We had not been running the tours at Slow Travel Berlin very long when we got the request. A couple, new to Berlin, wanted a private tour of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen for them and their friends. “My husband is in his eighties,” the message ended. “So it might be a little slower than usual!”
We met at the ice cream cafe on Prinzenallee, on the corner of Badstraße. The couple were already there, drinking coffee and waiting for their friends to arrive. Once the group had gathered, and after another round of coffees, we began to walk. The route starts at the site of the old Luisenbad in Gesundbrunnen, and then moves through the historic neighbourhood of Wedding; along the Panke river and across Nettelbeckplatz; to Leopoldplatz and then back through the side streets to Humboldthain and the top of the flak tower.
As we walked I told the stories of the neighbourhood. And along the way I heard their story as well. The couple had just moved to Berlin from Israel, where they had lived since the late 1950s. He was originally from Manchester, while she had been born in London. Her family had fled to Britain not long after Hitler had come to power, and the tour was an attempt to discover more about a neighbourhood where her grandfather had owned factories in the interwar period.
Having met at university, after graduation they moved to Israel. Politically to the left, they were involved in the Labor party and had seen Israel both as an opportunity to build a new, ideal society, and also to guarantee a “safe haven” for Jews in a world that had seen six million murdered in the Nazi extermination camps.
Over the years, however, they became disillusioned with the reality of the situation in Israel, and as the 21st century reached its second decade, they made the decision to leave. But to where? Neither of them had any interest in returning to Britain, so they began to investigate their options. Up to that point, she had never been to Germany. She had never been able to face visiting the country of her father’s birth, although he had been a number of times for work and they had many friends in the country.
An invitation to a birthday party finally persuaded her to visit Berlin, and over that long weekend she – in her words “despite myself” – fell in love with the city. The greenery. The peaceful streets. The atmosphere of tolerance and openness. The culture. There are many reasons to fall in love with Berlin. And so they made the decision, packing up their belongings and their life in Israel, to move to the German capital. Roughly eighty years after her father had fled Berlin in the face of the threat posed by the Nazis, she set up home in Charlottenburg.
As we walked I was so taken by this story that I am sure I did not make a very good tour guide, asking more questions of my companions that I probably answered. We ended up in Leopoldplatz, sitting outside on the square on plastic chairs, drinking yet another round of coffees. I remember thinking about the fact that when we walk the city, many of the stories we discover along the way deal with the darker aspects of Berlin’s history. But on that particular walk, I was able to reflect again at how far Berlin had come to get from there to here.
I am writing this on the morning after the deaths at the Christmas Market in Charlottenburg, just a few streets from where the couple from my Wedding walk live. It is with sadness and sorrow that I think of the people who died, and with disquiet that I think of what will come next. But I also think back to that walk through my neighbourhood, and the other Berlin stories that make this place what it is. The city that I love.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig