larger than life statues of noble youths recall the Greek athletic ideal which was used by the Nazis to promote the myth of an Aryan super race.

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On Jahnplatz, the grand square created by Olympic architect Werner March for sporting events and parades, there are two massive bronze statues of a cow and a bull representing fertility and strength. The Turnhaus (gymnasium hall) is in the background.

The bronze bull on Jahnplatz

During the Cold War the lawns of Jahnplatz were the scene of many British receptions where American, French, Soviet military mingled with West-Berlin dignitaries. It was a dramatic setting, surrounded by classical porticos, statues and stone friezes. The stern inscription above the Deutsches Sportforum building roughly translates as, ‘Forever, from the beginning of existence, the holy word perfection is there to urge us’.

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Jahnplatz resonates with memories of sporting triumphs and parties

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To gain access to the Olympiapark, enter by the ‘Osttor’ (East Gate) on Hans-Braun-Straße, a ten minute walk along Rominter Allee from Olympiastadion U-Bahn station. But it only makes sense to explore the Olympiapark after you have seen the Olympiastadion itself (see page 43 of Berlin Unwrapped). There are excellent guided tours which take you to parts of the stadium not open to the general public and reveal the absorbing story – both past and present – of this iconic Nazi edifice. The English version of the Olympiastadion website gives details of these tours and a complete history of the Olympiapark. Unfortunately their full tours of the Olympiapark grounds are only in German. But there are plenty of information boards around the site giving historical details in both German and English.

Information board for the ‘Arzthaus’ (Doctor’s House)

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For a bird’s eye view of the complex, it’s also worth visiting the Glockenturm (Bell Tower) on the other side of the Maifeld. The tower is a five minute walk from Pichelsbeg S Bahn station and as well as the viewing platform there is an interesting exhibition about the Olympic site and the 1936 games, sponsored by the German Historical Museum.

The Glockenturm in sunny weather – looking across the Maifeld

Not just a walk in the park

Not just a walk in the park

There are so many parks in Berlin. The oldest, largest and most famous is the Tiergarten, stretching two square miles from the Brandenburg Gate to Ernst-Reuter-Platz and providing the green lungs for the city centre. It’s a fabulous park, once a royal hunting ground, now a green paradise packed with tall trees, shrubs, wide lawns and interesting corners. You can find a brief history and description on page 44 of Berlin Unwrapped.

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üAerial view of the Tiergarten, featuring the Victory Column

If you have already explored the Tiergarten and would like to discover another central Berlin park with plenty of surprises in store, head for the Fritz-Schloß-Park to the north of the Hauptbahnhof – it’s a revelation. Here you will find quiet forest paths and wide expanses of grass, plenty of recreational facilities, some unusual sport complexes and even a refugee camp for asylum seekers. It’s a truly multi-purpose, multi-cultural park.

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Location of Fritz-Schloß-Park 

The Fritz-Schloß-Park was originally a Prussian military training ground and in the 1920s part of the site was turned into the ‘Poststadion’, a large sports stadium with additional football pitches, tennis courts and swimming facilities. After the war the land which hadn’t been built on was used as one of the dumps for the rubble from the city’s ruins which was mainly cleared by the women of Berlin. Then in 1955 the whole area was turned into a park and named after Fritz Schloß (1895-1954), the first post-war Mayor of the district of Tiergarten.

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A memorial in the park which thanks the ‘Trümmerfrauen (‘rubble women’) 

We entered the park from Seydlitzstrasse and walked past a children’s play area and several interesting buildings dedicated to sport, including a large new indoor pool and a long-established indoor rowing training centre complete with water.  A little further on, we reached the recently-renovated main sports stadium, now the impressive home ground for several Berlin football clubs including a Turkish team, and also used for American Football matches.  We wandered in and watched a group of cheerleaders practising in front of the impressive grandstand. I tried to imagine the scene in 1930 when Germany played England in one of their earliest encounters and then during the 1936 Olympics when the stadium was used for football matches in the presence of Hitler.

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The front of the Poststadion and cheerleaders practising on the track

The next surprise was an exclusive health club which we could just see behind the wire fencing and trees. I looked up the details later and found out that the ‘Vabali Spa’ was opened in 2014 at a cost of 20 million euros. It is designed on ‘Asian’ lines and guests are only allowed a bathing robe and a towel as items of clothing.

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A private view of the exclusive Vabali Spa

Further on, the park becomes more like a forest, with tall trees providing welcome shade. The path here is part of the 1.1 kilometre exercise trail with stops every fifty metres with equipment to test your fitness. Nothing too strenuous though.

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Peaceful wooded paths with fitness training on the side

If you feel like a rest, you can always make your way to the expanses of open grass and enjoy the woodland peace.   In winter the grassy slopes are popular for tobogganing.

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Plenty of space for just chilling

Another nostalgic sports arena in the park is the Schwarz-Weiß Tennis Club. Here the main clay court is set into a hollow with raised seating on four sides, rather like a mini-amphitheatre.

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The perfect setting for a game of tennis 

Only a few metres away around the corner in Kruppstrasse, there are outdoor atistic performances in a pretty shabby-chic garden area which opens its doors to visitors on some summer Sundays for readings and concerts.

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Open-air culture at the Offener Garten

But perhaps the most interesting discovery in the Fritz-Schloß-Park was an area at the end of Kruppstrasse where tented accommodation has been put up on tennis courts to provide accommodation for some of the Syrian asylum seekers who have been welcomed into the German capital.

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A view of the refugee camp from the perimeter fence

The History Garden

The History Garden

A secret garden, only a stone’s throw from the main railway station – what could be more typically Berlin. Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main station) is impossible to miss. A ‘cathedral’ of glass and steel, it flanks the new government district in front of the Reichstag and links major railway lines across Europe. Berliners and visitors to the city alike use the Hauptbahnhof as a meeting point and shopping mall, then hop back on a train or bus to all corners of the city. Very few of them ever cross the street in front of the station and explore the surrounding area.

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Aerial view of the Hauptbahnhof

A friend of mine has just moved back to Berlin, to Moabit, a district which now belongs to the central borough of Berlin-Mitte and stretches out northwards from the Hauptbahnhof. She invited me over to explore her new ‘Kiez’ (neighbourhood) and we met on Washingtonplatz, the large open square at one of the two main station entrances, where there are often outdoor exhibitions. In July and August ‘Between Success and Persecution’ featured life-sized images with the history of 17 top German-Jewish athletes as part of the cultural programme for the European Maccabi Games.

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Exhibition on Washingtonplatz

We walked back through the station which was a hub of activity on every level. Most Berlin shops are closed on Sundays, but the shopping mall at the Hauptbahnhof is open 7/7 with a good selection of cafés too, and a 24 hour pharmacy. We made our way through the crowds to the entrance which opens on to Europaplatz and Invalidenstrasse, a main road once dissected by the Berlin Wall. Across the street to the right, is the Hamburger Bahnhof, the former terminus for the Hamburg-Berlin railway and now the home of Berlin’s Contemporary Art Museum. Just beyond it, the Spree River used to be part of the border installations between West and East Berlin. Hard to believe now, especially in summer when its waters are packed with pleasure boats.

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Sitting by the Spree, outside the Hamburger Bahnhof

The area directly opposite the Hauptbahhnof is currently being redeveloped, but about 100 metres to the left, on the other side of Invalidenstrasse, is a fascinating park surrounded by high brick walls – the ‘Geschichtspark Moabit’ (The Historic Park of Moabit). The entrance looks forbidding with its concrete canopy and iron gate. But this is intentional – the piece of land on the other side is the site of a former prison, the ‘Zellengefängnis Lehrter Straße’ (The Cell Prison of Lehrterstraße), built in 1849 by King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia.

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Entrance to the park, Invalidenstrasse 

He was inspired by London’s ‘model’ Pentonville Prison and inmates were kept in isolation cells so that they wouldn’t ‘infect’ others with their criminal minds and could be ‘cured’ more quickly. In fact, many of them went mad and in 1886 one of the buildings had to be converted into a mental hospital.The prison was used by the Gestapo when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and then after the war by the Allies, as a detention centre. It was finally demolished in 1958 and a brand new prison was built nearby, the Justizvollzugsanstalt Moabit (JVA). For a full history, I can recommend following this link to an article in the Ex-Berliner magazine, ‘Moabit’s most Wanted’.

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Sketch of original prison building

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Once inside the Geschichtspark, you are in an oasis of green and calm, completely insulated from the noise of the traffic and the trains outside. Wide pathways, green lawns and trees provide a space to wander around or just sit in peace. The old walls of the prison building are marked out on the grass and in the middle of the park is a memorial, the ‘Panopticon’, a large cube with open sides, representing the former central observation tower.

View of the ‘Panopticon’ from the park entrance

Another special feature of the park is a concrete replica of an original prison cell, complete with an unsettling sound installation using the words from a sonnet, ‘In Fesseln’ (In Fetters), written by a former inmate in the winter of 1944/45. A line from this poem is also inscribed in large letters on the inside of the perimeter wall:

Von allem Leid, das diesen Bau erfüllt, ist unter Mauerwerk und Eisengittern ein Hauch lebendig, ein geheimes Zittern.

(Of all the suffering that fills this building, a secret shudder is still alive inside the walls and the iron gates).

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Inside the replica cell

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The writing on the wall…

But the park has its lighter side too. There is a children’s play area with a climbing wall and a sand pit, and the old prison graveyard is now used for allotments. The concept of combining remembrance with nature and relaxation has been achieved. In 2007 the Geschichtspark Moabit won the Deutscher Landschaftsarchitekturpreis (German Landscape Architecture prize). It’s well worth a visit.

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Lay-out of the Geschichtspark