A complete guide to Berlin ‘s Wild East – namely the part of Germany’s capital that used to be behind the proverbial Iron Curtain, obviously.
Formerly the capital of the GDR, Berlin’s Eastern neighborhoods actually changed really fast for the better and cooler and are more exciting than the full and settled West today.
Formerly, in a different post, I took you on a smooth ride across Berlin, Germany’s exciting capital, by bus #100. We started at the Alexanderplatz in the east and went westwards all the way to the former main train station Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten.
In today’s post, let’s discover what you get to see and experience when you turn east at the Alexanderplatz – and walk right into the heart of the ex-capital of the former GDR – the German Democratic Republic.
Alexanderplatz – Breathing History
Since I’d been to Berlin for the first time, I’ve felt like literally breathing history there: From the stiff German Empire to the liberal, progressive, and exciting Weimar Republic leading into the hellish years of WWII – and eventually, of course, the division into the sectors that led into the disunion, marked by the Berlin wall from 1961 until the unification in 1989.
Sometimes it’s beyond interesting or fascinating. At times I find it simply overwhelming. Is there a spot in this city that is not of historic relevance?!
So again, like on the last tour, we begin our journey at the Alexanderplatz.
This square is one of the largest and most important squares in Berlin, also because of Alfred Döblin’s legendary, impressionist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz from 1929, describing in a very deep and dense way the fate of the proletarian class in a metropolis between the two World Wars.
The Alexanderplatz was celebrated in a novel by Alfred Döblin:
(*10 August 1878 | ? 26 June 1957)
A modernistic novelist, essayist, and doctor. Due to his expressionist work and his cultural and political ideas, he had to flee the Nazis first to Switzerland and France and eventually to the USA. Nevertheless, after the war, he and his wife came back to Europe, settled first in Germany and then in France. Only in 1956, Döblin was able to live up to his most famous work Berlin Alexanderplatz by his last novel Tales of a Long Night, published in 1956, one year before his death.
(Photo: unknown photographer, probably from allied military forces, Doeblin alfred 1946, cropped to 5:7, B/W-filter, CC0 1.0)
Today, the Alexanderplatz is a central place when it comes to shopping and dining, and the Weltzeituhr, a large turret-style clock, and the television tower can be visited here, too.
Coming from the tower, let’s cross the Karl-Liebknecht-Straße* in front of the Marienkirche and then keep walking into a small alley at the corner of the bakery Treibmann. This way, you’ll get to Rosenstraße.
The Karl-Liebknecht-Straße is named after Karl Liebknecht:
(*13 August 1871 | ? 15 January 1919)
Co-founded with Rosa Luxemburg the German Communist Party and initiated the Spartacist uprising of 1919 which then was crushed by the Social Democrat Government with the help of paramilitary units. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were executed and are regarded as martyrs of the turmoils between the two World Wars.
(Photo: Unknown, KarlLiebknecht1900, cropped to 5:7, B/W-filter, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Rosenstraße – the street of roses…beautiful name, right?!
Albeit, it was at Rosenstraße where in 1943 in the middle of all the Nazi terror sort of a miracle happened.
In February of that year, about 8,000 Jewish men were arrested right at their working places, obviously for deportation to the concentration camps. However, some of these men were married to so-called ‘Aryan’, hence, German, non-Jewish women. Therefore, for two months, these wives protested in front of this building against the arrest of their husbands. So for two months, day by day, they proved that they had no intention to accept the abduction of their loved ones.
In order to avoid bloodshed in the very center of the capital of the ‘Reich’, the regime backed down and released these men.
Since 1995, there is a sculpture by Ingeborg Hunzinger called Block der Frauen (Block of Women) honoring these more than brave women who stood up against the Nazi terror here at Rosenstraße.
There is the book Resistance of the Heart by Nathan Stoltzfus as well as the movie Rosenstraße by Margarethe von Trotta on this story.
In this article, I’m writing out some of the German names and places, obviously. You will also notice that there are letters that might not exist in other languages.
Firstly, there is the letter ß that exists only in the German alphabet and it’s by no means a B – it’s a ‘sharp’, double S as in kiss. When writing, you can actually replace it by a double S.
Then there are three more vowels, ä being the easiest one since it’s pronounced like an open e as in head.
Ö and ü are tougher, ö being pronounced more or less like the e in her and ü as the u in huge.
As you turn left at the next cross street, you’ll get to the Litfaßplatz, honoring the Litfaßsäule, named after Ernst Litfaß.
You might know the Litfaßsäule rather by the name advertising column – because that’s what it is. However, since they were invented by clever Mr. Litfaß in 1854 and the first 100 columns were actually installed in Berlin, here, they are called Litfaßsäule.
After this little fun fact, keep walking towards the Hackescher Markt, you cannot miss it since it’s right behind the S-Bahn station and there is one café or restaurant next to the other and in the center are stalls selling produce and snacks and nick nacks and it’s a very vivid, nice square.
A good place to enjoy some good fast food is the restaurant BBQ Kitchen. They serve excellent burgers, ribs, and German Currywurst every day from 11 a. m. until midnight.
Just a stone’s throw from the Hackescher Markt is the Hackesche Höfe, a gorgeous courtyard complex that consists of eight interconnected courtyards.
While these courtyards, built and decorated in an Art Nouveau style, are housing costly boutiques and chains and big labels, the adjacent Schwarzenberg house withstands posh tenants and stands like a fortress, dedicated to besieging the globalized, capitalist conquerer.
Hence, the Schwarzenberg house is richly decorated with graffiti and quirky sculptures and the bars here are rather rustic. There are independent galleries, an arthouse cinema, and also two memorial sites:
Firstly, the Anne Frank Zentrum – I refrain from explaining who Anne Frank was. Although Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt and lived most of her far too short life in Amsterdam, there is this exhibition here in Berlin on her life, the significance of her diary, and the epoch she lived in.
This center is mainly designed for encouraging young people to take political responsibility and stand up for freedom, tolerance, and democracy.
Otto Weidt’s Workshop
Another important memorial is the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt, Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, housed actually in the former workshop. By employing Jews, Otto Weidt managed to save them from deportation to the concentration camps – or at least, he deferred it.
Yes, he was a smaller version of Oskar Schindler and also he saved fewer lives. But most importantly, Steven Spielberg did not make a film about his heroic deeds.
Still, his story is fascinating and encouraging just the same and everybody should know about him.
Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind
Rosenthaler Straße 39
The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind is open every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Workshop for the Blind where many people found shelter was run by:
(* 2 May 1883 | ? 22 December 1947)
Suffering from decreasing eyesight, he opened a workshop for brushes and brooms, employing mainly blind people. During WWII, he fought to protect his Jewish workers against deportation. Consequently, in 1971, he has been recognized as one of the Righteous Men of the World’s Nations by Yad Vashem.
(Photo: Hanay, אוטו ויידט תמונה במוזיאון (cropped), cropped to 5:7, B/W-filter, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Although Spielberg didn’t make a movie on Otto Weidt, there is a TV movie. It deals with Otto Weidt’s heroic concept and also his love for Alice Licht, one of his Jewish employees who – with his help – even managed to escape a concentration camp.
By the way, it’s mainly because of people like Otto Weidt that I don’t feel comfortable when people speak about ‘the Germans’ having done all the atrocities.
Righteous Men And Women
This being said, I by no means intend to whitewash anyone. But not every German citizen was a staunch Nazi. As a matter of fact, there even was a number of Germans who were victims themselves: German Communists, Clerics, Homosexuals, and others were prosecuted, too.
On the other hand, sadly, the Nazis found support in searching and rounding up Jewish people in every European country. As a matter of fact, as far as I know, only Denmark managed to save almost the entire Jewish population by sending them in boats to Sweden.
Refugees coming by boats – doesn’t that sound familiar?!
Also, it’s sad to say that in every other country, the Nazis had allies or collaborators.
So, however, life would be so easy if one could blame exclusively one entire nation for being the devil. We could declare the Germans the planet’s only villains so that the rest of the world’s population would frolic and pick daisies on a lush lawn. Unfortunately – or probably thank God – it’s obviously not that simple.
Walking along the Hackesche Höfe on Rosenthaler Straße, you then turn left into Sophienstraße at the next corner. It’s a very cute street with many small shops and lovely cafés and bakeries where you can just sit in front of the window, enjoying a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade cake.
The next cross street is the Große Hamburger Straße. This used to be Berlin’s Jewish neighborhood, hence, on the street’s southern end is the Jewish Cemetery. Across the street, Berlin’s first Jewish retirement home was opened with the Jewish School for Boys next to it. As a matter of fact, these buildings were used by the Nazis to round up Jews for their deportation.
In 1943, the Jewish cemetery was destroyed and turned into an air-raid shelter. The gravestones were used to reinforce the walls. Later, the grounds became a mass grave for soldiers and civilians killed during Allied air raids. Today, one symbolic tombstone and a sarcophagus filled with remains of gravestones are all that’s left. About 3,000 war victims, as well as approximately 3,000 Jewish dead, are now buried together.
As at the end of the Große Hamburger Straße you turn right into the Oranienburger Straße, you will also find many nice places where you can have a snack or a coffee.
There is a branch of the excellent ice cream parlor chain Amorino – yes, for once in my life I’m promoting a ‘global player’:
Amorino Eis Boutique
Oranienburger Straße 1-3
Open from noon till 9 p. m.
Also, some of the best Currywurst – the typical sausage with tomato sauce and curry powder – is sold here:
Oranienburger Straße 6
Open from 11 a. m. till midnight.
With your stomach full, let’s keep walking down the Oranienburger Straße to Number 28.
Here in 1866, the Neue Synagoge, hence, the New Synagogue, was inaugurated. 3,200 seats made it Germany’s largest Jewish house of worship.
Unlike other Synagogues, it was not destroyed during the ‘Kristallnacht’, the Pogrom Night in 1938. Nevertheless, eventually, it was severely damaged during air raids. Finally, in 1958, the main hall was dynamited so that only the facade remained. After restoration, the Synagogue was re-opened in 1995. Now the building houses the Centrum Judaicum as well as its museum. There is also a small prayer room for about 100 people on the 3rd floor.
Note: The prayer room and the museum are operating independently.
Synagoge Oranienburger Straße
Oranienburger Straße 28 – 30
Opening hours April to September Monday to Friday 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. and Sunday till 7 p. m.; the cupola is open.
Opening hours October to March Sunday to Thursday 10 a. m. to 6 p. m., Friday till 3 p. m.; the cupola is closed.
At the next corner, turn left into the Tucholskystraße and eventually right into Ziegelstraße to get to the Friedrichstraße.
The Tucholskystraße is named after Kurt Tucholsky:
(* 9 January 9 1890 | ? 21 December 21 1935)
Undoubtedly one of the most important German journalists and novelists of the Weimar Republic, famous for his wit and outstanding ability to use the German language. Being Jewish, after the Nazis came to power, obviously, his books were burnt and his citizenship revoked. Tucholsky migrated to Sweden were he overdosed sleeping pills. However, it is not evident if this happened on purpose or accidentally.
(Photo: Unknown, Ktktkt, cropped to 5:7, B/W-filter, CC0 1.0)
Center of the GDR Era
On Friedrichstraße, to your right is the Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theatre from the GDR era.
As you cross into Reinhardtstraße, you’ll get the chance to visit one of the remaining air raid shelters that today houses a private art gallery, the Boros Foundation.
Businessman and collector Christian Boros and his wife Karen do not only own the bunker and are living in a spacious penthouse on the upper floor. They also call an impressive collection of contemporary art their own. The gallery can be visited, but only on a pre-booked guided tour (available in German and English).
Now walk back to the Friedrichstraße and turn right to cross the Weidendammer Brücke.
Past Full Of Tears
On the right-hand side towards the river Spree is a glass building called Tränenpalast, the palace of tears. This used to be basically the only place where the Berlin wall was a tiny bit permeable – visitors from the west were allowed to enter the GDR after having been grilled; and some people from East Berlin – namely retirees – were allowed to go west…for a short visit.
Today there is an exhibition on this whole pretty rigid and sometimes cruel border traffic.
10117 Berlin Visitor
Opening hours are Tuesday to Friday 9 a. m. to 7 p. m. and weekends from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m.
To get to the next stop of our tour, you can either walk up the Friedrichstraße which further north leads into Chausseestraße.
Here you can check out what’s on at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k), New Berlin Art Association. They usually have rather unusual, quirky artists – exhibitions and performances alike.
Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.)
10115 Berlin Deutschland
A few steps further, at number 126, is the entrance to the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof is to be found.
Here, some great Germans are laid to rest: The philosopher Friedrich Hegel 1770 – 1831), the artists and architects Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 – 1841) and Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 – 1850), novelists such as Heinrich Mann (1871 – 1950), Anna Seghers (1900 – 1983), and Christa Wolf (1929 – 2011). And the theater power couple Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel.
The cemetery can be visited from March to October from 8 a. m. to 8 p. m. and from November to February till 5 p. m.
Funny enough, Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel didn’t have to move far after they passed away: Their last home has been right next to the cemetery and today there is a museum honoring their work. The memorial center can be visited on guided tours (German and English – no advance booking required). Please check their website since there are too many hours to be listed here.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve heard about Bertolt Brecht before: His most famous musical theater piece is the Threepenny Opera, adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. While Brecht wrote the lyrics, the music is by Kurt Weill – and you certainly know the song Mack The Knife?! Well, here you go then. Another internationally known song would be the Moon of Alabama, written for his play Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. So, show me the way to the next whiskey bar – and don’t ask why, no, don’t ask why….
Remembering one of Germany’s most important writers:
(* 10 February 1898 | ? 14 August 1956)
Clearly one of the most important and famous German dramatists and poets. He was a dedicated communist and pacifist and consequently, most of his theater plays deal with the hardship of and the injustice and inequality between men. His poems, however, tend to be surprisingly tender and romantic. Being a communist and pacifist, obviously, Brecht hat to migrate from Nazi Germany – first to Sweden and eventually to the USA; where, by the way, he was again prosecuted during the McCarthy era. In 1949, however, he moved back to Germany and settled in the Russian sector, the GDR’s predecessor.
(Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Bertolt-Brecht, Formatted to 5:7, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
…and his wife:
(* 12 May 1900 | ? 6 May 1971)
German character actress and artistic director. Being Bert Brecht’s second wife, she played many roles of his famous plays, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder / Mother Courage and Her Children being the most celebrated one. Being of Jewish descent and a member of the communist party since 1930, she migrated from Nazi Germany to Los Angeles where, for obvious reason, she could not pursue her career. After moving back to East Germany in 1949, she founded, together with her husband Bertolt Brecht, the theater Berliner Ensemble.
(Photo: Deutsche Fotothek, Fotothek df Pk 89, Formatted to 5:7, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
While Brecht and Weigel, along with other artists, writers, journalist etc. saw a Socialist State as a valid alternative especially to the Fascism they just had suffered through, for many people the way this political system was installed by the leaders meant hardship and pain.
Phoenix From the Ashes
During the first years after the war, the frontier between East and West Berlin was pretty much open and the Berliners were able to travel back and forth as they pleased.
Only when more and more people decided to leave the eastern part and make a living rather in the west, the grip got slowly tighter and finally, in 1961, the GDR government built the infamous wall.
There are memorials and remnants of the wall all over the place, but at the Bernauer Straße, the situation was particularly bizarre. The wall went right through the houses – and even through a church wall.
So before the GDR soldiers were able to brick up the windows, people just entered the houses on the east side and jumped off the windows to the west; from any storey available. Needless to say that there were casualties since people literally jumped even from the fourth floor.
Today, there is a Memorial Park at Bernauer Straße 111 and a very informative visitor center at Bernauer Straße 119. You get there from the Brecht-Weigel-House walking up Chausseestraße and turning right into Zinnowitzer Straße which leads first into Julie-Wolfthorn-Straße and then Bernauer Straße.
So what do you think so far? A city bursting with history from different epochs – terrible and full of hope, very dark, but with a tiny spark of light.
And today? Today, this part of Berlin is one of the hippest neighborhoods.
As you walk on Ackerstraße back south from the Memorial Park, you’ll get to Torstraße, Linienstraße, and Auguststraße. Each of these cross streets is lined with art galleries, snack bars, coffee shops so that you just have to take your pick where to hang out with the in-crowd.
Linienstraße and Auguststraße end at Oranienburger Straße in the west, and this is the Land of Cockaigne when it comes to food from all over the world: Asian, Arabic, European – everybody finds its favorite here.
Walking down Linienstraße eastwards, you’ll get to our final stop, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the Rosa Luxemburg Square.
No wonder that this place, named after one of the world’s greatest communist icons, is also home to Germany’s extreme left-wing party Die Linke with a huge portrait of Che Guevara decorating their building.
Giving Theater to the People
But the most impressive structure here is the Volksbühne, the People’s Theater, built in 1913 / 1914. The idea was to have a theater literally for the people instead of a bourgeois elite. They tried to promote naturalist plays people could relate to and also offered them at prices that the common workers could afford. Obviously, the theater could not keep these ideals up after the Nazis came into power.
After the war, the heavily damaged building was rebuilt from 1950 to 1954.
Since their repertoire – apart from interesting, new plays – includes also modern dance performances and different concerts, it’s worth checking it out for a pleasant evening out – like a real Berliner.
Walking down the Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, you’ll get back to the Alexanderplatz where our tour started.
The Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße is named after:
(* 5 March 1871 – 15 January 1919)
Polish-born philosopher, economist, and anti-war activist. However, she got German citizenship in 1899. Also, she was the co-founder of the communist newspaper Die Rote Fahne/The Red Flag. Together with Karl Liebknecht, she founded the German Communist Party and initiated the Spartacist uprising of 1919. After it was crushed by the Social Democrat Government with the help of paramilitary units, Rosa Luxemburg’s dead body was thrown into the canal Landwehrkanal.
So, guys, I hope I managed to show you some interesting and inspiring things – and I hope you’ve enjoyed your walk through the Wild Wild East.
I’d be more than pleased to learn what you think, so just let me have it in the comment section below.
Where to Stay
If you are planning on exploring mainly Berlin’s Wild Wild East, staying close to the Alexanderplatz is highly recommended. From there, you can follow my above itinerary walking.
The Premier Inn is just a few steps from the Alexanderplatz and offers modern, comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.
Since I’ve published and updated a couple of posts on Berlin over the past weeks, I’m refraining from posting general travel info on how to get there and around, the money, the WelcomeCard etc. Please be so kind to check my post BERLIN guide: get the most for less on bus 100.
To explore Berlin’s amazing Street Art, rush over to my post Best Street Art in BERLIN
Before coming to Germany, you might want to check out my post All you need to know before going to GERMANY. This information will make your trip smoother and more enjoyable.
Here you can trace the tour on a responsive street map. Clicking on the slider symbol at the top left or the full-screen icon at the top right will display the whole map including the legend.
If you choose to pin this post for later, please use one of these pictures:
Note: I am completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in August 2022.
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* All links in this post are a service to my readers and not affiliated. However, the Premier Inn invited me to stay with them. Yet, all opinions on their service are mine and weren’t by any means influenced by my cooperation partner.