A History Of The Rosenthaler Platz Neighbourhood

Authors: Jakob Hübner, Manfred Elian and Paul Scraton

“Rosenthaler Platz is talking,” according to Alfred Döblin, whose 1920s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz is set in the neighbourhood around the square. It may not be the most famous “Platz” in Berlin, and yet Rosenthaler Platz continues to talk to us in the 21st Century, its buildings and history a reflection of the many phases of the city’s development. The people who have lived and worked in the streets around RosenthalerPlatz may not have been those who troubled the pages of history books, and yet they and their neighbourhood remain an important part of the Berlin story. In Döblin’s time this was a shopping and nightlife centre, and it still is, even if the styles and names have changed.

Rosenthaler Platz bustles with traffic which only stops to let the trams rumble by, and its asymmetric shape of five major streets meeting is unique and yet no mistake, nor is it a result of a lack of proper planning. Until 1910 the square was called “Platz vor dem Rosenthaler Thor” which hints at its origins and takes us to the start of the story.

Through the gate to Berlin

Like many cities, and especially those with a royal residence, Berlin once had a city wall. This marked the limits of the city, and was expanded and developed depending on growth and the wishes of the city’s ruler – initially the Kürfurst, and later the King. During the early years of the 18th Century, Berlin’s population exploded and the city expanded beyond the limits of its wall. The new neighbourhood was called the Spandauer Vorstadt and the city reinforcements were extended to include this new part of the city. The Spandauer Vorstadt remains a distinct neighbourhood, and stretches from Hackescher Markt and Oranienburger Straße in the south, to Linienstraße to the north. Until the end of the 19th Century the majority of residents were traders, craftsmen and their families.

With the expansion of the city limits to include the Spandauer Vorstadt the new border was initially marked by only a palisade fence which stood for the first few decades. By this point in Berlin’s history, the border was no longer used for defence, but continued to have an important role when it came to collecting duty – which was charged at the city limits – and also to prevent smuggling. The fence was also useful for the police if they ever wanted to seal off the city. The palisades – known as “Linie” (lines) ran along the Linienstraße. This street was described as “eternally long…as thin as a mathematical line, long like German patience.” Eventually the simple wooden palisade fence was replaced by a wall – which was built along the route of what is now the Torstaße.

“Tor” means gate in German, and throughout the city there are a number of places whose names refer back to the times of Berlin’s city wall – from Torstraße itself to the Oranienburger Tor, and the Schlesisches Tor, Hallesches Tor and the Kottbusser Tor (all in Kreuzberg). When the wall and its gates were demolished in the 19th Century to make space for the increased traffic flows, the squares and their names remained. Only one gate survived to the present day, and it remains one of Berlin’s iconic landmarks – the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor).

Altogether there were 17 gates offering admittance through the walls to the city, as well as three entrances by water (canal or river). Most of these entrances were simple structures – everyday building with little or no unnecessary design elements. Rosenthaler Platz, however, was home to one of the few decorated gates in Berlin. The elaborate structure was composed of two entrances on either side of a large, central gate. On each side of the gate were wings which housed the guards and the tax collectors’ office. It was designed to resemble a Roman triumphal arch, framed by columns, in a style that was very popular in the late 18th Century. Statues of warriors were also placed on the gate.

What did ordinary people think of the city wall in the 1850s? In the book Berlin As It Was, Isidor Kastan writes:

“The city wall was a target of jokes from the population. The gates on the large streets leading out into the countryside had long been without doors. With the fall of the wall, these gates fell as well…without unnecessarily exposing too much history, it can be said the youth of Berlin played a not insignificant role in the removal of this silly wall.”

Towards the end of the 1860s the wall did indeed disappear. In addition to the Brandenburg Gate, the only remaining piece of the wall can be found at Robert-Koch-Platz in Hannoversche Straße. There is also a replica piece on the Stresemannstraße near Potsdamer Platz.

The Berlin city walls were by no means the force of repression that was the very different wall that Berlin had to endure in the second half of the 20th Century. Indeed, one could pass through the gates at any time of day or night where, “at the most, one gave the night watchman a small tip” (Gädicke, 1806). Everybody was free to pass. Everybody, that is, except Jews, who were not permitted to freely enter Berlin.

Judenherberge: A Jewish Poorhouse at Rosenthaler Platz

A Jewish community had existed in Berlin since 1671, having previously been banished from the city a century earlier. In 1806 Johann Christian Gädicke wrote that the Berlin Jews had not only greatly increased in numbers, but that many lived in some of the most well-to-do neighbourhoods. He also noted that, “only a few were easily recognisable due to their clothing or language. Converting to Christianity was not uncommon.” At that time 3483 Jews lived in Berlin, amongst whom could be counted, “the very rich, successful bankers, academics, doctors and artists.”

As with the city as a whole the Jewish population of Berlin grew rapidly in the period up to the mid-1920s, where it reached a total of 170,000. Although the Jewish community lived throughout the city, there was a concentration in and around the Rosenthaler Platz. The area to the east of Rosenthaler Straße was (and is) known as the Scheunenviertel, and during the second half of the 19th Century it became the home for many Jews who had come to Berlin from Eastern Europe. They had fled pogroms and bad living conditions, and it was in this neighbourhood of Berlin that the new arrivals found affordable housing.

This neighbourhood had long been the location for barns (Scheunenviertel means “barn quarter”) as they had been built beyond the city walls to reduce the chance of fire from the highly flammable stores of straw and hay. Thanks to the cheap housing that could be found in the neighbourhood, the Scheunenviertel was often a stopping off place for new arrivals, until they had found housing in a more respectable neighbourhood. At the same time the quarter began to attract any number of small and big time criminals, tricksters, crooks and failures. This was a typical big city mix, that was complemented by questionable establishments and prostitutes on the streets.

Included in this mix were deeply religious East European orthodox Jews, who came to the area around Rosenthaler Platz in ever increasing numbers from the 1880s up to the Nazi’s seizing of power.  It created something of a contrast, with kosher shops set up next to all night bars, and synagogues neighbouring brothels. The area around Rosenthaler Platz had become, as with certain neighbourhoods in Berlin to this day, a colourful mix that attracted many artists and intellectuals, who were excited, inspired and absorbed by life in this corner of the city. It influenced their work and they presented it to the world – indeed, it was the descriptions of life in this corner of Berlin that would make Gerhart Hauptmann and Alfred Döblin famous.

But let us step back a few decades and return directly to Rosenthaler Platz itself. A simple building was erected on the Rosenthaler Straße, in between the corner of Linienstraße and the platz itself. The lot where the corner building of The Circus Hotel stands was a garden belonging to this building, which took up the lot directly on the corner with Linienstraße. This building housed a Judenherberge, where the local Jewish congregation housed poor travelling Jews, especially on the Sabbath and holidays. Built in the 1780s, the Judenherberge was built after the excise wall had already been standing for a couple of decades.

It is possible to get a sense of what it was like from a report by Salomon Maimon, who travelled to Berlin:

“So I was brought to this place. It was filled partially with sick people, partially with debauched riffraff…finally, towards nightfall, the Jewish elders came and asked each person what their plea was. When it was my turn I said openly that I wished to stay in Berlin to study medicine. The elders rejected my request, gave me a small donation to travel with, and went on their way.”

Jews who came to Berlin faced many different problems, one of which being that although there were many gates to enter the city, they were only allowed in through one: theRosenthaler Gate. All other travellers only had to pay tax on their wares, but Jews had to pay a customary tax which was a sow – the so-called Schweinezoll (pig tax). They were also required to have a Jewish sponsor who would temporarily commit to providing room and board for the new arrivals.

The Jewish congregation placed their own employees at the Rosenthaler Gate, who decided who was entitled to enter the city and who was to move on. They helped mediate between the new arrivals and the Prussian officers, and there was a good reason for this: the entire Jewish community had to vouch for all fellow believers within the city walls. This could even include any possible damage committed by a single Jewish individual, and it was for this reason that the community remained fastidious in deciding which Jews were allowed to enter.

One boy arrived in Berlin in 1743, after travelling for days on foot. The 13 year-old travelled alone, with only the barest of necessities. His name was Moses Mendelssohn, and the boy would become a philosopher and the father of the Jewish Enlightenment. Coming, as he did, from Dessau to the southwest of Berlin, Mendelssohn naturally tried to enter the city by the nearest gate. But as a Jew he was refused entry and he had to make his way around half of the city to the Rosenthaler Gate. There he was initially refused entry again, until he mentioned the name of his teacher back in Dessau: Rabbi Fränkel. His reason given for wanted to enter the city, still famous, was simply “to learn”.

The problems for Jewish people simply wanting to enter Berlin at this time are summed up by a contemporary of Mendelssohn, Ephraim Moses Kuh, who reported on a conversation between an arriving Jew and a customs officer at the gate: “You even dare to question this! Because you are a Jew. If you were a Turk, a Heathen, an Atheist, we would not desire a tuppence. But as you a Jew we must shear you.”

Beyond the Rosenthaler Gate to the North: Weinbergsweg, Brunnenstraße and the RosenthalerVorstadt

If you stepped through the Rosenthaler Gate in the first half of the eighteenth century you would have seen vineyards. The name Weinbergsweg (where The Circus Hostel is located) bears witness to this: Weinbergsweg means “vineyard path”. It is nearly impossible to imagine now, but vineyards were common all around Berlin at that time. Later fruit trees were planted, both here and elsewhere around the city, but eventually the vineyards and the orchards were swallowed up and replaced by theatres, cabarets and taverns, and not long after that the current buildings which house both The Circus Hotel and The Circus Hostel were built.

Just a few buildings away from The Circus Hostel at Weinbersweg 6/7 and housed in the courtyards, there was actually a Circus located (although this is not where the name of the company comes from). Ferdinand Harth, the owner of a book-printing shop, tried his luck with the circus for four years from 1852-56 before giving up because of debts. In the following years many different people tried their hand at running the Circus-Theater on Weinbergsweg, but there was stiff competition from other theatres and summer stages. This area was something of a cultural centre in the city, with the “Vorstädtisches Theater”, the “Walhalla-Theater” and “Carows Lachbühnen” all located in the neighbourhood. But competition was stiff, and many closed down after a short period.

Life was generally tough in this area directly north of the city’s border – which ran along what is now the Torstraße. This area, known as the Rosenthaler Vorstadt, was a wretched place, and the level of poverty of this neighbourhood was greater than anywhere else in or around Berlin at the time. The growth of the neighbourhood began with a settlement for construction workers from the Saxon region of Vogtland, which resulted in the streets of Gartenstraße, Ackerstraße and Bergstraße, and began as a summer settlement for seasonal workers. Soon it was being used all year around, and the development spread to the area directly around the Rosenthaler Gate, which by the 1800s had the fastest rate of population growth anywhere in the city.

The rising population in this area outside the city gates led to a number of problems. People were living in primitive housing conditions: it was not uncommon for two families to share a single room. All family life – cooking, working, and sleeping – took place in these rooms, and these so-called “Family Houses” became known as “the mosquitoes” in Berlin slang.  This was because of the unbearable number of people living in such a small space. By 1847 the rise of the urban population in Prussia as a whole resulted in food shortages that in turn caused a rise in prices. The people who lived on the edge of the city and, in many cases on the edge of subsistence already, responded with a spontaneous insurrection in response to the increase in the cost of food. First they looted the market at the Rosenthaler Gate, and then moved into the stores of the city to appease their hunger. It took the Prussian military several days to get the “Potato Revolution” under control.

This was a harbinger of things to come. The following year, 1848, was a year of revolutionary upheaval across Europe. The call for democracy was especially loud in a number of otherwise diverse German states. One focus of this effort was the concept of national unity for the different German lands. On Rosenthaler Platz barricades were erected by the revolutionaries and the residents of the Rosenthaler Vorstadt – who, don’t forget, lived in some of the worst conditions of the city – were instrumental in the movement.

All the guards of the city gates were stormed by people and blanketed by a shower of stones. Barricades were erected throughout the neighbourhood, with seventeen on the Rosenthaler Straße alone. The barricades at Hackescher Markt and between the buildings of 36 and 71, on the corner of Linienstraße, were especially sturdy, bullet-proof and well-planned. The Rosenthaler Gate itself was fortified by five barricades, behind which the people were in a constant state of unrest. There was an acute shortage of firearms and other weapons, and people raided iron repositories to arm themselves with axes and hatchets. Lances were forged in blacksmiths’ shops, and the owner of a well-known machine building company distributed 600 pounds of iron equipment in this manner in only a handful of minutes.

Huge barricades sprung up throughout the Rosenthaler Vorstadt, strong constructions that were extremely difficult to break down. Although major street battles would never reach the neighbourhood, the locals engaged in extensive preparations, which meant that when the cavalry attacked the outlying neighbourhoods they were repelled. Nevertheless, the March Revolution ended, and less than 25 years later Germany was unified under a German Empire that was very different than the changes the revolutionaries of 1848 had imagined. But this atmosphere of change and action prompted a radical and rapid explosion in the city that did not pass un-noticed at Rosenthaler Platz. In his Pictures of Berlin life, Julius Rodenburg wrote:

“What a colourful picture of the new life in Berlin is offered to us when we step through the Rosenthaler Gate. The kind of life that pulses everywhere in this great city, but nowhere stronger than here at certain times of the day. Doused in the spring evening sun, this open square lies at the intersection of five streets. To the left and right Lothringer Straße and Elsasser Straße. There are hardly any old buildings, or remnants of buildings to be seen…only new, tall constructions. Trees have been planted along the central reservation, like a boulevard. The trees are thriving with ample soil and good air circulation. What a jumbled chaos of horse-drawn trams, omnibuses and people! For this is the time when the factories close and the people head for home. If you were to try to walk down Linienstraße, for example to Gollnowstraße, it would be difficult due to the narrow streets and the small sidewalks. The mass of workers pushes forward against any newcomer. They come from the northeast part of the city and are on their way north…

Here the flow of people splits and one – still large – group makes its way to Schönhauser Tor and the other group to the Rosenthaler Tor. Thousands pass us by, mostly men, each carrying a lunchpail. Many are pale and haggard, suffering. There were also women amongst them, mostly workers from the textile industry and clothing manufacture, but also florists – even pretty ones – florists, milliners, seamstresses…some of them dressed very fashionably, all of them clean. The spring-evening children are on the street corners selling lilacs at five pfennigs a bunch. A car passes by, the woman in it wearing a broad-brimmed hat, as is the custom for market ladies. The man walking in front of the cart is shouting, but indecipherable to all except those familiar with it. “Bücklinge, Buy, Buy, Buy” he shouts. This cart brings goodies to the simple people for their supper: radishes, greens, herrings, flounder and buckling. Bücklinge are the smoked herrings which are a spring delicacy in this region…”

Heading north from the Rosenthaler Platz is the Brunnenstraße. If you follow this street now you will eventually come to the Gesundbrunnen train station and shopping centre. There was once a spring (Brunnen) that was reached from RosenthalerPlatz by the Brunnenstraße, which was taken by the better-off residents of the city to reach the Gesundbrunnen and the Luisenbad (Luise Bath). The area around the Brunnenstraße really developed during industrialisation, when many workers moved to the neighbourhood. By the beginning of the 20th Century this was one of the most densely populated streets in the city, and its collection of shops gave it the nickname ‘The Ku’damm of the north’ – in reference to the popular commercial street the Kürfurstendamm in the west of the city.

The 1920s and 1930s

Throughout the 19th Century there was a “poor people’s market” every Sunday morning on the square by the Rosenthaler Gate. It was eventually displaced by the rapid population growth of the neighbourhood and the increase in traffic that came with it. But as a place to buy and sell, the area around the gate remained important.

Both before and after World War I, the Rosenthaler Straße was one of the most important shopping streets in Berlin. Large, well-known department stores opened branches here, such as the Wertheim department store which opened on the corner of Rosenthaler Straße and Sophienstraße…a building which still stands to this day. Even in the 19th Century Rosenthaler Straße was something of a 24-hours a day street, and this continued into the 1920s. There was a men’s clothing store, a cigar dealer, and the restaurant “Aschinger” that was famous for their legendary lunch buffet restaurants. The Aschinger on Rosenthaler Platz was located across the road from The Circus Hotel, in the building that now houses the St Oberholz cafe. The growth of Berlin fuelled the rise of the Aschinger chain. The population of the city grew from one million in 1877 to four million by the 1920s, and Aschinger would eventually open over 30 restaurants, of which the branch on Rosenthaler Platz was the ninth.

Away from the hustle and bustle of Rosenthaler Straße, life on the side streets was very different. In between Rosenthaler Platz and HackescherMarkt numerous small clubs, bars and movie theatres were opened, and the Scheunenviertel district to the east of Rosenthaler Straße became a popular gay hangout, despite the general conservative views of the time, whilst the Mulackstraße was the place where prostitutes looked for business.

Other progress was taking place in the city, and it was underground. The subway from the district of Neukölln in the south to Gesundbrunnen in the north passed underneath the Rosenthaler Platz, the line which still takes travellers to this day from Alexanderplatz to the Circus Hostel and Hotel.

Alongside these developments the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin were a period of political upheaval in Berlin and this sometimes boiled over into street fighting and battles between members of different groups, often between Communists and the followers of the National Socialists (Nazis). Over time the unrest and economic and political instability throughout Germany would prepare the ground for the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933.

The Nazi era brought many changes to the area around Rosenthaler Platz. Many of the “Jewish” stores gradually disappeared, and increasing marginalisation and violence drove many people to emigration. After 1938 most of the businesses still owned by Jews were forcibly “Aryanised”. The first peak of oppression and violence was reached in the November of that year. During the November pogrom (Night of the Broken Glass) Synagogues, stores and other Jewish institutions were raided, looted and in some cases burned down. Many Jews were sent to concentration camps for a short period, and only released on the condition that they emigrate immediately. Those who stayed in Berlin and in the German Empire suffered unimaginably, including considerably smaller rations for Jews during World War II, the public humiliation of being forced to wear the yellow Star of David, to heavy inhumane force labour.

In October 1941 the deportation of Jews to ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps began. Of the 160,000 Jews who lived in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi reign of terror, about a quarter had emigrated before the end of 1937. By the start of 1943, following this emigration and the many deportations only a quarter of the population remained in the city. Some were protected by virtue of a mixed marriage to an Aryan. The planning for a “final solution” to make Berlin “free of Jews” began towards the end of 1942.

This atrocious campaign was planned to be implemented in the February of 1943, beginning with the so-called “Factory Campaign”. On the morning of February 27th 1943 Jewish forced labourers were ambushed in their factories and brought to collection points from where they were to be deported. Those who were relatives of Aryans were taken to Rosenstraße 2-4, which is located between Hackescher Markt and where the television tower now stands. The non-Jewish wives of the men who had been taken there resisted the internment and imminent deportation with brave, public protests. In a unique event which was not repeated anywhere in Germany, the women’s protests were successful, and rather than being deported to the camps, their husbands were allowed to remain and were returned to forced labour.

Banishment and the annihilation of so many of Berlin’s Jews notably changed the development o f the neighbourhood around Rosenthaler Platz. A great many Jews had lived and worked in the Spandauer Vorstadt, the Scheunenviertel and the surrounding neighbourhoods, and the whole area suffered the loss of such a formative and enriching part of the society. The Jews of the city had been Berliners, Germans not uncommonly proud of their country, and it was only through the pseudoscientific racist politics of the Nazis that they are marginalised, excluded and transformed into a minority.

1945: Destruction and the Post-War Period

All of Berlin suffered destruction at the hands of the Allied bombers during the Second World War, and Rosenthaler Platz was no different, even if not everything was destroyed by the British and American air raids. A contemporary witness, Wolfgang Waldauer, gave an account of the shooting down of a plane over Rosenthaler Platz (accessible online at the German History Museum):

“As a plane spotter I saw multiple single-engine planes coming from ‘direction two’ during a day offensive. I called the alarm, as according to the protocol. The others turned their guns towards the planes. We could already hear the blasts of the 3.7cm flak towers at Humboldthain and Friedrichshain and as the first machine crashed to the ground – creating a smoke cloud – we saw four USAF Mustangs on a steep climb, followed by exploding flak, but out of the range of our own anti-aircraft guns. There was a lot of excitement, mixed with a little jealousy about the shot-down plane. When the phone rang later I had to get the Sergeant who received the call with an ‘oh crap’ and then he said to me: ‘That was a Focke-Wulf that went down on Rosenthaler Platz, not a Mustang…just don’t tell anyone!’”

After the end of the war, the occupation, and the division of the city into four by the winning Allies, the district of Mitte and Rosenthaler Platz fell inside the Soviet sector of Berlin. Very little is recorded about the Platz in the immediate aftermath of the war. On June 17th 1953, as part of the insurgence in the Soviet sector, stores were occupied and people gathered on Rosenthaler Platz on their way to Friedrichstraße to join the uprising. The Berliner Willi Göttling was arrested, and later sentenced to death and executed in Moscow (www.17juni1953.de)

Subsequently Rosenthaler Platz sank into a long sleep, accentuated by the eventual division of the city through the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The city district of Mitte switched from being the heart of the city to a neighbourhood on the edge of East Berlin, with a similar phenomenon being observed on the other side of the wall in the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg. The whole structure of the city was transformed by the wall as previously major arteries became remote side streets or even dead-ends on the border between the two halves of the city. Mitte only became the “centre” of the city again once the wall came down.

The decaying historical buildings in Berlin were viewed as outdated in the socialist planning concepts of the 1950s and 1960s. The goal was to offer all citizens modern, comfortable housing with central heating and even an elevator. The cheapest way to realise this for the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was to use agricultural land to the east of the city to create whole, new neighbourhood under Le Courbusier’s city planning philosophy of an orderly, straight streets.

Architecture in the east therefore followed a planning concept based on both affordability and the aesthetics of the time. The re-building of West Berlin in the decades after the war followed along similar lines, with attention on new structures and the historical buildings mostly repaired in a makeshift manner that means that some still rely on coal-oven heating to this day. What all this meant was that the streets around the Scheunenviertel and the Spandauer Vorstadt remained mostly untouched during the division of the city, and they became a magnet from those who wanted to escape the new orderliness of the socialist regime.

The DEFA (East German Film Academy) children’s movie Sheriff Teddy takes place in the mazy area around the Rosenthaler Platz and captures a sense of life in this area. The story was first released as a children’s book by BenoPlundra, then as a comic strip, and finally as a movie directed by Heiner Carow. This was the first movie of a director who would go on to make The Legend of Paul and Paula and The Sorrows of Young W which captured the stories of everyday life in East Germany on celluloid. Sheriff Teddy describes the life of a 13 year old called Kalle and his life amongst the rubble and historic buildings. Kalle came from West Berlin and now had to assert himself in the East. The ruins offered him and his gang a retreat from the authority of parents and police in post-War Berlin.

This escape was not only appreciated by children. Many artists, authors, intellectuals and people who did not agree with the political developments of the time sought refuge in the cheap housing of neighbourhoods forgotten by the government, and used the chance to build new networks, exchange ideas, and create. The Scheunenviertel and the areas around became a meeting point for those who fell through the cracks of the strict East German socialist system, or those who did not want to be caught up by the system in the first place. One of the most famous residents of the neighbourhood during this time was the singer Wolf Biermann.

The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 brought other changes to the area as well. The subway station at Rosenthaler Platz was closed, a ghost station that the U-Bahn trains did not stop at as they made their way from Kreuzberg in the West, underneath the East without stopping, and back into Wedding and West Berlin again. Robbed of its transport connections, and the traffic that would once head out from Mitte to districts to the north and west that were now part of another city, Rosenthaler Platz drifted into obscurity, insignificant especially when compared to the thriving and bustling place of the 1920s and 1930s.

RosenthalerPlatz in Socialist Hibernation

RosenthalerPlatz 1 (The Circus Hotel building), which had been a privately-owned clothing store before the war, remained in the same line of business as a department store of the Handelsorganisation Fachhandel Berlin – Textil, a government-owned enterprise. Former employees have explained that at any one time there would be four people working in the store, even though there was very little to do. If the job was not necessarily interesting, at least many friendships blossomed. Something else that had changed was the names on the street-signs. Rosenthaler Straße no longer joined Elsasser Straße but Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße. After the wall came down the name changed again, to the current Torstraße.

The Aschinger Restaurant of Döblin’s book no longer existed, and the building was becoming increasingly run-down. The chemists across the street (in the building of The Circus Hostel) remained in place – as it has now done for over 110 years – and across the road the state-owned HO Furniture Store was also opened up. After the fall of the wall it bravely tried to continue by advertising in West Berlin but by 1990 the company gave way in the face of the increased competition from the west.

Throughout the socialist era history tended to happen around the Rosenthaler Platz rather than on it…on the streets of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden, or north to Bernauer Straße where the wall ran and which now houses a fascinating Documentation Centre about the history of the Berlin Wall. Rosenthaler Platz itself was hibernating, waiting for the day it would once again be one of the most important squares in the heart of the city.

The Fall of the Wall and the 1990s

The wake from the long hibernation began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following the breach of the barrier and the opening of the checkpoints on the 9th November 1989 it became clear that the official crossing points – such as that at Friedrichstraße station – would be unable to cope with the volume of people wanting to travel to the other side. It was not long before the “ghost stations” were called once more into service, and after the station at Jannowitzbrücke, Rosenthaler Platz was the second station on the U8 line to opened up to provide another crossing point to the west. Although initially with border control points on the platforms, and immigration checkpoints at the subway station entrances, by July 1990 all subway stations had been reopened and for the first time since the division of the city normal subway traffic was possible, helping the city as it was slowly pieced back together.

The centre of the city – Berlin Mitte – once again became the focus of attention. Large scale rebuilding was hampered by the unclear ownership status of many lots, caused by the dispossession before and during World War II, and the nationalisation of the East German period. With the ownership status unclear rents were cheap, and many students, artists and creative types moved into the neighbourhoods to take advantage. Many buildings were also squatted, and this new atmosphere led to an explosion of new bars, clubs and studios, particularly in the streets around Hackescher Markt and the Rosenthaler Straße. As many East Germans moved west, others came in the opposite direction, finding that it was possible to get a beer as cheaply as Franz Biberkopf did in Döblin’s novel.

As the 1990s wore on and the ownership issues were slowly resolved, the first big investors arrived in the area. The neighbourhood around Hackescher Markt soon became home to many restaurants, bars and shops, although further north the Rosenthaler Platz was basically untouched. The building that housed Aschinger’s was, for a time, the new home of Burger King, but the fast food franchise did not last long. As the decade wore on it seemed as if the north end of Rosenthaler Straße was resolutely unattractive for investors.

Into the 21st Century

Over time though the developments came ever closer to the Platz. To the north, Kastanienallee (the extension of Weinbergsweg) was becoming one of Berlin’s most popular streets for eating and drinking, becoming well known even beyond the city. To the south, the changes around Hackescher Markt continued as the buildings along the Rosenthaler Straße were renovated one after the other: building by building the new face of Berlin Mitte was getting closer to the square. The principal attraction of the area was, ironically, the reason why it had been so neglected in communist times. The historical buildings were attractive – to investors, tourists and Berliners alike – and the neighbourhood was becoming more and more popular, year on year.

In 2001 the owners of The Circus Hostel followed their instincts and opened up on Weinbergsweg with a hostel in the corner building looking out onto Rosenthaler Platz. It seemed like the place to be, in the middle of it all, and the change for the owners, staff and guests to experience history as it was being made. Over the past eight or nine years the gaps along Rosenthaler Straße are continuing to be filled in, and the street and neighbourhood will soon be unrecognisable from how it was just a couple of decades ago. Historical buildings have been renovated, new cafes, bars and theatres have opened, and even the ever-depressed Torstraße looks as if it will soon be blossoming. It is not all positive of course – renovated buildings command higher rent, and the beer has become more expensive too.

Out with the old, in with the new…and this might not please everybody. But Berlin is famous for being an adaptable city, a place that is forever changing whilst at the same time refusing to allow its fascinating history to disappear and die. The Germania Apotheke is still there, 110 years and counting. What was once Aschinger’s is now the St Oberholz, and creative types are still working away their days over coffee and beer, only now the notebooks are of a more technological kind. At The Circus Hotel the Restaurant Fabisch, in both its name and decor, offer a glimpse of the pre-war business and family that lived here, and celebrates their achievements whilst acknowledging and recognising their fate.

The Rosenthaler Gate is long gone. The Third Reich is, thankfully, history. The Berlin Wall has come down. Rosenthaler Platz is now open to everybody, with one of Berlin’s most interesting neighbourhoods all around waiting to be explored, and street cafes where one can sit back and watch the next stage of the history of Rosenthaler Platz being made. By the next time you visit, it will no doubt have changed again.


Fabisch’s Clothing: The Ph. Fabisch Company at Rosenthaler Platz

Author: Jakob Hübner (Centrum Judaicum); Translated by Christina Hierath and Paul Scraton

The Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin has always been a unique and lively place, not least during the 1920s when it was the dividing line between two contrasting worlds. As a place where the working class housing neighbourhoods rubbed shoulders with the glamorous shopping streets it was the perfect setting for the German novelist Döblin in his famous description of the city in the twenties, Berlin Alexanderplatz. The protagonist of Döblin’s novel – Franz Biberkopf – is released from the prison in nearby Moabit and returns to the heart of the city and the streets around Rosenthaler Platz. Throughout the novel Döblin provides numerous descriptions of the neighbourhood that The Circus calls home, including the building that now houses The Circus Hotel. But what took place there?

“It warmed up after two days, Franz sold his winter coat, is wearing long underwear,….he is standing at Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabisch’s Clothing, Fabisch& Co., fine men’s clothing, made to measure, quality workmanship and low prices guaranteed.”

Rosenthaler Straße 1, like many other buildings on Rosenthaler Platz and in the surrounding neighbourhood, was built well over a hundred years ago. These buildings survived the bombardments and battles of the Second World War, as well as the neglect of the communist era when these streets were at the heart of East Berlin.

When the building was first erected, one of the stores that made its home there specialised in coffee, tea, sugar and other imported goods. It was not long, however, before this store was replaced by a men’s outfitter, the “Ph Fabisch” company which would eventually find itself in the pages of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Philipp Fabisch’s clothing store was in keeping with a family tradition, the next in a long line of Fabischs that had been in the clothing business.

Philipp Fabisch opened his first store at Rosenthaler Straße 2 – at the junction with Linienstraße – in 1871. Later he would move to number one, a more prominent location directly on the Rosenthaler Platz. In 1896 he purchased the building, and by the turn of the century it was possible to purchase clothing for all the family at the northern end of the Rosenthaler Straße. In addition to Philipp’s store, there were others run by family members: At Rosenthaler Platz 3 Adolf Fabisch ran “Fabisch& Co”, supplying clothing for men and boys. Number two also belonged to the family and a certain Max Fabisch who we will return to later. A few metres down the road Bernard Fabisch was dealing in women’s hats at Rosenthaler Straße 63/64.

Elsewhere in the city, on the other side of Alexanderplatz, Gustav Fabisch ran a wholesale and export store, while Max and Alfred Fabisch had established a women’s coat factory on the Chauseestraße, close to Invalidenstraße, which was called “Max Fabisch& Co”. And it was not only in Berlin-Mitte that the Fabisch family operated. Mannheim Fabisch owned two stores in the then-outlying district of Schöneberg, a men’s and boy’s clothing store as well as a second hand store, both of which had opened in 1868.

As well as working in the Rosenthaler Platz neighbourhood, Philipp Fabisch and his wife Therese lived in the area, at Rosenthaler Straße 72. This building also housed a clothing store that had a Fabisch connection, the owner Max Cohn having married Margarete, maiden name Fabisch.

Philipp Fabisch was born on November 16th 1839 in the town of Wreschen (nowadays called Września, in Poland). He came to the Prussian capital in the wave of emigration from the outlying provinces which occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century, and made his fortune to the extent that he became a millionaire, a story repeated by quite a few of the aforementioned family members. In addition to clothing stores, Philipp Fabisch also owned buildings, such as Rosenthaler Stasse 1, Number 72 on the same street, and at least three other buildings in the city.

Despite being relatively well known for his economic achievements, not much is known about Phillipp Fabisch’s private life. He had three children (a fourth – Siegmund – died in childhood), and he was a senior member of the “Posener’s Organisation” (Verein der Posener), an organisation for people who came from the region around Posen. Philipp was also involved with and supported, along with Adolf and Max Fabisch, the “Higher Institute for Jewish Studies” (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums) in Berlin, in which many important Jewish figures studied, taught and did research.

On October 5th 1917 Philipp Fabisch passed away, and was buried next to his wife Therese (neé Pick, b.1838, d.1899) in the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, where the grave remains to this day. Following Philipp Fabisch’s death, a group of his heirs managed his properties and businesses for the next two decades, namely Philipp’s three children Margarete Cohn, Hulda Pach and Max Fabisch, along with Margerete’s husband Max Cohn (who died towards the end of 1933). As we have seen the Cohn family and Max Fabisch also had their own companies as well as managing Philipp Fabisch’s empire. The clothing store at Rosenthaler Platz remained open and kept the name “Ph. Fabisch”.

As well as the Fabisch store at Rosenthaler Straße 1 (currently home to The Circus Hotel), the building also housed a branch of the shoe company Salamander in the period leading up to the First World War. Around the turn of the century and up to 1908, the basement of the building also housed one of Berlin’s oldest reading rooms that had become known as the “writers’ library” (Schreiber-Lesehalle) because of all the jobless writers who spent time there.

In 1938 this building on the south west corner of Rosenthaler Platz was “transferred to Aryan possession”. This matter-of-fact wording was used in the business section of the Jüdische Rundschau (Jewish Review) on November 1st 1938, only days before the Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) when Synagogues were torched and Jewish-owned businesses across Germany were pillaged. The Philipp Fabisch GmbH was liquidated on April 5th 1939.

The Nazi repression and ever increasing persecution shattered the Fabisch family. Philipp Fabisch’s three children – the remaining shareholders of the company – were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and murdered, following years of harassment and oppression in their home city of Berlin. Almost all the grandchildren of Philipp Fabisch managed to escape and emigrated to the United States in time, and thus survived. A single grandchild, who emigrated to France in 1936, was most likely deported from there to Auschwitz.

After the Second World War Rosenthaler Platz was in the Soviet sector, which would later become the capital city of the German Democratic Republic – communist East Germany. Rosenthaler Straße 1 remained a clothing store, but it no long stood on the corner of Elsasserstraße, which had been renamed Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße by the new regime. This department store at Rosenthaler Platz was part of a branch of the Handelsorganisation Fachhandel Berlin, Textil the state-owned chain of retail stores. Despite the fact that former employees report that there was often not a lot of work to do, or many products on sale, there were four people employed at the Rosenthaler Platz store at any one time, and many long-term friendships were made.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 a clothing store continued to operate at Rosenthaler Straße 1, the Mode-Treff: Dick aber Chic for over-size clothing. In the period that followed there were many different tenants, but the story comes to its conclusion with the opening of the Circus Hotel in October 2008. The owners of the Circus Hotel are very much aware of the history of the building at Rosenthaler Straße 1, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and most of all they live and work on the Rosenthaler Platz, respecting the accomplishments of the Fabisch family and remembering their fate.