The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee is one of the largest and most beautiful Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Earlier this month, I was strolling along its many sun-dappled paths together with Berlin friends. Stopping to read the inscriptions on the headstones, we reflected on over a century of European history. We all felt fortunate to be alive in a united Germany that welcomed people of all races and nationalities, and a Europe trying to work together for peace and stability in the global community. It seemed as if we had come such a long way along the road of cooperation and enlightenment since the terrible events of the 20th Century. And now, in late June 2016, Great Britain has decided to distance itself from the European Union. It hardly seems credible.
At the entrance of the cemetery is a Holocaust memorial. Translated into English, the inscription on the central headstone reads, ‘Always remember what happened to us. Dedicated to the memory of our brothers and sisters 1933-45 and to the living who are to fulfil the legacy of the dead.’ This headstone is surrounded by further stones, each with the names of concentration camps. Next to it is a memorial, dedicated in 1927, to 12,000 Berlin Jews who lost their lives during the First World War, and also a commemorative plaque to those who resisted the Nazis.
The Holocaust Memorial at Weissensee
In 1995 the Bundeswehr paid tribute to the 400 Jewish soldiers buried in Weissensee, who fought and died for Germany in the First World War
The graves of Berliners who died in the Holocaust cannot, of course, be found in Weissensee but there are many individual memorials to them scattered amongst the actual graves and their names have sometimes been added to the headstones of family members.
A memorial to a father and his sister who both died in Ausschwitz
A 1971 headstone with a dedication to a mother murdered in Riga in 1941
On the map, the Weissensee cemetery looks like a Renaissance garden; a geometric pattern of rectangles, trapeziums and triangles. The avenues criss-cross each other in circles and squares. But when you enter the grounds, you feel you have stepped into a place of enchantment. Among the high trees and thickets there are columns, stones, mausoleums, ivy and lilac. And it is all so peaceful. Few people are aware that the cemetery grounds are classified as a historical monument.
Photo taken in 1907
‘Section 1, Field B’ photo taken in June 2016
The significance of the cemetery lies not only in its extraordinary graves, whose variety and splendour today seem almost incredible, but also its fate, which is so closely entwined with that of Berlin. When you explore the cemetery on foot, it is like walking through a history book. The list of famous artists, philosophers, lawyers, architects, doctors, religious teachers and publishers who are buried here is endless. The Berlin department store founders Adolf Janert (KaDeWe) and Herman Tietz (Hertie) are among them, the artist Lesser Ury, whose works were banned by the Nazis, the publisher Samuel Fischer (S. Fischer Verlag), Berthold Kempinski, who gave his name to the famous luxury hotel chain and Rudolf Mosse, who once owned the largest publishing house in Europe.
Grave of Lesser Ury (1861-1931) painter of Berlin landscapes
The Weissensee Cemetery opened in 1880. The old Jewish cemetery in Große Hamburger Straße, opened in 1672, had reached its full capacity in 1827 and the second cemetery in Schönhauser Allee, opened in the same year, reached its capacity in the 1880s.The very first person to be buried in Weissensee on 22nd September 1880 was not a celebrity, but Louis Gruenbaum, the former director of an old peoples’ home. On the side of his gravestone is a large number ‘1’. The fact that it is still standing is because a Jewish cemetery is created for eternity. The graves are not levelled and there are no expiry dates, as in other German cemeteries. On every gravestone in Weissensee there is a sequential number.There are also many gravestones where the date of death is given according the Jewish calendar which starts on the day Adam and Eve were created.
The Landecker brothers died in the years 5,661 and 5,678 …
Over 115,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Simple headstones stand alongside splendid mausoleums from the art nouveau or art deco eras. Some graves were designed by Bauhaus architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some of them seem fanciful, others impress with their monumental style. Yet, although the money available to spend on the creation of each grave must have varied greatly at the time, today they are similar; mostly crumbling, overgrown, forgotten. In places, hardly a ray of light can pierce the massive treetops to reach down on to the graves. The Holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions but also destroyed the memory of them. In the 1930s there were 170,000 Jews living in Berlin, at the end of the war only 5,000 remained.
One of the larger mausoleum-style family graves
Yet Weissensee cemetery was never closed during the war years. Jewish children played there when it became too dangerous for them on the streets of Berlin. Martin Riesenburger, who later became rabbi of East Berlin’s Jewish community, survived the Holocaust with his wife by hiding in the cemetery. Between 1943 and 1944, he not only buried the Jewish dead there, but conducted religious services in the grounds. He was also able to rescue religious ritual objects, including numerous Torah Scrolls and silver ornaments, by hiding them in the cemetery. Many other Jews were able to save themselves by hiding within the vast grounds, including inside the burial vault of opera singer Joseph Schwarz. Details surrounding the Gestapo’s discovery of this hiding place came to light through a report written by Christoph Hein. He described the Gestapo’s gruesome torture of those whose hiding places were discovered.
These happy photos were taken in 1942 in the Jewish Cemetery. The boys survived the war, but the girls were deported and murdered.
As Weissensee Cemetery is situated on the outskirts of the former capital of the GDR, after the war it fell into further oblivion. It wasn’t possible for the tiny Jewish community of East Berlin to control the spreading wilderness. In their helplessness, the administration decided to leave the main part of the cemetery to nature and just have a few representative plots near the entrance where burials could still take place. Since reunification, the cemetery staff are trying to restore the individual graves one by one.
GDR children playing games along the tops of graves in the 1970s
Some current low-key clearing and renovation taking place
The beautifully-restored Hall of Mourning
With an estimated 40,000 members, the Jewish community in Berlin today is the largest in Germany. This is partly due to the number of Jews who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. The customs and traditions these families have brought from their old homeland are the latest and most exciting chapter in the Weissensee history because funerals are still taking place in these historic grounds. On our walk, we saw several family members tending recent graves where the headstones were mostly in Russian or Hebrew.
Newer graves with Hebrew and Russian inscriptions
Weissensee is now a thriving suburb of north-east Berlin, just beyond trendy Prenzlauer Berg. When the Jewish Cemetery opened there, it was a small village. There are still those who jokingly say that the cemetery is ‘just outside Poland’, although in 1880 family members thought nothing of making the journey by horse-drawn tram from Alexanderplatz. Today the M4 tram whisks you out to Weissensee in no time. The cemetery is only a 5 minute walk from stop 14 at Albertinenstrasse.
One of the prettiest graves, with metalwork freshly re-painted
In 2011, a wonderful film was made about the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee: ‘Im Himmel und unter Erde’ (In Heaven and under the Earth). Follow this link to see the trailer – the narration is in German, but you get a real feel for the atmosphere of the cemetery and its historic significance. There is also a captivating book about the cemetery, ‘The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery – Moments in History’, published by be.bra verlag. The photographs are truly beautiful (I have used a few for this blog) and the text is in both German and English.
Cover photo for the book
Finally, you can read more information about the cemetery – including contact details and opening times – on the website of the Berlin Jewish Community. It was here I discovered that the famous writer and former GDR legislator Stefan Heym, who died in Israel on 16th December 2001, was buried in Weissensee five days after his death. In November 1994, Heym said, “People expect us to deal with and establish acceptable, socially just conditions… a coalition of reason… This, however, requires a coalition of reasonable people…” (“Die Menschen erwarten, dass wir uns als Wichtigstes mit der Herstellung akzeptabler sozial gerechter … Verhältnisse beschäftigen … eine Koalition der Vernunft, die eine Koalition der Vernünftigen voraussetzt”). How these words resonate today.
A night out at the Admiralspalast
The words ‘Berlin’ and ‘cabaret’ are synonymous. The songs from the 1920s and 1930s echo down the years, and capture the essential Berlin feeling. Like a magic carpet of sound they transport you effortlessly back to a time when the German capital was renowned for its creativity and risqué edginess. Packed with catchy melodies and witty lyrics, the popular hits from the Weimar era paint a musical picture of the Zeitgeist. Nobody plays them better than the iconic Berlin-based band, Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, and the historic Admiralspalast next to Friedrichstraße Station provides the perfect setting. Last month, the band was back there, with their sell-our show, ‘Eine Nacht in Berlin’ (A Night in Berlin) and I had made sure of tickets by booking six months ahead.
The hot ticket
The German word ‘Palast’ (palace) says it all; both the band and the building have style and glamour. It is sheer professionalism and a unique sound that makes Max Raabe & Palast Orchester so special. Their shows are slick and seamless and capture the sound of those pre-war years that the Americans call‘Roaring’ and the Germans call ‘Golden’ – and the heyday of the Admiralspalast. Max Raabe founded the Palast Orchester in 1986, with 11 fellow students at the Berlin Academy of Arts, where he graduated as a baritone singer. The band initially used original musical arrangements from the 1920s and 1930s that Raabe picked up at various Berlin flea markets. Then they worked on learning them before giving their first public performance in 1987. They had their first hit 5 years later, with an original song, ‘Kein Schwein ruft mich an’ (Nobody calls me up). You can follow this link to listen and read more about Max Raabe on the Goethe Institute website.
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
The band’s repertoire is mainly a homage to composers from the pre-war era of German and American popular songs, but they also perform contemporary music in the same vintage musical style. Non-German speakers might miss the humour in some of the lyrics, but Max Raabe’s singing is so accomplished and expressive that it hardly matters. There are instrumental numbers too, and in true jazz style the band members – who are traditionally all male, with the exception of the violinist – have a chance to show off their individual talent.
Queuing to get into the show
On the evening I heard them at the Admiralspalast we were treated to six extra numbers in English at the end of the show, as it was being recorded for an American TV channel. They included perfect renderings of ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. Next season the band is appearing in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the past they have performed in the Cadogan Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and in Israel. But to really tune into the band’s Berlin connection, it has to be the Admiralspalast. Tickets are already on sale for March 2017 on the band’s website.
Street view of the Admiralspalast
The Admiralspalast is one of the few Weimar theatres left in Berlin and like many survivors, it has had to re-invent itself to adapt to changing times. Its history dates back to 1867 when a saltwater spring was discovered on this site. The ‘Admiralsgartenbad’ opened in 1873 and soon became one of the leading public baths in Imperial Berlin. This building was demolished in 1910 and replaced a year later with the luxurious four-storey Admiralspalast, containing a skating rink, bowling alleys, restaurants, a cinema – and, allegedly, a bordello. The whole complex had over 900 rooms.
The ladies’ baths in the Admiralsgartenbad
The ice-skating rink at the Admiralspalast
An English cartoon from the 1920s
In 1920, the concept of the Admiralspalast was changed and the central skating rink was turned into a variety theatre in art déco style, with two dress circles and 1,065 seats. Ten years later the auditorium was enlarged to seat 2,200 and given a new, expressionist design. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Admiralspalast was used mainly for the performance of operettas. In 1939, on the orders of Goebbels, it was given the plain, classical interior that it has retained to this day. A ‘Führerloge’(Führer’s box) was added in 1940; Hitler often slipped into the theatre to watch his favourite operetta, ‘Die lustige Witwe’ (The Merry Widow).
The Admiralspalast auditorium
The Admiralspalast escaped the World War II bombing relatively unscathed. After the war, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany in the Soviet Occupation Zone held a historic convention at the Admiralspalast where they merged to become the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was to rule the GDR for 40 years. The building then became home to the Berlin State Opera until 1955, when restoration of the opera house on Unter den Linden was completed. During the GDR years, revues and operettas continued to be performed at the Admiralspalast, but under the name of the Metropol-Theater. The GDR Union of Journalists also had its offices inside the Admiralspalast.
The Admiralspalast as home to the Berlin State Opera
After reunification, the Admiralspalast put on shows until 1997, when it was closed and threatened with demolition. The site stood empty for several years, but was finally rescued and renovated. On August 11th, 2006, when the restoration work was still incomplete, it officially reopened with Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer. This was followed by ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and, in the summer of 2009, it became the first venue in Germany to stage Mel Brook’s cult comedy ‘The Producers’. Follow this link for an interesting review of this Nazi-lampooning show. These days, it’s mainly concerts and comedy shows that are held in the main auditorium of the Admiralspalast. Sometimes the seats are folded away – then everyone parties and dances the night away. The Admiralspalast’s website gives all the details of their entertainment programme in English.
Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg is the perfect choice for a sunny spring afternoon. This pretty park comes complete with an impressive historic monument, an artificial waterfall, fabulous 360° views from the top of the hill and a cool Biergarten. Who could ask for more? Few cities can compete with Berlin when it comes to green spaces and water. In fine weather, people flock to the Tiergarten and fill pleasure boats on the Spree. Or they head off to the outer edges, full of forests and awash with lakes. But why get caught up in the crowds or leave the city centre when there is a green hill, not so far away?
The park in summer
Viktoriapark’s history is fascinating. In 1821, on a hill known for its vineyards and originally called the ‘Tempelhof Berg’ or ‘Runder Berg’, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel unveiled his national monument to commemorate the Wars of Liberation. Schinkel’s neo-gothic cast-iron edifice consists of a 20-metre high column, adorned with twelve statues symbolising the twelve major battles against Napoleon and topped by a huge iron cross. It was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who instituted the award of the Iron Cross in 1813. In 1821 the hill was duly renamed the ‘Kreuzberg’ (Cross Hill).
Cast-iron statues around the monument
In 1878, the monument was made even more impressive by being elevated on to a massive granite and sandstone base. It was around this time that the land on the slopes of the hill was laid out as a public park and named after Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and wife of the future Kaiser Friedrich III.
The monument seen from its base
Then, ten years later, Berlin’s Director of City Parks decided to give the park a mountain-like character by adding a 24-metre high waterfall, a miniature replica of the Wodospad Podgórnej waterfall in Poland, once a popular tourist destination for wealthy Berliners. As there isn’t a natural source of water on the Kreuzberg itself, water is pumped up the hill to feed the waterfall and the water circulation is now 13,000 litres per minute. The cascade over the rocks is an amazing sight and remains a big attraction.
Admiring the waterfall from above
Greater Berlin was formed in 1920 by merging Berlin’s suburbs into 20 boroughs and Viktoriapark found itself in ‘Hallesches Tor’. Only a year later, this borough was renamed Kreuzberg after its illustrious hill and now it is one of the most multi-cultural and liveliest areas of Berlin, known for its cafés, bars and nightlife. The fireworks in Viktoriapark on New Year’s Eve and the May Day street fairs all add to Kreuzberg’s explosive colour.
Artist’s impression of colourful Kreuzberg (Martin Schwartz)
But last week in Viktoriapark, I felt a million miles away from any urban vibes. We had taken the U-Bahn to Mehringdamm, then turned right into busy Yorckstrasse. We paused for a few moments of peace in the wonderfully-restored Sankt Bonifatius Church and then strolled through the calm courtyards of Riehmer’s Hofgarten towards Viktoriapark. We were already in another world.
The entrance to Riehmer’s Hofgarten
Viktoriapark was a haven of budding trees and birdsong. We climbed the winding path up to the monument and noticed several people walking or sitting among the rocks by the waterfall. Once at the top, the view across the city is fabulous. You might not see the Brandenburg Gate, but there are plenty of other landmarks to pick out, including Potsdamer Platz and Tempelhof Airport.
The Fernsehturm, seen through the spires of Sankt Bonifatius
When we’d soaked up enough afternoon sun and read every inscription on the 12-sided spire, we wandered down the grassy slopes to the legendary Golgatha Biergarten at the back of the park. Only a few tables and benches were occupied and the large sandy playgrounds were relatively empty.
One of several large playparks
In summer, it’s a very different picture. As the temperature rises, the atmosphere in Viktoriapark heats up too. The open spaces are packed with sunbathers, picnickers and musicians, and dogs and children frolic about in the waterfall. Watching the sunset from the steps around the monument is a must and Golgatha’s opening hours are from 9.00 am for breakfast until ‘Open End’.
Golgatha in early Spring
Although we didn’t come across it, there is apparently still a small vineyard in Viktoriapark which produces ‘Kreuz-Neuroberger’ wine. It was founded in 1968 when the vines were donated to the Borough of Kreuzberg by the town of Wiesbaden. Only about 300 bottles are pressed each year and they are mostly used as ‘prestigious gifts’ presented on special occasions. But I have heard that a 10 euro donation at the ‘district office’ will get you at a half-bottle. I will be following this up on my next visit to Kreuzberg. In the meantime you can find an interesting feature on the vineyards of Berlin by following this link.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Clearing the cemetery to make way for the Berlin Wall
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt in 1910
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’.
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.
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.
Ivan Fischer conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the ‘Welcome to Refugees’ concert
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.
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.
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.
In summer 1982
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.
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.
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.
Browsing in the MGB bookshop