What’s in a name? In the case of Checkpoint Charlie, with its personification of a notorious border crossing at the Berlin Wall, it immediately conjures up visions of soldiers, spies and daring deeds. ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, ‘Octopussy’, ‘Goodbye Lenin’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ all have famous scenes shot at Checkpoint Charlie. Now it is one of the top tourist attractions in the German capital; the place where visitors hope to feel the chill of the Cold War. But it’s impossible to really sense the tension unless you experienced it for real. All that remains of this historic landmark is a small wooden replica hut and a line of cobblestones to mark the path of the Berlin Wall.
Checkpoint Charlie 2017
Aerial view, 1980s
When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, there were three military checkpoints between West Germany and East Berlin, all given names according to the NATO phonetic alphabet. Checkpoint Alpha was at Helmstedt, on the border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Checkpoint Bravo was at Dreilinden, on the border between the GDR and the American Sector in West Berlin.
Map showing crossing points into the GDR, including Helmstedt
Checkpoint Charlie was the military border post between the American Sector in West Berlin and East Berlin (the Soviet Sector) and was located at the junction of Friedrichstraβe with Zimmerstraße and Mauerstraße (which for older historical reasons coincidentally means ‘Wall Street’). All foreigners, diplomats and members of the Allied Forces entering East Berlin on foot or by vehicle had to use the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. This was where Soviet and US tanks confronted each other in October 1961, while politicians negotiated Allied military access to East Berlin.
The border post hut where visitors to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s. Tourists can usually pay a small fee to have their photo taken in front of the hut with the ‘fake’ soldiers’ on duty, but the day I was there a couple of weeks ago, two Ukrainian singers were entertaining the crowds with their poignant freedom songs. These days Checkpoint Charlie has become synonymous with demonstrations by groups who feel oppressed.
The area around Checkpoint Charlie has an excellent permanent open-air exhibition as well as the inevitable souvenir shops and street vendors. On the corner of Kochstraße is the Mauermuseum (opened in 1962), bursting at the seams with fascinating exhibits telling the story of the Wall and the incredible escape attempts – many of which failed. Around the corner in Zimmerstraße, a memorial stele marks the place where 18-year old Peter Fechter bled to death while trying to climb over the Wall in 1962.
Memorial to Peter Fechter
Soviet and GDR souvenirs
There are two relatively new indoor additions to the tourist attractions at Checkpoint Charlie and I tried them both out on my last visit. The weather was damp and grey, so I was especially glad to ‘come in from the cold’. First, I tried the Asisi panorama of ‘The Wall’ which opened in September 2012. This cylindrical steel rotunda stands at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße and the artist Yadegar Aisis uses his 270° panorama, 15 metres high and 60 metres wide, to show everyday scenes on both sides of the Wall in the 1980s, when Asisi lived in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. I am usually sceptical of such commercial ventures but having also lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, it was quite an emotional experience and worth the €10 entrance cost. Follow this link for more information.
On the other side of the road is the ‘BlackBox’ exhibition on the Cold War. This is a multi-media experience on a smaller scale, more like a pop-up museum and only costs €5 entrance. There is plenty of film and newsreel footage and every historic event is well-explained and fully-documented. I found myself engrossed in all the details of other flashpoints of the Cold War: Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Prague and Poland. But most of all, I was back at Checkpoint Charlie in the 1980s, feeling the frisson of fear as we negotiated the chicanes, knowing that there was a machine gun trained on our vehicle from a slit in the wall on the tall building to our right.
Cold War BlackBox
When you reach the end of the exhibition there is a photo booth where you can email a Checkpoint Charlie souvenir photo of yourself to friends. It was free, so I just couldn’t resist…. For more details and pictures of the BlackBox follow this link.
Today, 9th November 2017, is the 28th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin has now been reunited for as many years as it was divided; from 1961 until 1989. In my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’, published in 2012, I devote an entire chapter to the Berlin Wall and describe city centre sites where you can see remnants of the Wall or memorials associated with it. Over the past five years, some of these sites have been further developed and new ‘Berlin Wall tourist attractions’ have been added. The previous blog, for example, featured the multi-media Wall Museum on the River Spree by Eastside Gallery, opened in 2016.
Constructing the Wall in 1961
The Wall falls in 1989
But the most significant site remains the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straβe. Here, the Wall ran right down the middle of the street, just because this line happened to mark the boundary between the boroughs of Mitte, in East Berlin and Wedding, in West Berlin. In divided Berlin, the border between East and West separated the Soviet Sector (East Berlin) from the American, British and French Sectors (West Berlin) which had all originally been created after WWII according to Berlin borough boundaries.
The Berlin Wall divides Bernauer Straβe
The Berlin Wall Memorial is not a monument as such, but an open-air exhibition dedicated to the memory of a divided city and to the victims of the Berlin Wall. A whole area of the former border strip has been gradually transformed into grass parkland, extending for 1.4 kilometres along Bernauer Straβe. Rust-coloured metal posts represent the line of the Wall, as if the concrete has been stripped away.
Posts marking the border
The houses which originally stood on the eastern side of Bernauer Strasse were destroyed by the GDR authorities to make space for the border strip. Then, as late as 1985, the Church of Reconciliation, situated right next to the Wall in East Berlin, was also was demolished ‘to improve security’. As part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, this imposing Gothic-style building was replaced by a simple Chapel of Reconciliation, in memory of the East Germans who lost their lives trying to escape to the West.
The Church of Reconciliation behind the Wall
The Chapel of Reconciliation today
Information boards guide visitors through the area of the Wall Memorial, with metal tracks in the ground showing the outlines of where tenement blocks once stood and brass plaques in the pavement marking points where East Berliners made successful or fatal escape attempts, either over the border or by means of underground tunnels.
Memorial to those who died trying to escape
But the most arresting part of the Berlin Wall Memorial is an original 70-metre long section of the Wall itself, complete with watchtower and the ‘death zone’ behind it. On the other side of the street, the Documentation Centre has a viewing platform on the top floor where you can stand and survey these border installations from above. This is the only site in Berlin where you can still viscerally sense the stark reality of the Berlin Wall ‘in the flesh’.
The Berlin Wall preserved
No visitor to Berlin should miss seeing the Berlin Wall Memorial. For all details of how to get there and plan your visit, including information and exhibitions available at the Visitor Center and the Documentation Center, follow this link: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/
Heavenly views of Berlin are always a treat and in summer it seems as if every hotel in the city is competing to have the coolest rooftop venue. But Radio Eins has nailed the prize this year. To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, this radio station has transformed the conference room and roof terrace on the top floor of the RBB tower block into a sensational ‘Dachlounge’ (roof lounge). The initials ‘RBB’ stand for Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, the nationally-affiliated broadcasting company for Berlin-Brandenburg.
Looking up at the RBB tower block
A section of the Berlin Wall in the RBB gardens
‘Radio Eins Ganz Oben’ (‘Radio One right at the top’) opened its Dachlounge on 1st July and plans to close on 31st December. Entry is free – just be prepared to have your bag searched, before being whizzed up to the 14th floor from the outside lift on Theodor-Heuss-Platz in Charlottenburg. Then simply walk straight outside on to the terrace to enjoy the fabulous 360° views. There’s seating there as well and, in fair weather, a shed serving drinks and freshly-barbecued snacks. Last week, we were treated to a torrential downpour, followed by sunshine and a spectacular rainbow over Berlin. The views extended for miles.
Views in every direction
Inside, the RBB conference area has become a bar, a restaurant, a lounge and a studio – all in one space. Large company meetings apparently now take place in the RBB offices in Potsdam (which you can just about see in the distance from the roof terrace). The interior of the Dachlounge has a modern, loft-style feel to it, with orange and dark grey décor and full-length panoramic windows. Radio Eins is a radio station aimed at the over 25 age group and features plenty of timeless pop music as well as current hits, so the Dachlounge atmosphere is smooth rather than edgy.
Inside the Dachlounge
The opening hours are midday until midnight, seven days a week. You can go there for a meal or just call in for a coffee or cocktail. On weekdays, live programmes are broadcast from the Dachlounge between 7pm and 9pm – on these evenings you are advised to make a reservation for dinner. Places are limited to 150 guests. For a feel of the place, just follow this link for a video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sBpFK3OMlc
Of course, the tower block is only one part of the huge RBB complex. Radio and television history are intimately connected with Berlin and the original broadcasting building is the vast and imposing ‘Haus des Rundfunks’ (Broadcasting House) on Masurenallee, opposite the Funkturm (radio tower). The iconic ‘D’ shaped structure of the Haus des Rundfunks was designed by architect Hans Poelzig and built in 1929-31, using dark, shiny, clinker bricks. The transmitting studios radiate from the entrance hall and are enclosed within the offices.
The front of the main building
Close-up of the brickwork
The Haus des Rundfunks remained largely undamaged during the Second World War due to some ingenious methods to disguise its position from Allied bombers. After the war and until 1956, the entire building remained a Soviet enclave in the British Sector of Berlin and, since the Soviets only allowed the other Allies a fraction of the transmitting time, this led to the setting up of RIAS (Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor) in order to broadcast to Berliners the viewpoint of the West. SFB (Sender Freies Berlin,‘Berlin’s Free Broadcaster’) was established in 1956 by a West Berlin parliamentary act to create an independent broadcasting station for West Berlin. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Haus des Rundfunks, which had been left in a desolate state by the Soviets, was rendered operational by the SFB. In the mid-1980s I went on a guided tour of the Haus des Rundfunks and it was a fascinating place to explore. We were shown some of first recording studios in the world, under historic preservation order. The wood panelling around the concert hall where the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded its concerts was taken from just one tree so that the sound absorption is uniform. And when the seats in the auditorium were lifted, they revealed perforations which acted acoustically in the same way as a person occupying the seat.
1980s aerial view of the SFB buildings
But despite its modern concept, the Haus des Rundfunks could not live up to the requirements needed for television and so SFB built a new tower block alongside it, on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. This was opened in 1968 and as some of the studios inside are situated directly over the U-Bahn, they are literally ‘suspended’ to prevent any vibrations from the trains running underneath the building. SFB continued to exist until 2003 when it was merged with ORB (Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg East German Radio Brandenburg), based in Potsdam, to form RBB. For guided tours of the RBB studios follow this link: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/haus-des-rundfunks
View of the Funkturm from the Dachlounge terrace
Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.
Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum
The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.
View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today
There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.
Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel
During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.
The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel
In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.
The reconstructed Nikolaikirche
The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Inside the Nikolaikirche
In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.
The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal
The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.
The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now
But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.
The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant
Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.
The monastery ruins
Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight.
The palms of Babylon
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.