Grashina Gabelmann explores the story behind Mitte’s Haus Schwarzenberg…
Most visitors to Berlin find themselves ambling along Mitte’s Rosenthaler Strasse at some point, often to browse well-known commercial landmarks like the Rosen and Hackeschen Höfe.
While these places possess their own kind of charm, located between these highly buffed retail magnets, at No. 39, is a more subdued, scruffy building whose brown, pockmarked façade — conspicuously un-refurbished – is decorated only by old blocky German lettering that suggests a bygone era.
This blast from the past, criminally bypassed by many, is Haus Schwarzenberg, owned and run by the Verein Schwarzenberg (Schwarzenberg Association), who are independent from government funding.
It shares exactly the same format as the surrounding buildings, i.e. a rear courtyard full of apartments, shops and storage areas, but with the crucial difference that the entire space has retained, as much as possible, its original post-war condition. Also, the utilisation of the spaces within–an independent cinema, cafe/bar (with live music/art performances), an art/book shop, various artist studios and a trio of small but interesting museumscontrast distinctively with its luxe neighbours.
The property has a long history. Its various units have been used as a factory, a shared living commune, a GDR movie and television office and a brush-making factory that employed and hid Jews during the Second World War (the associated Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt tells this story).
It was Jutta Weitz, an energetic, affable and now 62-year-old lady who made this possible. Jutta works for Wohnungsbau Gesellschaft (a housing development company) and instead of offering this massive building to some sort of business corporation she figured it would be perfect for this group of artists.
“I showed them this place and at first they weren’t interested – it was too big. But then they turned it into a collaboration with other artists and started to fix the place up,” she says, adding: “The house is like a small universe…after the war, neither the Americans nor the Russians took over the space and to this day it’s a free structure.”
This freedom is expressed through Verein Schwarzenberg’s mission to support artistic activities of all sorts while providing a place for international artists to work together. The Neurotitan gallery and shop has pretty much perfected this job by hosting up to 12 major international exhibitions yearly. An underground space called the Monster Kabinett also hosts rotating exhibitions of the last 20 years of work by the Dead Chickens.
Of particular interest for history and wartime buffs are the museums located within, which explore Jewish life in the area during WWII. The Gedenkstatte Stille Helden honours and commemorates local Jewish inhabitants who risked their lives to rescue persecuted Jews, documenting both heroic successes and tragic failures via written reports, photographs, documents and oral testimonies.
Among the heroes is Otto Weidt, a German entrepreneur who helped save a number of his employees – all of whom were blind – from his workshop next door. Now called the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt, it has been kept in its original post-war state and features photographs and personal mementos of Weidt’s life, stories and documents of his workers. The original hidden room, where Weidt hid Jewish families when the Gestapo came knocking, has also been retained located. Hidden behind a backless wardrobe, it’s a hauntingly claustrophobic reminder of the horrors of the era.
Finally, the Anne-Frank-Zentrum (www.annefrank.de) is a modern, surprisingly engaging exhibition that expands on the life and themes of the well-known Jewish girl who hid in a house in Amsterdam.
In contrast to the surrounding gentrified melee, Verein Schwarzenberg is committed to values of tolerance, intercultural creativity, freedom and diversity.
“I think the mixture and diversity is what makes it exciting,” remarks Weitz. “People of different national and professional backgrounds get the chance to collaborate and help each other out. If you start talking to the people that work here, you can peel back layers and layers, which reveal stories of people and places you wouldn’t have expected.”
Rosenthaler Straße 39