On Heinrich-Heine-Straße, Berlin


I am early, so I take some time on the corner with the man who is always there, looking out across the junction towards the kebab shop and the U-Bahn station; to where the crowds gather waiting to gain entrance to the club; to the Plattenbau walls and their balconies; beneath the wintergarten windows still shining with the lights of a Christmas already past. The cars move along the street that bears the name of the man for whom this memorial – surrounded by trees atop a small plaza of crooked flagstones – was built. Beneath the ground the U-Bahn trains stop at the station of the same name, a station that was closed for 28 years when the wall divided the city and divided the street a few hundred metres to the south, complete with barriers, checkpoints and border controls.

Heinrich-Heine-Straße is one of those corners of Berlin I had never had any real reason to spend time in, although my daughter’s friend lives down the street so I have emerged onto this corner a few times recently, and usually too early. When I do, I spend some time at the memorial, following the man’s gaze as he looks out across the street and the traffic. Heinrich Heine lived in the first half of the 19th century, a writer of narrative poems, plays, essays and travelogues; a man who wrote the words “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too” in 1821. In 1933, 102 years later, Heine’s books were among those burned on the Bebelplatz by the Nazis in Berlin, and those sadly prophetic words are now engraved at the spot.

They are perhaps his most famous words. But every time I come to Heinrich-Heine-Straße and its concrete-slab apartment blocks and steady stream of cars heading in and out of Berlin-Mitte, I think more of the Harz Mountains and his Harz Journey, published in 1826. And in turn I think about our own Harz journeys, and a walk out from a campsite along the banks of a reservoir before following a path through marshland and then into the forest. A wooden bridge crossed the stream and with every creak of the boards and with every footstep we half expected to hear the voice of a troll, exclaiming from the darkness beneath. There was nothing, just the sound of the wind in the trees and a woodpecker hammering at a stubborn trunk, but that is the Harz for you. Witches and trolls and wolves bearing gifts around every corner.

That day we climbed a hill that offered views across the forest to the bald summit of the Brocken, the mountain where the witches gather to dance on Walpurgis Night and where Heine locked into a drinking session at the inn at the top with a bunch of romantic, patriotic students. Heine was not so impressed, as he rarely was, with their drunken posturings. And even less so, when he read the visitors book:

“In this book you can see what horrors are produced when the great army of philistines takes advantage of such handy opportunities as the Brocken and resolves to be poetic.”

Ouch. But it is typical of Heine, as he wandered the countryside, always ready with a sly comment or a comic aside. He delighted in losing the way as he wandered the paths through the dense forest that covers the vast majority of the Harz Mountains, not so much shadowing Goethe like those philistine poets of the Brocken peak but attempting to take the next step, bringing his own brand of satire to the romantic, natural wonders that surrounded him. In any case, if he got lost, there was always a friendly local ready to help him on his way:

“…it gives them additional pleasure if they can inform us with a self-satisfied countenance and a loud, benevolent voice how far we went out of our way, what chasms and marshes might have swallowed us up, and how fortunate it is that we met such expert guides as themselves in the nick of time.”

I can see the man – for it has to be a man – that is helping Heine realise the error of his ways, because nearly two hundred years later they are still strolling the paths with their self-satisfied countenance, and not only in the Harz Mountains.

On Heinrich-Heine-Straße I look at the time and then, phone already in hand, snap a picture of the man who is always waiting above the entrance to the station. His view is not the of wonders of the Harz, even if that is what always springs to my mind as I emerge from the U-Bahn, but I am convinced he would have had the opportunity, he would have something to say about the goings on in the Sage Club, as confident as ever that he could keep up with the best of them, able as he was to “carry a lot… Modesty forbids me to say how many bottles…”

I look at the time again. I’ve spent too much time on Heinrich-Heine-Straße. I’m going to be late.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton
Quotes from Heinrich Heine’s The Harz Journey and  Selected Prose, Penguin Classics (2006), translated by Ritchie Robertson

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