Berlin’s Vanished Jewish Quarter

Sanders Isaac Bernstein explores Mitte’s long-vanished Scheunenviertel…


“Barely a hundred paces from Alexanderplatz and the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn, it seems strange that the street names are still bland and European. But if you take a right you find yourself suddenly immersed in a strange and mournful ghetto world, where carts trundle past and an automobile is a rarity.” – Joseph Roth, The Orient on Hirtenstraße


Scheunenviertel street plan, 1862

Around a hundred years ago, hidden away at the back of a forgotten restaurant on Mitte’s Hirtenstraße—close to where the Babylon cinema stands today—there once existed a miniature replica of King Solomon’s Temple. Historians say the original temple was demolished in 586 BCE, but there’s no official record of the destruction of this replica. It doesn’t live on in any bible—only in the feuilletons of Joseph Roth, along with the memory of the Scheunenviertel, Berlin’s former Jewish quarter.

Over the decades, the Scheunenviertel has become a sort of lax shorthand for the memory of “Jewish Berlin”, as has the broader Spandauer Vorstadt, which includes still-existing Jewish sights like the Neue Synagogue and preserved Jewish Girls’ school. But in reality the Scheunenviertel—which was never an enclosed “ghetto” but rather a porous concentration of the newly-arrived—only ever encompassed a few streets and blocks around what is now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: Alexanderplatz’s trainlines bounded its south; Torstraße (then Lothringer Straße) bounded its north: Alte Schonhauser Straße marked where its density began to dissipate in the west, and Prenzlauer Straße (today Karl Liebknecht Straße) stood at its eastern edge.

The quarter got its name from the many Scheune (wooden barns) once prevalent in the district when it was situated just beyond Berlin’s central walls. During the years that the area of Alexanderplatz was a cattle market, the barns stored the necessary hay. In the late-nineteenth century, with Berlin’s growing industries needing workers, the Kaiser allowed increasing numbers of Ostjuden, Jews from Eastern Europe, to settle there as they fled the disintegrating Habsburg Empire and, later, the unrest caused by the Russian Revolution.

In 1880, almost three thousand Jews arrived in Berlin in a single year. By 1910, Eastern European Jews constituted a population of 21,000 in Berlin. And, by the time Roth wrote his pieces of local colour in the early twenties, the documented Ostjuden population was at 44,000—around a quarter of all Jews in Berlin. The quarter’s Jewish population peaked at around 48,000 Jews, about a third of the city’s Jews, just when the Nazis seized power. There were doubtless many more without documents, though; as Roth wrote, “half a Jewish life is used up in the useless struggle against papers.”

Sodtke’s Restaurant, formerly at Mulackstrasse 15, Berlin. Via Wikipedia.

Hirtenstraße was, for Roth, the Scheunenviertel’s shabby, pulsating heart, but walking along it today you won’t find a trace of the “Orient” that he described: the bustling daily interactions of migrants and refugees from Romania, Ukraine, Galicia, Hungary and other places. They were mostly on their way West and away from the pogroms, out of Europe and towards America or perhaps Palestine but taking a moment—sometimes much longer—to rest in Berlin.

Today, there are no Polish children playing in the street. There is neither strong Russian schnapps, nor good brown bread; neither sausage, nor smoked fish from Krakow to consume on credit—only the designer carpets of Rug Star by Jürgen Dahlmanns, which sits on the corner of Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße.

Nondescript apartments have replaced the Logirhaus Centrum, the Jewish hotel on Hirtenstraße’s corner with Grenadierstraße. That street has also been renamed—Almstadtstraße, after the Communist resistance fighter Bernhard Almstadt, who was executed in 1944. In July this year, you couldn’t even see the street’s two lone Stolpensteine, the memory stones to Else Zamory and her daughter, Helga, who both were born in Rummelsburg and died in Auschwitz; a new construction site on the corner of Hirtenstraße and Karl Liebknecht Straße hid them.

Logirhaus Centrum in 1905 (corner of Grenadierstraße and Hirtenstraße), via Wikipedia.

For Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin, Alexanderplatz, it was Grenadierstraße—now Almstadtstraße—that was the heart of the Scheunenviertel: “there seems to be a constant crowd. The street is completely taken over by people; they come and go out of the gnarled, ancient houses. This is a totally eastern quarter, dominated by guttural Yiddish. The not so numerous shops carry Hebrew inscriptions; I encounter the names: Schaja, Uscher, Chanaine. Show windows announce a Jewish Theater (“Jüdele the Blind, Five Acts from Joseph Lateiner”), Jewish Butchers, Artisanal Shops, Bookstores.”

Grenadierstraße not only housed Jewish bookstores and kosher food shops, but also religious organisations. The contemporary incarnation of this “street of little eternity,” as the novelist Martin Berardt called it in his novel of that name, is a quiet side street, without a whisper of commerce, crowd, or prayer. At No. 43, once No. 7 Grenadierstraße, there was a Hebrew bookstore; between 1991 and 1993 the Israeli artist, Shimon Attie, conjured its past by projecting a photograph of that bookstore on the building, which still stands there today.

Almstadtstrasse 43 (formerly Grenadierstrasse 7): Slide projection of former Hebrew bookstore, 1930, Berlin, 1992, 33″X40″ chromogenic photograph and on-location Installation, Shimon Attie, Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


The Jüdisches Volksheim

Running parallel to Almstadtstraße lies Max-Beer-Straße. At No. 5 (formerly Dragonerstraße 22), sits a building that was once the centre of the community’s intellectual life: the pioneering Jüdisches Volksheim, or Jewish People’s home. The Volksheim sought to provide education for Ostjuden adults and children. Established by the medical student Siegfried Lehmann, it proposed to help the migrants of the Scheunenviertel assimilate into German society.

The home represented a more active and personal form of Jewish philanthropy from the larger charities set up by German Jews; rather than simply give funds to help support these migrants, the driving idea behind the Volksheim was to create a renewed “East-West Jewish community.” German-Jewish intellectuals came there not only out of charitable desire; they also came to learn from the Ostjuden.

The philosopher Martin Buber, today perhaps most famous for his existential text I and Thou (Ich und Du), called this resurgence among German Jewry in terms of learning about, and returning to, religious Judaism, “the Jewish Renaissance.” He answered the increasing Völkischkeit of the German Right by appropriating its terms of “blood” and imagining a renewed Jewish spiritual community predicated on the more mystical practices of Eastern European Jewry.

Staff of the Jewish Volksheim, around 1916. Used with kind permission from A. Sieff, whose mother was a volunteer at the home. The photo is part of an informative original article about the home (in German) that can be found here.

The Volksheim was conceived as a space of exchange where German Jews would not only help the Eastern-European Jews to adjust to Germany but where the latter would also assist assimilated Germans in recovering the soul of their religion. (The assimilated German Jews were possessed of the fantasy that the Ostjuden had access to the soul of Judaism, the irrational that had been lost to Berlin’s Jewry, as it was the city of the Jewish Enlightenment). Jewish philosophers and intellectuals like Martin Buber gave lectures, held discussions and were generally active in the Volksheim’s life, as did and Gerschom Scholem—then known as Gerhard—despite being no personal fan of Lehmann.

Franz Kafka and Max Brod also dropped in during their time in Berlin. In a 1916 letter, Kafka—who was an assimilated Jew from what today is the Czech Republic—wrote to his fiancé Felice Bauer that she should continue to work within the Volksheim as a social worker. It was, he wrote, the best of Berlin’s cultural attractions, “infinitely more important than Theater, than Klabund, than Gerson, and what else there is. It is also one of the most selfish opportunities. One does not help but rather seeks help. Out of this work one collects more honey than from all the flowers of Marienbad Forest.” Kafka’s last great love, Dora Diamant, was also a Volksheim employee, whom he met in Graal-Müritz—where the Volksheim children had a holiday colony—in 1923.

The Volksheim was also an important site of Zionist thought during this period; most of the people involved at 22 Dragoner Straße, as the address was then, were young Zionists. This was, however, not necessarily a political Zionism that sought the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. For some, like Scholem, the idea of the Zionism was more a cultural than political movement.

In Scholem’s view, the work of the Jewish scholar was to keep Judaism alive. This didactic understanding of Jewish scholarship might be behind his critique of the Volksheim’s lectures as so much “aesthetic ecstasy” and “literary twaddle.” Before Scholem left Berlin for good in 1923, convinced that the Jewish cultural life for which he longed could only take place in Palestine, he used his time at the Volksheim to insist on Jewish intellectuals learning Hebrew and returning to a spiritualism informed by Hebrew sources. Before the Volksheim closed down in 1929, many artistic and political dreams bloomed there—not all congruent with each other.


The Beginning Of The End

Police raid on Grenadierstrasse, February 25, 1920 

Although Berlin was merely intended as a stopover for the majority of the migrants who had entered on a transit visa (Durchreisevisum), many stayed and worked, helping to build Berlin’s rapid transit system for example, or finding employment in Berlin’s armaments industry. But by the early twentieth century, the district was a ‘problem’ the city sought to solve, a right-wing hobbyhorse—much as Neukölln is today—scapegoated for representing a radical sort of foreignness that supposedly refused to, and ultimately could not, integrate into the city and state.

The reactionary and Völkisch turn-of-the-century newspapers routinely castigated the area as a den of disease and crime—something that Roth’s feuilletons occasionally dispute, emphasising how any crime that happened there tended to be of the non-violent variety. The Yiddish name for the district, finstere medine, the “dark district,” was more related to the black-market activity said to occur there.

Regardless, the media narrative helped city officials decide to clean up the area. The Volksbühne and the stately square on which it now sits, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (first Babelsbergerplatz, then Bülowplatz between 1910-1933) is a result of Flächensanierung, a 1906 attempt at so-called urban renewal, which involved clearing a number of buildings at the center of the quarter. The Babylon Kino, designed by Hans Poelzig in 1929, and associated buildings, were built a little later as a continuation of the attempt to change the quarter’s character.

However, these new constructions did little to change the Scheunenviertel as eastern European Jews continued to arrive, gathering throughout the district in loose self-segregated colonies—Romanian with Romanian, Galician with Galician, Litvak with Litvak. The socialists remained the most politically and culturally active party within the Ostjuden community, and it’s grimly appropriate that the square now bears the name of Rosa Luxemburg; the famous leader of the German Communist party, who was murdered too soon by the Freikorps, had been born in Poland like many of other Jews who lived in the area.

The tendency of East European Jews towards socialism, as well as Zionism (more on that later), was just one the reasons for tension between the Scheunenviertel’s inhabitants and the broader German Jewish community in Berlin. The established, and largely assimilated, liberal Jewry of Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf, and Grunewald regarded the Ostjuden as both an embarrassment and problem, even attributing rising anti-Semitism to their presence (though they did also come to their aid at other times).

Even when welcomed, though, the Ostjuden were exoticised. Roth’s conceit of the “Orient of Hirtenstraße,” although not meant as harmful, was hardly a lone occurrence: eastern Jews were depicted as “Asian” Jewry, with Jewish writer and academic Adolf Grabowsky claiming the Scheunenveiertel recalled the “eternal east with his great plains”, and the playwright Walter Mehring quipping that “Berlin shares a border with Galicia.” This orientalisation, which played on ideas of Jews as irreducibly foreign, would have almost certainly contributed, at least in part, to a more general anti-Semitism.


Weimar & The Rise Of Anti-Semitism

The Weimar government, if anything, made things worse for the Ostjuden. By 1919, the government closed its border with the East to keep them out of Germany. The police regularly raided the Scheunenviertel, with police chief Eugen Ernst characterising Jews as a “cancerous sore” on the German political body. Internment camps were set up outside Berlin at Cottbus and Stargard from 1921 until 1923. And, on November 5, 1923, an anti-Semitic riot, known as the Scheunenviertel pogrom, became the largest outbreak of anti-Semitic violence during the Weimar period.

Berlin police and Nazi troops in the Grenadierstraße, 1933. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-02940A / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The London Jewish Chronicle reported how unemployed workers, denied unemployment benefits, developed into a crowd “numbering over 10,000” that ransacked shops on Grenadierstraße, empowered by a passive police force. Jewish veterans turned out with pistols and confronted the rioters, with police only getting involved after the first rioter was shot on Bülowplatz. Though only one Jew was killed, 129 people were injured, and over 1,000 shops were looted—including, it bears noting, many shops owned by Christians.

The violence spilled over. Alfred Döblin wrote in his diary that he personally “encountered sights that seemed weird even to a Berliner…there were smashed windows and wrecked shops. Among the Jews there was great anxiety about what might happen next; many contemplated another exile. What transpired in the Scheunenviertel was in some ways reminiscent of old Russia.”

It was also prescient of what would happen in Nazi Germany. With the increasing popularity of Nazism in the late twenties, the days of the quarter were numbered. And with Hitler’s Machtergreifung in 1933, Jewish immigration to Germany ceased. After the escalating indignities and punitive anti-Semitic laws of the Nazi regime, a significant but unknown number of the Scheunenviertel’s inhabitants were taken to the Polish border in October 1938—part of the 17,000 Polish Jews expelled from Germany. It was the first of the mass deportations, and worse, that would decimate the Jewish people who gave the quarter its distinctive life.

By the time the war was finished, the quarter and inhabitants were almost totally destroyed; those who survived the Shoah scattered across the world. What buildings remained fell into disrepair under the East German government and were then bulldozed and rebuilt in the years after the Wall came down, casualties of the inexorable march of market capitalism as much as World War Two or the Cold War.

Although the traces of the Scheunenviertel’s former inhabitants are very scarce, there are a few. Close to Alte Schönhauser Straße is the  Schendelpark, where kids happily climb on a playground structure, and office workers take lunch breaks on benches. There used to be residential buildings here, testified by a Stolperstein on the floor in memory of Sally Epstein, born in 1907, an artist’s assistant who became a member of the Roter Frontkämpferbund (The Red Front Fighter Group). It was during a fight between the SA and her group that the Nazi ‘martyr’ Horst Wessel was killed. After the Nazis came to power, she was captured, and killed on April 10, 1935 after a show trial.

On the other side of the park, at No.4 Alte Schönhauser Straße, you can find the Stolpersteine of the four members of the Lebzelter family. Ignatz, the father of the family, born October 24, 1898 was an Ukranian machine worker, a Galician, who like so many other Jews of the era, moved to Berlin to work in its factories in the late 1920s. He and his wife, Debora, had four children, two of whom are remembered here, Susanne and Amalie. Ignatz was killed in Buchenwald in 1945. Debora, Susanne, and Amalie were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. Ida and Sabine, the youngest sisters, survived, escaping to England in the infamous Kindertransports.

Perhaps there are so few memory stones in the Scheunenviertel because there would simply be too many to place. Or it could be that the records of so many of their lives, as refugees, as migrants, as people without papers, are too scant. But once you’ve looked into the calamitous and heartbreaking history of this quarter, it’s hard to walk along its quietly haunted and heavily gentrified streets and not think of the police running down Mulackstraße during the pogrom of 1923; or Döblin strutting innocently along Münzstraße as he headed “behind” Alexanderplatz into “the East,” into a strange and exotic part of the city where temples once stood and an entire world, but for some writing like his, can vanish with barely a trace.

Recommended Literature
Alfred Döblin, Berlin, Alexanderplatz (1929)
Joseph Roth, The Wandering Jews (1927)

Recommended Art
Roman Vishniac, A Vanished World (1983)
Shimon Attie, The Writing on the Wall (1994)

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