Berlin is a city that has lived many lives.
Just in the last one hundred years, we’ve had the vibrant Golden Twenties, which saw great cultural movements in architecture, literature, art, music, and film. Not long after, Berlin was destroyed by World War II, bombed, set on fire, and ravaged with bullets. Under the Nazi regime, hundreds of thousands of people were persecuted and murdered. After the war, the city was split by the Berlin Wall - prohibiting those living in East Germany from traveling or emigrating to West Germany. A few years ago, Berlin was nicknamed “Poor but sexy” by the previous mayor - highlighting the trend of many people flocking to Berlin especially in recent years, for the cheap rent, great nightlife, beautiful apartments, and creative freedom.
This portion of the Berlin Wall was renamed the East Side Gallery in 1990. Photogrpahy by Elizabeth Rushe.
These days, some of those great things about Berlin are at risk - the city is battling gentrification and it’s more and more difficult to even find an apartment, let alone one with a reasonable rent payment.
One constant, though: stepping out onto the Berlin footpath, there is always something new to learn about this ever-changing city.
For Beata Gontarczyk-Krampe, who moved to Berlin 15 years ago, the questions about the buildings, people, and history of Berlin led her to launch Kreuzberged, her blog dedicated to “Everything you never knew you wanted to know about Berlin.” Beata has gone on to publish two Berlin Companion books - treasure troves of curiosities about Berlin city.
Large scale street art mural of the Berlin Wall falling and Euro currency rising, by artist “Blu.”
About seven years ago, Beata’s curiosity about the city was ignited thanks to being a new mother who often took her baby out for walks around her neighborhood, Kreuzberg. “I started simply researching - I wanted to know when a building was demolished after the second World War, damaged in an air raid - or even to find out why there was a plot where nothing was ever built,” she explained over beers in one of her favorite spots, Wirtshaus Hasenheide, a restaurant dating back 100 years.
When she began, Beata didn’t speak German fluently yet. Her research led her to improve her language skills so she could ask locals questions and decipher historical documents. The challenge was not only learning German to communicate with the living, but Beata discovered that many archived papers are handwritten - some even written in Sütterlin, a historical form of German from the early 1900s.
“I was researching a fascinating person and wanted to know more about a construction project he was working on,” Beata explained, “The Landesarchiv (Berlin Archives) had the original documents. They brought out these beautiful old files in handwritten paper and it was all written in Sütterlin - or even pre-Sütterlin. I hardly understood anything, I spent the day reading - and, to be honest, sniffing the paper and looking at the drawings because it was about a construction project. It was a lesson to me. Next time I was armed with a dictionary and took photos, and then deciphered it at home.”
Stolperstein on Köpenickerstrasse in Kreuzberg. Stolperstein are brass plates to commemorate victims of Nazi persecution - usually installed in the ground outside victims homes - a project by the German artist Gunter Demnig. There are now over 50,000 stolperstein installed across Europe.
It seems written in the stars that Beata has become a historical investigator: born in Poland, her grandparents’ house had belonged to a German family before World War II. There were traces of their lives everywhere - family papers in the attic, beautiful crockery discovered in the garden. And there were signs that the family must have had to make a sudden departure.
“My grandmother said there were plates still left standing on the table when they moved in,” Beata explained, “It leaves a mark on you if you come into contact with such things - it’s not just a cup or roof tile, it means something. I always liked history, and read history books, and my dad likes it. Then I come to Berlin, and I’m like a pig in the mire.”
Plaque in the ground in Kreuzberg, indicating where the Berlin Wall used to cut through this part of the path.
What makes Kreuzberged especially noteworthy is the attention to detail. Beata doesn’t just want to know where and when, but also the why, why not, who, who else, and what else is there to find out, as well.
“If you have a good story and you can tell it in an interesting way, then people will listen to you,” Beata says, “That’s how it worked - I read something or stumbled on it and it was a real ‘Wow’ moment, which I love, then I like to find out more.”
Though she calls herself an amateur when it comes to marketing, the Kreuzberged blog has built an engaged following on both Facebook and Twitter. Admitting that she was slow to set up her Twitter account - “I didn’t think 140 characters was enough!” - she now finds it a dynamic platform for engaging conversations. “If you want to network, it’s definitely the thing,” Beata says. Twitter has provided the opportunity to have lively discussions with fellow historians, and even led to her recently meeting up for coffee with historian Roger Moorhouse, a historical consultant for TV and author who has written some of the best books about Berlin, Beata says.
A gate in the Berlin Wall / East Side Gallery adorned with “love locks.”
But there are drawbacks with having an online presence when documenting history. “You meet a lot of people who you don’t want to network with,” Beata explained. Because of simply having a blog dedicated to Berlin history, a part of which includes the Third Reich period under the Nazi regime, Beata has had to block people on Twitter who reach out to her but appear to be Nazi sympathizers.
“At the beginning, I used to try to reason with them, but you can’t reason with them. You can do nothing. It’s basically a waste of time. I usually check someone’s account and if I see this is the direction they like - pro-Nazi, I just ban them, we are not discussing anything,” Beata explained. She’s thankful for the block button, “It’s possible to filter out the bad influence.”
One of the more surprising hit discoveries Beata made, was about the curious layout of some Berlin bathrooms in Altbau apartments, built before 1949 - the type of apartment in which Beata’s husband lived when they first met. Apartments that didn’t have bathrooms were now required by law to add one, so in order to make space to build the bathroom into the apartment, they would divide a pantry, for example. But a window was also required. The result was a long, narrow bathroom with a tiny window.
“There was so much feedback after that,” Beata says, “People kept writing me saying they’d been wondering for years why their bathroom was so long and narrow with this little window at the end.”
More of Beata’s discoveries range from inventors to historical cover-ups. There was Otto Lilienthal, the first person in history to fly with self-built, homemade flying apparatus, who had his small factory in Kreuzberg. Otto basically pioneered hang gliders, filing a U.S. patent in 1894. Unfortunately, Otto died after an accident when testing out an apparatus in 1896, but his name stands in history nonetheless.
And one of Beata’s absolute favorite findings is the story of the 4.8 meter bronze memorial statue of Joseph Stalin on Stalin Allee. It was removed overnight in November, 1961, and allegedly melted into little animal statues which can be seen today in Tierpark Berlin in Friedrichsfelde.
The street name was switched from Stalin Allee to Karl Marx Allee overnight.
According to the legend, the employees tasked with the job of taking down the statue were instructed by a member of the Stasi that they mustn’t tell anyone, just chop up the statue, and then the pieces would be melted. “One of the employees kept pieces of it,” Beata explained, “And until recently a piece of moustache and ear were in the Café Sybille on Karl Marx Allee (previously Stalin Allee). The rest of the statue was melted into a mouse or bird - if you go to Tierpark Friedrichsfelde Lichtenberg, you find little animal figures, statues - that’s Stalin. They melted Stalin and turned him into little animals. When I read about it, I thought, that’s unbelievable.”
Despite the many discoveries, Beata recognizes that she may never know everything there is to know about Berlin, because there’s just so much. “I would never call myself an expert, and I don’t think you can ever be one. You can be an expert in one very narrow field, but you can’t be an expert on the whole history of Berlin. It’s not possible, because there’ll always be something that you don’t know And that’s actually a nice thing, because those ‘Wow’ moments just keep coming.”
Three years ago Beata decided to save some of her discoveries to publish her books, Berlin Companion and Second Berlin Companion. You can pick them up from BERLINARIUM, her online store.
Elizabeth Rushe is a freelance writer and radio host from Ireland, based in Berlin.