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

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