Berlin: Nazi Bunker and German Lessons

This past week while in Berlin I took an intensive German course. I've studied (and, to varying degrees, speak) French, Arabic, Hebrew and Italian, but never German, a language I use quite often for singing. I found the course very helpful, mainly because it gave me some grammatical rules and some vocabulary. Now, the man who stumbles through German by feel actually has some rules to back himself up! Please don't ask me about cases or gender, however. I think for now I'll just stick to “die” and make up the endings for “einen/eine/ein/eines” while smiling through my mistakes.

But this post is not about my German course. It's about something I visited in Berlin: The Mutter-Kinder Bunker (or the Fichtebunker) in Kreuzberg.

Berlin is currently a hip, American-infused, trendy city. It was not always that way. Until 1989 it was divided and ruled, in part, by the DDR and its Stasi (look at one of my favorite fims, Das Leben der Anderen as an example). After 1945, it was in a state of turmoil. Thousands of women had been raped by Allied soldiers, over 70% of homes were seriously damaged, Germans fleeing westward from Silesia and other lands arrived as refugees, and many families were torn apart as the result of war. Of course, before 1945, Berlin was the center of Hitler's ascendence, and the city was re-formulated as a utopia of Aryanism and Nazi superiority. In short, Berlin history has been anything but steady during the last 100 years.

 Credit:   Lienhard Schulz    

Credit: Lienhard Schulz 

The building I visited is a testament to this instability. Ironically, it is one of the most stable structures the city has to offer. The organization, Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underground) runs tours throughout underground locations in Berlin, and the particular tour I took explored a building called the

Fichtebunker. It is a round, squat building that reminds me somewhat of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, if the Armory were circular. It's massive, and sits back from the road, giving the impression of density and grandeur. Why was it built? It was originally constucted in the 19th century as a gasometer. It held gas that powered the city's lighting system. The Kaiser's wife disliked the look of the building (and others like it) and had a decorative brick wall placed around it. That wall still stands today and is in this photo of Steve Wilson and me standing in front of it.

 Steve and me in front of the Fichtebunker.

Steve and me in front of the Fichtebunker.

When the Nazis took over Germany, they changed the lighting system in Berlin from gas to electricity. The massive gasometer was no longer needed, and could be used instead for other purposes. Although the Nazis destroyed the other 3 gasometers in Berlin, they retained this one and converted it into a bomb shelter, for both practical purposes and for propaganda. This was the bomb shelter to end all bomb shelters. Although many other bomb shelters in Berlin were substandard, this one was quite impermeable, and the Nazis would show it off as an example of superior technology and preparedness. It contained a sophisticated ventilation system, at least one diesel generator, an elevator, a furnace system to heat air, and at its busiest toward the end of the war, held 30,000 people – mainly women and children (men were expected to fight to the death against the enemy).

After the war, the converted bunker was in the American district, and was used as a refugee shelter (without andy windows!), an old-age home (without any light!), a homeless shelter (no daylight!), and finally a storage facility. As a storage facility, it was packed to the gills with food supplies for West Berliners who required contingency plans and rations should the Soviets and/or DDR blockade supply routes via the Autobahn to West Germany, as they had during the celebrated Berlin Blockade/Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. After the wall fell, the food supplies in the bunker were, ironically, donated to the USSR which was in need of aid.

 Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

I found the tour really creepy! Why? First of all – the font. Old German font creeps me out. I've never discussed this with anyone, and I'm wondering if people agree. There's something about the sans-serif older German typeface that gives me the heebie-jeebies, perhaps it's my association of it with films about the Holocaust that we watched in school. But beyond the typography aesthetic, the thing that creeped me out was that we were in this massive concrete structure and could get lost inside for a very long time. My innate claustrophobia kicked in, particularly when I imagined 30,000 other people cramped inside. The smells, cries, noise, and fear of people who knew their homes were being bombarded, all felt palpable inside the dank and chilly bunker. It was made even more haunting when we visited one of the bathroom facilities and learned that at the end of the war, women would commit suicide with their children inside toilet stalls so that they could avoid rape or worse by the incoming Red Army. The thought of so much suicide in one place made my stomach turn.

 Credit: Berliner Unterwelten.

Credit: Berliner Unterwelten.

As we exited the bunker, the warm and moist summer air filled our lungs and I felt relief to be outside, and at the same time I felt glad to know more about the strange history of Berlin.

Special thanks to Steve Wilson for joining me on the tour and for my friend Laura Bacon who made the recommendation to check out Berliner Unterwelten!