Berlin's Jews Have Sights Set on Cultural Future, Not Historic Past

A lively cultural center opened on the former site of a Jewish school is a sign that the city’s resurgent Jewish community doesn’t want another Holocaust monument and prefers to think about the future.

Auguststrasse bisects the Mitte district in the heart of Berlin. The long narrow street is packed with art galleries, chic designer boutiques and some of the best restaurants in the German capital. But until recently the building at 11-13 Auguststrasse stood out from its surroundings. The multistory red brick building that once housed a Jewish elementary school for girls had stood abandoned and covered with graffiti. Ads were tacked onto the boards nailed to the windows and doors, to keep out the squatters who’d taken over a lot of buildings in the area in the 1990s.

Today, 11-13 Auguststrasse is a bustling place, housing three restaurants and four galleries, including the Kennedy Museum and the Michael Fuchs Gallery. Fuchs was the driving force behind the historic building’s recent face-lift, and the effort to keep it from becoming yet another dreary memorial. The gallerist signed a 20-year rental agreement with the local Jewish community after the latter regained ownership of the building and several others in the vicinity in 2009 ‏(the others are still abandoned and a decision has yet to be made about their fate).

Once Fuchs’ plan was approved, the expensive work of reconstruction and renovation began, in an attempt to restore the building’s original architectural character and transform it into one of the most attractive sites on the already attractive street. “In every corner of this building there’s a trace of its history,” says Fuchs, who moved his original gallery from the prestigious Charlottenburg quarter to the top floor of the renovated building − where the school’s auditorium, with high ceilings and red-brick walls, was once located.

“In the beginning, the Jewish community was thinking of opening another school on the site or turning it into another memorial of some kind,” he says, “but because of their financial situation and the maintenance costs for the building, they decided to go with us and open a cultural center.”

The heavy doors at the entrance, restored in keeping with the originals, aren’t all that inviting to the random passerby. However, the delicious aromas wafting through the cream-colored corridors on the ground floor make entering the place a unique experience. On the right is an exhibition of black-and-white photos, dating back to the 1930s, of girls playing in the school courtyard and studying Hebrew. Next to the modest exhibition is the Mogg & Melzer Deli, where they serve matzo-ball soup, sandwiches with thick layers of pastrami and pickles, shakshuka and one of the best New York cheesecakes in town. Opposite the deli is a closed room that was formerly a classroom, which on weekends becomes a kosher restaurant called The Kosher Classroom. It serves a traditional Friday night dinner and vegetarian brunch on Sundays.

Auguststrasse bisects the Mitte district in the heart of Berlin. The long narrow street is packed with art galleries, chic designer boutiques and some of the best restaurants in the German capital. But until recently the building at 11-13 Auguststrasse stood out from its surroundings. The multistory red brick building that once housed a Jewish elementary school for girls had stood abandoned and covered with graffiti. Ads were tacked onto the boards nailed to the windows and doors, to keep out the squatters who’d taken over a lot of buildings in the area in the 1990s.

Today, 11-13 Auguststrasse is a bustling place, housing three restaurants and four galleries, including the Kennedy Museum and the Michael Fuchs Gallery. Fuchs was the driving force behind the historic building’s recent face-lift, and the effort to keep it from becoming yet another dreary memorial. The gallerist signed a 20-year rental agreement with the local Jewish community after the latter regained ownership of the building and several others in the vicinity in 2009 ‏(the others are still abandoned and a decision has yet to be made about their fate).

Once Fuchs’ plan was approved, the expensive work of reconstruction and renovation began, in an attempt to restore the building’s original architectural character and transform it into one of the most attractive sites on the already attractive street. “In every corner of this building there’s a trace of its history,” says Fuchs, who moved his original gallery from the prestigious Charlottenburg quarter to the top floor of the renovated building ? where the school’s auditorium, with high ceilings and red-brick walls, was once located.

“In the beginning, the Jewish community was thinking of opening another school on the site or turning it into another memorial of some kind,” he says, “but because of their financial situation and the maintenance costs for the building, they decided to go with us and open a cultural center.”

The heavy doors at the entrance, restored in keeping with the originals, aren’t all that inviting to the random passerby. However, the delicious aromas wafting through the cream-colored corridors on the ground floor make entering the place a unique experience. On the right is an exhibition of black-and-white photos, dating back to the 1930s, of girls playing in the school courtyard and studying Hebrew. Next to the modest exhibition is the Mogg & Melzer Deli, where they serve matzo-ball soup, sandwiches with thick layers of pastrami and pickles, shakshuka and one of the best New York cheesecakes in town. Opposite the deli is a closed room that was formerly a classroom, which on weekends becomes a kosher restaurant called The Kosher Classroom. It serves a traditional Friday night dinner and vegetarian brunch on Sundays.

Across the way is the upscale Pauly Saal Restaurant, which is owned by Fuchs’ partner in the building, Stephan Landwehr. The latter also owns other trendy eateries such as the nearby Grill Royal, where one can almost always find some German celebrity or other.

The Jewish school for girls was built in the late 1920s by Alexander Beer, who was among the top architects in the Berlin Jewish community until Hitler came to power. Beer built many buildings in the German capital, including the Orthodox Church in the Kreuzberg district and the Jewish orphanage in the northern Pankow borough, in the New Objectivity style (the successor to Bauhaus). This style was characterized by open spaces, natural light and straight, clean lines. At the time of its inauguration, the girls’ school was one of the most modern buildings in Berlin.

When it opened in 1930, 330 girls from the city’s Jewish community were enrolled at the school. It  boasted 14 classrooms, a large auditorium, laboratory, exercise yard and roof garden. In the early 1930s, there were about 160,000 Jews in Berlin, and most families chose to send their children to the German public school system. But after the racial laws were enacted in 1933 – prohibiting Jews from attending public schools – more than 1,000 girls were enrolled at the school.

In 1938, with Kristallnacht approaching, the desks at the school gradually emptied of pupils as many Jewish families were being expelled from Berlin and sent to the Polish border with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the money in their pockets. After the Final Solution was instituted in 1942, the school closed for good and most of the teachers and students were sent to the extermination camps.

In 1944, Beer was killed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His daughter, Beate, now 82, managed to flee Germany for London in 1939. After the war she moved to Australia, and has lived there ever since. She did travel to Berlin, however, for the reopening of the building her father had designed.

Since its days as the home of the city’s first Jewish girls’ school, the building has changed hands many times and been put to a wide variety of uses. First, during World War II, the structure was used to assemble Jews before being deported to the concentration camps.

Subsequently, the classrooms were used as temporary operating rooms, and folding beds were brought in to make a hospital where city residents and Hitler youth were treated. When the war ended, the building passed into Russian hands, and, in 1950, a communist school named after Bertolt Brecht opened there (the playwright lived in the area).

Under communist rule, in what was once East Berlin, the school changed hands several times before eventually being abandoned ? a last remnant of the area’s once-thriving cultural life under the Weimar Republic.


“The building was in shocking condition,” recalls Fuchs. “There were leaks from the ceiling, there was no decent electrical infrastructure, the walls were peeling and there was no insulation. In the communist period, they broke down walls and didn’t rebuild them properly, and years of neglect turned the place into a ruin.” Approximately five million euros were spent on the renovations.

“Most people I know said I was crazy to invest so much money in a rented building, but I saw the potential and I knew I could rent out the spaces,” says Fuchs. “I pictured a cultural place, not of a Jewish nature necessarily, but then Oskar Melzer came along and this is what happened. I love what’s happened with the place.”

‘The building is Jewish’

Oskar Melzer, owner of the Mogg & Melzer Deli ? which serves nonkosher New York-style deli food “with a Berlin twist” ? didn’t originally plan on opening a Jewish type of restaurant either. “The deli took on a Jewish character because of the Jewish school. I always dreamed of opening a New York-style deli. Not really Jewish. We have Jewish food, but it’s not really a Jewish deli per se. I’m Jewish and the building is Jewish.”

Melzer, 38, has Israeli parents living in Munich, “who have been living for 40 years with their suitcases packed and ready to return to Israel, but have never done it.” He began his foray into Berlin nightlife as a DJ and then as a club owner.

Melzer: “A year ago I got tired of the nightlife and was looking for a new project. I’d always dreamed of opening a deli in Berlin. I love pastrami and you just can’t find it anywhere in the city. It’s not a German food, they don’t know it, they only eat sausages. Since my first visit to New York I’ve been dreaming about those sandwiches.

“Most of the people who come here aren’t Jewish, I don’t think. First of all, the place isn’t kosher: We sell sandwiches with cold cuts made of pork, and we mix meat and dairy. But I don’t think that’s the reason.

“The main reason is that there isn’t really much of a Jewish community in Berlin. Yes, it’s a growing community ? I’ve heard that it’s the fastest-growing [Jewish] community in the world now ? but that’s not difficult to do: Before the fall of the Berlin Wall there were 35,000 Jews in Germany, and now there are more than 120,000. But in relation to other Jewish communities in the world, that’s nothing. Comparatively, there are hardly any Jews in Berlin.

“There’s hype surrounding the Israelis in Berlin, and there is an increasing number of Israelis coming here, but there is no Jewish cultural life in Berlin. If something Jewish opens, it’s surprising,” he says, adding, “I won’t go to places that are especially Jewish. Being a Jew in Germany is still a complex thing.”

“As a kid I went to Israel two or three times a year,” Melzer says. “And more recently I went to Israel mainly to be a DJ in Tel Aviv clubs. I’m a typical Diaspora Jew. Anything that’s considered Jewish, I did. I went to synagogue, I went to a Jewish youth group. I went to Israel.

“My parents’ generation lives in constant conflict about being Jews in Germany,” he adds. “My grandparents fled from here. My grandfather was actually in the orphanage housed in the building across from the school in the 1920s, and still they came back.

“My generation doesn’t live with this same conflict. I consider myself Jewish, but I’m German first of all. For my parents it’s different; they’re Jews first of all. I believe the next generation will have a very different connection with their identity and with history. They’ll be more normal.”

Says Fuchs, “If you’re a German in Berlin, you encounter a reminder of our history wherever you go. But I don’t feel the weight of history anymore. A few years ago it was much more palpable here.”

Fuchs has lived in Berlin for more than 20 years and divides his time between the city and New York. In recent years, he explains, art in Berlin has changed the face of the city – from a World War II monument to a cosmopolitan and open city.

“About 90 percent of my friends in New York are Jewish, and they all love to come to Berlin purely for cultural reasons. I think that German is dealing with its history well,” he says.

“Let’s be honest, we have the most awful history in the world over the past 100 years,” Fuchs says. “But we’re dealing with it honorably and with our heads held high, even though we’re not supposed to be holding our heads up. Everyone is very open to hearing about the Holocaust and about what happened. The time has come to look ahead in Germany.”

The gallery owner notes that this is precisely what the Jewish community did when it decided to rent him the building: “We didn’t build another monument in the building, but we turned it into a living space, while honoring and preserving its tragic history,” he says.

“Like everyone else,” Fuchs concludes, “the Jewish community is first of all trying to cope with the economic crisis. And if we want to keep on going here, we all need to make a living.”


 

Reproduction by Danielle Zilberberg