A Stroll Through Hohenschönhausen

Paul Scraton explores local history and personal memories along Hohenschönhausen’s Konrad-Wolf-Straße…

At the northern end of Hohenschönhausen’s Konrad-Wolf-Straße, after a row of shops and the café where I once sat and had one of my first coffees with my partner Katrin, there is an empty space.

Back when we sat in that café, ten years ago or more, there was a school here, set just back from the road. Katrin’s high school, to be precise, which she attended through the nineties after the wall had come down and her family moved south from Stralsund.

The school is gone, but many of her friends’ families remain in the neighbourhood and, just like today, we find ourselves enjoying the occasional walk around the leafy streets here.

“It was a good place to grow up,” says Katrin with finality, as if the point was ever up for debate.

The north end of Konrad-Wolf-Straße is where the village of Hohenschönhausen once stood, across the fields from Berlin. The old church and manor house remain, surrounded by Plattenbau apartment blocks and post-Wende shopping centres. Like so many of the villages around Berlin – Rixdorf and Dahlem, Reinickendorf and Weißensee – the city swallowed it so completely that barely a trace remains, and the Konrad-Wolf-Straße, once the road to Berlin, is just another urban street. But as with many such urban streets in this city of ours, it has a lot of stories to tell.

Like so many corners of this city, the turning point can be traced to the 1870s and the impacts of German unification – with Berlin as the capital – and industrialization. We find traces of Hohenschönhausen’s industrial history as we walk down the street. At number fourteen, the tumbledown house with a crumbling, lion-shaped relief on the street-side façade was once the Löwenbräu brewery. We pick our way along a pathway down the side of the house to find the main red brick brewery building. It is in better shape than the house out front, but it is a long time since beer has been made here. Now, the brewery is an old people’s home, and its residents are sitting on the benches out front, enjoying the sunshine.

Behind the brewery lie the Obersee and Orankesee lakes, and a house built by Mies van der Rohe for the Lemke family and the only private home he ever designed and built. This is a villa quarter that developed from the 1890s on, after the brewery sold the land to developers. By the 1920s, it had become the preserve of industrialists, artists and other wealthy Berliners, and had picked up the nickname “Wannsee of the North.” Later, when Hohenschönhausen found itself in the German Democratic Republic, the villa quarter was controlled by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi), whose main prison was a few blocks away in the “forbidden zone” – which is nowadays made up of car showrooms, a Lidl, and indeed the former Stasi Prison. Despite the change of ownership, the villas remained in the hands of the privileged within the socialist system, being allocated by the Stasi to high-ranking members of the Party, favoured artists, and the sportsmen and women who brought glory to the regime.

Further down the street, past the old fire station (now a restaurant) and the loop where the trams used to terminate before the lines were extended, there is a second reminder of Hohenschönhausen’s industrial heritage: the old sugar factory at number eighty, where the VEB Pralina concern made sweet treats during the GDR-era. Left empty from 1992 until a couple of years ago, it has now been renovated into a post-industrial apartment complex. Peering through the railings at the red-brick factory building with spacious balconies welded to its façade, it’s hard not to notice the odd Mercedes and Audi; the residents seem to be a prosperous lot.

The villas and the new apartments contrast with the other housing along the street, which, perhaps, remains as functional and as working class as it ever was – whether back in the days of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic, or before, when the factories and the breweries still offered jobs.

But some traditions remain on the Konrad-Wolf-Straße: at the Blauert bakery, they still make their own bread out back, rather than buying it in half-baked to be heated up in the ovens, whilst inside the tiny Eiscafe Heidi you can look past the young woman serving cones and see busy hands chopping fruit for the next batch of homemade ice cream.

And although Dönerbox and Asiapfanne are on sale on one side of the street, the Pietschmann’s restaurant on the opposite corner promises a menu of (n)ostalgisch essen for those looking for a taste of the past.

A glance at an old map or two will show that even when Hohenschönhausen was a village, the cemeteries of St.-Pius- und St.-Hedwig and the St.-Andreas- und St.-Markus were places where the local population could lay their dead to rest. Here, the cemetery walls occupy a kilometre or so of one side of the street, and the row of houses opposite includes numerous florists, undertakers, shacks where you can buy gravestones, and a restaurant that discretely advertises its suitability for a wake – and where indeed we once went to remember Katrin’s Uncle. A few years later, we returned to bury her grandmother, and any walk along this part of the street involves a few moments of reflection and thoughts, as happy as we can muster, of those we have lost.

Beyond the cemeteries and we reach the end of the road, and the enormous Sportforum complex. The GDR was a country that valued Olympic medals so much that they set up a highly advanced doping programme to shorten the odds; a country whose regime saw the elite athletes in their distinctive blue “DDR” vests as “diplomats in sports gear” – and the Sportforum in Hohenschönhausen was one of their main training bases.

In fact, it remains in service for the Federal Republic’s sports programme to this day, meaning that the complex comprises a strange mix of crumbling and out-of-date buildings on the one hand, and state-of-the-art training centres for a wide variety of sports on the other. It is also home to BFC Dynamo, a lower-league football team with a past as illustrious as it is infamous.

For ten years in a row, from 1979-88, Dynamo won every single GDR football championship, and competed at the highest level of European competition. It helped, no doubt, that Dynamo, like the villa quarter and the forbidden zone further north, belonged to the Ministry for State Security, and that the team’s number one fan was Stasi chief Erich Mielke. It can be easier to pick off the best players and get favourable refereeing decisions when you fall under the patronage of one of the most powerful men in the regime, and Dynamo took full advantage.

We reach the limits of Hohenschönhausen, where what was once the “Berliner Straße” became the “Hohenschönhausener Straße” as it crossed district lines. The streets were joined in name in 1985 when the GDR regime decided to honour the President of the Academy of Arts and film director Konrad Wolf, on the occasion of what would have been his sixtieth birthday, had he not died three years earlier of cancer. Wolf was renowned on both sides of the Wall, so much so that he was invited to be part of the Berlinale jury in West Berlin in 1978, which helps explain why the street kept its name after the collapse of the regime that granted it in his memory. And we are left reflecting on memories of our own, of happy times as well as sad, as we wait for the next tram by the gates of the Sportforum, which will take us north and then west, to home.

All photographs by Katrin Schönig.

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