At the harbour in Rathenow on a sunny, summer’s day, the atmosphere is fine. People take pictures of the “lock spitters”, a memorial to the piece workers who used to kill time whilst waiting for the barges to pick them up by holding spitting competitions against the canal. Others queue at the specially-erected wooden info stands for their maps and tickets for the BUGA, Germany’s premier flower show being hosted in 2015 by Rathenow and other communities in the west of Brandenburg. The BUGA has brought many people to the town, and it seems well-scrubbed in anticipation of their visit. The streets are clean and the bicycles lanes smooth, the balconies of the GDR-era Plattenbau filled with flowers, and every shop and cafe seems to be welcoming the flower-peepers to their corner of Westhavelland, proud of their town.
But as we cross the bridge from the harbour and into the old town – a collection of cobbled streets around the church – I get the sense of something missing… the old town itself. For in Rathenow, the Altstadt only contains a handful of pre-war buildings. The red brick church (itself needing massive renovation over recent decades) and some half-timbered houses, but otherwise most of the the old town seems to have been built either during the years when Rathenow was part of the German Democratic Republic, or even since. It is not that it is bad, or it is ugly, but just you cannot help but get a sense of loss as you walk the streets… and you want to find out more.
Rathenow suffered in the last years of the war, and found much of its town razed to the ground, in a couple of ways. The first was that it was in the direct flight path of the Allied bombing raids targeting Berlin. When the American and British bombers turned and headed for home, anything they had that was left was dropped on the towns they passed and Rathenow was directly in the firing line. The worst bombing raid took place on 18th April 1944, when American bombers were forced back by anti-aircraft fire in Berlin with almost their entire payload intact. Instead of Berlin, some of those bombs were dropped on Rathenow. About a year later and Rathenow suffered its heaviest damage as, in the final weeks of the war, it was taken by Soviet troops in an offensive that destroyed 75% of the town. Rathenow was caught between the tanks and the guns of the Red Army, and the Nazis suicidal refusal to surrender to the (by this time) inevitable defeat.
From the church tower we look out over the rebuilt town and, it has to be said considering the GDR track record in such things, they actually did quite a good job. But downstairs we are faced with a reminder of what else had been lost in Rathenow during those years of death and destruction. An exhibition entitled Nachbarn (Neighbours) that occupies part of the church tells the story of the Jewish community of Rathenow. In 1847 the synagogue in the town counted 6 families as members. By 1926 it was 112. Their names and addresses, their jobs and their position in the community, are listed on boards, along with photographs. The list also tells of what became of them. Some escaped to Cuba, to America. Others were not so lucky.
Jenny Danielsohn – Brandenburger Straße 17/18
Berta Blanca Kadden – Steinstraße 38
The list continues, and so often in such cases it is coming face to face with the individuals, their names and their personal stories, that strikes home much more than sheer numbers ever can. The synagogue in Rathenow was destroyed on Kristallnacht – the night of the 9-10th November 1938 and part of a pogrom against Jews across Germany and Austria. According to the exhibition, twenty locals attacked the synagogue, destroying the contents and much of the building.
We step out from the church and into bright sunshine, walking down from the old town and along the main shopping street. In the soft light it looks like a technicolour tourist brochure from 1970s East Germany. The town seems prosperous and positive. But as so often when we travel in these lands, we are left reflecting on what was lost, from the buildings to the neighbours who once lived in them.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig
I wrote about a different corner of Brandenburg, the Oderbruch, in the first issue of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. You can find out more about the project, and buy a copy, here.