Berlin neighborhood shows war, rebirth

November 29, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Even by this city's eccentric standards, Scheunenviertel is not your ordinary neighborhood. For one thing, there are its curious excursions through time.

On one street, scars of shrapnel and machine gun fire remain as raw as in 1945, with lumps of metal still buried in the divots.

A few blocks over, the gilt-edged dome of an old synagogue once again gleams magnificently, as it did in the hours before the Nazi mobs of "Kristallnacht" set it afire in 1938.

A short walk brings one back to the present at a five-story rowhouse done up in six Day-Glo colors. Ratty strips of fur are glued to the door, and a Volkswagen Beetle with wings of welded steel sits out front, tilted skyward next to a painted surfboard.

Scheunenviertel (the "Barn Quarter"), tucked into Berlin's midsection, has become something of a living museum during the past few years, an unintentional result of the collision between East German stagnation and the ferment of reunification.

Although the neighborhood's quirky charm diminishes with each rising scaffold of renovation, it is for now a place of wonders for anyone charting Germany's march through the 20th century.

Consider, for example, the saga of the Day-Glo house, which encapsulates the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the birth and death of East Bloc communism and the continuing turmoil of reunification.

In the 1920s, the ground floor was a second-hand clothing store run by the Medan family in Scheunenviertel, which was the heart of Berlin's bustling Jewish quarter. The family lived upstairs.

In 1938, the year of "Kristallnacht," the Nazis evicted the Medans and began sweeping other Jews from the neighborhood. The house was "Aryanized" with a new owner, the Herzogs. The Medans fled to Belgium.

During the war, the house barely survived, and the home next door was bombed to a pile of bricks. The Herzogs stayed on through defeat and Russian occupation, but as the communist regime of East Germany struggled into its dying years the house, vacant, fell into decay.

The Wall falls

Four years ago, down came the Berlin Wall, and Scheunenviertel was suddenly back at the center of the city. On came the squatters from the West, closely followed by real estate speculators.

About a dozen artists and musicians claimed the house as their own, despite its medieval chill. One painted the facade and installed neon tubing. Another welded the wings to the Beetle and set it next to a Day-Glo surfboard.

A few young neo-fascists pelted the place with stones, although the greater threat came from the speculators, who began buying up lot after lot. Squatters won some fights, too, however, and the artists held on -- front-line warriors in the new Battle of Berlin.

But a few weeks ago, the past landed back on the front doorstep. Among the thousands of property claims and counterclaims filed in the wake of reunification was one submitted by the lone survivor of the Medan family, and in early November Max Medan won back the house his family lost 55 years ago.

He was 19 when he and his parents were evicted. Now he's 74, broke and in poor health in Brussels. He never wants to return to Germany, he refers all questions about the house to an attorney, and he has put the place up for sale for $270,000, hoping the proceeds will clear his debts. The squatters are wondering what to do next.

History up close

It's all enough to leave Corin O'Shanahan, a Londoner who has lived in the house for the past year, a little in awe of the history that keeps looming around him in Scheunenviertel. He only wishes the construction crews would leave the old buildings alone, battle scars and all.

"The renovations are very quickly leaving no trace of recent history," he said, "and it's sort of sad, because it's a real reminder. OK, so there are plenty of history books, but it's not the same as being able to actually see it and feel it."

But construction crews have also brought some history back to life here, principally with the restoration of the old synagogue and its Moorish-style dome.

Towering over the neighborhood again, it is a reminder of the 160,000 Jews who lived in Berlin in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler took power. About 56,000 were shipped off to death camps, many after being herded together at the Jewish school just around the corner from the synagogue. Most of the rest left the country.

Now there are only about 10,000 Jews in Berlin, but some have begun setting down roots again in Scheunenviertel. A Jewish cafe has opened in the neighborhood, one of the few places in the city where you can get a bagel. Just this year the Jewish school reopened.

Eerie reminders

Meanwhile, other reminders of the past keep cropping up.

Bulldozers re-grading a playground a few weeks ago to build a new soccer field unearthed the bricks of crumbled basements that had belonged to homes levelled by Allied bombing during World War II.

"It was spooky," Mr. O'Shanahan said.

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