A Street in Berlin – in the shade of trees and history
The first time I arrived in Berlin was from the west. I had to cross the city, to reach where I was staying. I took the U Bahn from Kaiserdamm, to Warschauer. Why should I notice the name of the street, Kaiserdamm? And the one at right angles to it, Königen Elizabeth Strasse? I was not looking. I was going underground.
It’s only by walking, or at least seeing where you are going, above ground, that you begin to piece together parts of the city. When you walk along a street in a city you know, you don’t have to visualize the next streets, this knowledge is in you, and informs all that you see. That’s what we mean when we say I know where I’m going, I know the way. When I first arrived I did not know that the wide boulevard of Kaiserdamm led straight through to the city’s heart. Or that if you followed Königen Elizabeth Strasse and turned right, you would reach the gardens surrounding the Schloss Charlottenburg.
I know that now, because a few days later J and I walked from Zoologische Garten, along Kantstrasse, then Leibnitz, Wilmersdorfer, and on to Schlosstrasse, rustling with trees on either side of the pavement, on the green walkway in the middle, in the gardens of the houses, set back from the street. This leafy avenue leads up to the Schloss itself, set in its patterned gardens, a gridwork of flowers, colours and scents, floral needlework, a miniature Versailles.
Once you can say – I know another way, a better way, then you feel you’ve begun to know a city, just a little. Exploring Berlin for the first time, and trying to follow the guide book’s instructions, the neat diagrams on the page did not match the vast scale of wide streets and towering buildings, both old and modern. So I put it away, decided to follow my feet instead.
I got off the S Bahn at Hackeshe Markt and, purely by chance, discovered the Hackeshe Höfe. These are a series of courtyards, enclosed by beautiful tiled buildings, and small shops. In the heart of the city, they are a place of peace, quiet and beauty, away from the noise and traffic on the busy main streets.
I found the plaque on Bebelplatz which said that it was here that the burning of books took place, in 1933. From France, Klaus Mann noted grimly that his books, as well as his father’s, Thomas Mann’s, were included in the destruction. (They had left Germany shortly before, just in time).
We can go this way I said to J, a few days later, as we waited at the crossing at Hardenbergstrasse, outside the Zoologisher Garten Bahnhof. The pavement was crowded with milling pedestrians, the street thick with traffic. But across the road, a pedestrian alley slid beside the red-brick embankment where the trains approached the station, sometimes with a rattle, or a squeal. Cafés, small shops, areas of greenery, flowers and plants, lined the buildings on the other side, so a quiet, shaded alleyway offered immediate refuge from the clamour of Hardenbergstrasse and its entrances and exits to U Bahn, S Bahn and the mainline trains. From here, we came out onto Kantstrasse, another busy thoroughfare, turned off into Leibnitz, then abandoned the map, knowing the direction we were heading in.
Königen Elizabeth Strasse is a wide boulevard of a street, but it’s not crammed with restless vehicles, snorting and exhaling loudly at traffic lights. The lanes are wide, the pavements are too and there’s a small green area in the middle. At its southern end, it joins up with Kaiserdamm, the main thoroughfare that leads to the Siegessäule, the massive victory monument planted like a golden goddess, overlooking the Tiergarten.
Kaiserdamm has its own purpose, carrying the traffic like a river demi-god, flushed with its speed and intention, salamanders glinting in the early evening sunlight. Even with U Bahn entrances on both sides, the pavements easily absorb the emerging passengers.
Königen Elizabeth Strasse has none of that sleek river-purpose, no metallic stridency. Its direction is towards the peaceful Schloss Garten, and not towards statements of architectural magnificence and power, no militaristic gold supremacy here, no imperial pronouncements of authority, no pillars of victory, glittering like sculpted ribbons of the sun itself.
Regal as its name, the buildings are stately, but not oppressive. Four or five storeys high, sometimes with small boxes sprouting flowers and greenery. This was the street where the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach lived, from the autumn of 1931 till the spring of 1933. It was where she explored the culture and night life of Berlin, and where she wrote prolifically. She completed one novella and wrote two more. She also wrote articles on films by French, German and Russian directors, and travel articles on Scandinavia and Switzerland.
It was also where she viewed, with increasing horror, the rise of the Fascist party – the burning of the Reichstag, boycott of Jewish businesses, banning of writers, burning of books. In March 1933, Annemarie wrote to her friend Claude Bourdet, ..we are suffering, all of humanity will suffer from this…I don’t have any choice, I will have to leave.
We don’t know the number of the building she lived in. But we pick out our favourites, as possibilities. There’s one with book-shaped painted window-frames. Another is at the north end of the street. It’s large and beautiful, has six storeys, including the attic, with art nouveau sculpted friezework high up on the façade, which is a pale bluish violet colour. There are also two sculpted eagles guarding the arched entrance on the street level. Even if she didn’t live there we felt there could be no doubt that Annemarie would have often walked past this building, and could not have failed to admire it.