The history of this village at the bottom end of the Scharmützelsee lake about an hour from Berlin is all there in the name. The Wends were West Slavs, who settled in the land between the Elbe and the Oder rivers over a thousand years ago. Divided into a number of different tribes, they were the majority population of the area that now makes up most of the state of Brandenburg until the arrival of German colonists between the 12th and the 14th centuries. By the 18th Century most of the Wends had been assimilated into the German population, except for the Sorbs, who continue to live as Germany’s only indigenous minority in the Spreewald region, not far from Wendisch-Rietz.
Who knows how many people in this holiday town have Slavic roots, although the Nazis didn’t like the idea and changed the name of the town to Märkisch Rietz until it was reverted back in 1945. From then until 1990, the little town at the bottom of the lake was part of the German Democratic Republic, and there are traces of the socialist period still to be discovered to this day.
We arrived in the town during the holidays in the middle of winter, and unsurprisingly this place that makes most of its money from holidaymakers, swimmers, canoe rentals, boat charters and other warm weather tourist activities was pretty much shuttered and closed off for the season. We parked our car close to the stream – or the Riecz in old Slavic that gave the town its name – and turned away from the settlement to explore the woodland to the south.
It was a strange and lovely walk, and although we had left the town itself behind us, we managed to discover different hints as to the kind of things that have been part of everyday life in this part of the world. The weather was surprisingly mild and the ground boggy underfoot, although most of the paths we followed were made up of concrete slabs laid in two parallel lines for the military vehicles that used them back in the days of the GDR and still do to this day. Indeed, for much of the walk we were following the boundary of a military exercise zone and signs every twenty metres or so warned us of the use of live ammunition and told us in no uncertain terms not to stray from the path. It certainly gave us a slightly uneasy feeling as we followed the border of the restricted zone around the lake, and there was a unspoken feeling of relief when we crossed a wooden bridge and turned back towards Wendisch-Rietz, finally leaving the row of warning signs behind us.
Now we came across an old holiday camp, the buildings abandoned in the trees clearly dating back to the period of the German Democratic Republic, and a huge complex slowly being reclaimed by the forest – from the accommodation bungalows laid out in neat rows to the dining hall and the crumbling jetty falling into the calm waters of the lake. It seemed sad that this spot was no longer to be enjoyed, and we were left to contemplate the many happy memories of long summer evenings spent here over the years, and then we reached the post-reunification version, a new holiday park made up of a collection of brightly painted wooden houses looking down on the water. Most of the houses were empty, so we could walk right up to the dusty windows and peer inside, but despite the quiet it was a reminder that leisure and pleasure, along with the military, remain an important source of income.
But if tourism is the principle economic activity of Wendisch-Rietz, it is also a seasonal one, and at the end of the park we came to a collection of what were clearly accommodation blocks and yet had a much more institutional feel and where year-round operations however continue at what turns out to be one of the largest employers in the town. We were walking by a private clinic for psychiatric care that occupies the next prime location on the banks of the lake. This clinic is one of three founded by a famous German neurologist Matthias Gottschaldt and deals predominantly with people suffering from depression, alcoholism and other psychiatric issues. On a quiet day in the winter, with the weak sun reflecting on the lake, it was easy to see why they believed this would be a good spot for people to rest and receive treatment. After leaving the clinic and its handful of patients strolling in the garden we made our way back to town. We had gone to Wendisch-Rietz for a walk in the woods, and in doing so had discovered some of the different sides of life in this town by the lake.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig