Day 4: Biking in Berlin

Day 4: Biking in Berlin

After last night’s rain, Sunday offered more pleasant conditions for touring some of the city on bicycle. The friendly neighbor in the building where I am staying insisted that I use her husband’s bike instead of renting. I did and had a wonderful time exploring Charlottenburg, the Tiergarten and many of the sights of the Mitte. 

I’ll say this right off the bat, based on all of four days in the city: There is no better way to get around Berlin than by bicycle. There are designated paths on every major street (excepting a few thoroughfares), so you can either make good time if you want or poke around neighborhoods at a leisurely pace. It seems everyone does it, most without helmet but carefully stopping for every red light and keeping to their proper lane. I get the sense that most Berliners obey the law, even in small things like jaywalking. I’ve seen this too on the transit, where everyone dutifully pays the fare even though it is mostly on an honor system. That doesn’t work in the States. 

My first destination was Schlüterstraße 12 in Charlottenburg, the address of the Ringel family from 1929 to 1938. Joanne has visited here before so I had a pretty good idea of what it was like. On a pleasant Sunday around lunchtime, the cafe out front was doing a brisk business but in a leisurely way. Nobody eats and runs here. They linger. 

A four-person film crew apparently shooting a music video (though there were no musicians) was capturing the scene on the sidewalk and inside the cafe, which made my little camera rig look preposterous in comparison to their fancy equipment. When I started shooting and pointed in their direction, the cameraman became somewhat agitated and demanded in a torrent of German that I not record his face. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, but he was profoundly disinterested. 

Having just been renovated in 2016, the exterior of the building is gorgeous and perfectly proportioned, like so many of the grand apartment buildings in this section of the city. Unlike in New York, these buildings don’t have doormen. The entryway was open and I took advantage of that to take a look at the lobby, stairs and back garden. I shot some video footage with commentary here and at other locations during the day). However, I haven’t taken the time yet to figure out how to post my video to the web site using just my iPad. I think I will devise a way to do it soon, but until then I’m posting only a few still shot

As I was standing in the lobby filming the building logo on the carpet, one of the residents approached and wanted to know what I was doing. After I explained, she was actually quite friendly. I asked how much the building had changed in the renovation. She said she had moved in only after that, but imagined it was not very much. Some of the interior walls had been removed to make bigger rooms, she said, but otherwise they were much the same.I wish I had asked her to see inside her apartment but I didn’t push my luck and she didn’t offer. 

The next stop was the Pestalozzistraße Synagogue, the orthodox prayer house where Hermann attended. I knew it was just two blocks away from the apartment building but I still had a hard time locating the wall plaque that marks the location of the synagogue hidden behind an apartment house in the interior of the block. I didn’t expect to get inside today, when there were no services, but hoped to be able to get a camera angle on it somehow, but no such luck.

There was a different reward, however, a cluster of so-called Stolpersteine, memorial bricks to deported Jews that are mixed in among the cobblestones. You see them in many locations around Berlin, but here there were at least a dozen stones, each containing the name of the person who lived at the address, when and to where they were deported, and their fate, which was almost always “Ermordet”—murdered. 

For today, I had to make do with the plaque and the stones. There is a possibility of coming back here on Friday, on my last night in town, to attend Shabbat services. 

Then it was off to the Tiergarten, one of the great urban parks in the world. It was the perfect location for a bike ride, with a different landscape and monument view around every curve in the path. I barely scratched the surface, but I think I like the Tiergarten even more than Central Park, which I love. 

I had read about the architectural village called the Hansaviertel in the northwest section of the park, so I took a ride past and around many of the dozens of boxy, color-cladded buildings constructed here in 1957 for an international architecture exhibition. In the 1950s, these were the cutting edge of postwar modern architecture. Today, they are still visually arresting but in a slightly dated way

Now I crossed the Spree and headed about a mile along its northern bank looking at the tourist boats going the opposite direction. I passed by the central Berlin train station and arrived upon a massive gash in the earth. It is a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, with a yawning no man’s land between two facing walls. I won’t have time for a Cold War tour on this visit but there is such an abundance of museums and memorials that I would like to make that the focus of a future trip. 

By the way, does anyone offer a tour of Bernie Gunther’s Berlin? He is a fictional Berlin police detective whose career spanned the Weimar, Nazi and Cold War eras. The tour would begin and end at the Alex, then and now the Berlin Polizeipräsidium (police headquarters) at the Alexanderplatz. Following the tour would be like traveling through time, from the 20s to the 60s, with a cynical cop as your guide. 

Now I had reached the heavy tourist area in front of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. I would have time for these popular landmarks on another day, but for now I decided to take some time to experience the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the undulating wave of irregular massive black steles that represents the six million souls lost to history. 

I didn’t go far into the labyrinth because I had my bike. I should have locked it up because I was promptly told that one place you don’t bring a bike in Berlin is to a Holocaust memorial, especially this one. If I have time, I’ll come back later this week for a proper tour. 

This is also the area where historical Nazi sites were located—Hitler’s bunker, the air ministry, Gestapo and most of the National Socialist levers of power. Of course I have a fascination for this stuff, but I’ll wait to do a Third Reich tour later in the week. For now, I was on to look at a particular address on Krausenstraße in the old commercial heart of the city. Trouble was I spent a long time looking on Kronenstraße before I realized my mistake. I restored myself with an ice coffee and went on the right address. 

It was the building that was a subject of a fantastic book about the Wolff family and how it was finally able to gain restitution from the German government for the expropriation of the headquarters building for the family’s fur business. The architecturally significant building housed the East German national railway for all the years of the Cold War, and now several government ministries are located there. There is also a very nice plaque out front, erected in 2016, that acknowledges the building history and credits the H. Wolff Company as the original owner. I took some nice photos of the building with The fish-eye lens.

Since I was nearby, I decided to return to the Vogteiplatz where I had been briefly a few days ago. This was the setting for Uwe Westphal’s novel about the Jewish fashion industry in the 1930s that was another of my recent reads. I didn’t have my bearings on the earlier visit but now I was able to identify certain buildings and also locate the monument that Westphal helped to create to honor the lost industry of Jewish designers in Berlin.

And now I set off on my final task of the day, trying to locate the addresses of buildings where Hermann Ringel did business in and around Alexanderplatz. I crossed the Jannowitz bridge and pedaled up the broad Alexanderstraße toward the Alex. This is now the domain of high-rise Soviet-era apartment buildings, and there is no trace of whatever used to be at 55 Alexanderstraße where Hermann did business in the 1920s. 

Then I circled the platz and came out on by the Hackesher Markt looking for Memhardstraße 12, where Hermann’s office was in the 30s. Those blocks are all new construction, with residential buildings and a retail mall. No luck. 

I knew I would have better luck at my next stop at Alte Schönhauser Alle 8, which was the office for the Reichental-Ringel wholesale company. This street retains all its old character, though the trendy shops and art galleries do not reflect what the Scheunenviertal was like 90 and 100 years ago. Number 8 has a Japanese restaurant and fashion boutique on the ground floor, and five stories of apartments above. The menswear wholesaler must have been in one of the commercial spaces. 

Finally, at the top of the street, I turned onto Torstraße, a major thoroughfare at the border of the Scheunenviertal. This is a postwar name for a street previously called Lothringerstraße. Hermann kept an office there at number 4 in the early years, between 1919 and 1923. Many of the buildings here are older. I don’t know if the numbering is the same on the renamed street, but the lowest number I could find before it hits Alexanderplatz is number 6. The building next door is given an address on the cross street. 

So overall my Scheunenviertal address hunt turned up four locations clustered around Alexanderplatz but only one with a surviving structure. 

By now it was getting dark and I had a fairly long ride ahead of me. But I took this opportunity to ride by the sights on Unter den Linden, including Humboldt University (I’m an admirer of Alexander von Humboldt) and farther down the Adlon Hotel (a definite stop on the Bernie Gunther tour).

Then it was on through the Brandenburg Gate and a careful ride home without a lamp to Halensee. But not before one last stop, at a Döner cafe, for a well-deserved dinner of lamb kabob and potatoes.