Only a minute walk from Rosenthaler Platz, a tiny park named the Koppenplatz hosts a memorial to the biggest theme in 20th centuries’ history: the Holocaust. To be exact, the memorial remembers the round-ups of jews, prior to the deportations and the massacres. It is not a coincidence that the memorial ended up at the nowadays Koppenplatz.
In a way, its pre-history dates back to an order from 1737, when the contemporary King drove most of Berlin’s jews to the Scheunenviertel. This neighbourhood had a rather short historical account back then. As a side-effect of the cattle market at the nowadays Alexanderplatz, many Scheunen (barns) were build in its direct surrounding – hosting piles of inflammable straw. As a safety regulation against the danger of fire, the local elector Friedrich Wilhelm I commanded to place the barns outside of the city in 1672. The Scheunenviertel (barns quarter) showed up the north of this cattle market. Secondly, the Koppesche Armenfriedhof (Poor man’s graveyard) was situated around here since 1704. It was partly named after Christian Koppe, the city’s advisor who realised it. In a pre-modern act of solidarity, he has also been buried here after his death in 1721
An already described decision would change the history of the Scheunenviertel forever. It was the year 1737 when the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I demanded all jews without to live outside of the city. Only jews who owned their own houses were allowed to stay inside Berlin’s defensive walls. In addition, jews were only allowed to enter Berlin by the two northern gates. As a result, the Scheunenviertel became a destiny for many of the lower class jews. Their importance to the public sphere in this neighbourhood must have been immense. The Armenfriedhof on the contrary, stopped blossoming. A few years after the jewish Berliners moved to the Scheunenviertel and around, this graveyard didn’t host the freshest corpses anymore. That means, officially – in fact, funerals in fact took place here for another century.
Since the late 1830s, the neighbourhood around the Armenfriedhof changed tremendously. Between 1835 and 1869, a senior house was build – albeit in three phases. The surrounding hood changed – especially in 1853, when the soil of the Armenfriedhof was released. In that year, the Große Hamburgerstrasse was lengthened and divided the former graveyard, while another by-street was constructed. It gave the shape to the Koppenplatz, which was also given its name by then. At the grave of Christian Koppe, an extensive place of honour was erected two years later.
During the next couple of decades, classic tenements were constructed and populated by the poor. Up till the first decade of the 20th century, the surrounding area was filled by tenements, the senior house and a school. The Scheunenviertel became known of the most densely populated urban areas of Berlin. Of course, it was not only populated by the jews who initially came here. As usual for a capital, it attracted many immigrants. Throughout the 19th century, they were often jews from East Europe – who fled for anti-semitic pogroms once again. Although they -and many others- used Berlin as a stopping place to head towards the promising continent abroad the ocean, I’ve got the impression that many of them could not continue their journey – and were stuck in this particular part of the German capital.
The Scheunenviertel may have gone through various phases, but the Koppenplatz itself didn’t stay the same either. By the end of the 19th century, the notorious architect Hermann Mächtig edited it into an urban square. Erwin Barth, whose name you may remember from my update about the Luisenstädtischer Kanal, changed the square into a park in 1927. A few years later, the nazi’s changed the Koppenplatz again – although I’m unsure into what exactly. By 1940 though, two underground air-raid shelters were constructed here by French Prisoners of War. The Scheunenviertel, where many of the jews lived who were too impecunious to leave Nazi Germany, became the stage of anti-semitic violence and deportations.
The square became part of the GDR’s East-Berlin. The entrances to the bunkers were blocked, while the bunker remained undamaged. For this reason, the Koppenplatz are still a bit heigtened. Also, a playground for children was erected at the southern side of the park. Here, a statue named ‘Geschwister‘ (Siblings) was constructed in 1968. Nothing honoured the past of a jewish neighbourhood for another few decades. Not before 1988, when the November pogrome fifty years earlier was remembered, the East Berlin authorities asked its inhabitants for a fitting monument to the deportations which the Scheunenviertel witnessed. From the seventy contributed designs, the memorial of a deserted room by Karl Biedermann was chosen. The bronze sculpture is made and revealed to the audience in 1996. In addition, a poem Nelly Sachs is there to be read. The Schöneberg born poet, who made her way to Sweden in 1940, wrote in 1947:
…O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war –
O ihr Finger
Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod
O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!
Which could be translated by the following:
…Oh the houses of death, invitingly appointed,
for the landlord of the house who was once a guest.
Oh you fingers, laying the threshold – like a knife between life and death.
Oh, you chimney stacks, oh you fingers,
and the body of Israel going up in smoke!
All in all, I think that the Koppenplatz covers a lot of history which is not to be seen anymore. Here, I’m not only stating the underground WWII shelters which are withdrawed from the public eye. Also, no traces of the Armenfriedhof –showing mercy to the poor during the 18th and 19th century- are not to be found back. In despite of the modesty which the poor once helped, the only thing that reminds of the Armenfriedhof is the luxuous grave -if it isn’t worth calling a tombe- of Christian Koppe. Most of all, the centuries-old jewish presence of the Scheunenviertel is not to be found back. Once being forced to live here, the two ages of jewish presence have been wiped out by the cruelest way imaginable. Although it is said that the most jewish culture and institutes is still to be found in this area, I think one has to be trained to find these. The monument to remember the violent event, stating a clear message in a minimal way, also loudly speaks out by being silent.