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Close to home

April 5, 2017

I've been living in Berlin for six and a half years, and guiding for six of them. And although I can get excited about many of Berlin's signature sites - you should see me talk about the Reichstag to understand - what I really like about the city is discovering its unknown treasures, the quaint corners and historical sites that few tourists get to. And it's even more satisfying when these treasures show up in my neighborhood, in streets I walk every day.

I live in Wilmersdorf, a middle-class suburb southwest of the center, just outside the area covered in most tourist maps. Yet I don't need to go far to find a historical site: walk two houses over, and you'll find a memorial plaque to Hans Pfitzner, a German composer and conductor who lost his pension for refusing to write music for the Nazis. That wasn't too exciting, because I never heard of Pfizner before; much more tantalizing was to realize that I just have to cross the park to find where Walter Benjamin, one of my favorite philosopher, lived and worked before he was forced to escape the Nazis (leading to his suicide at the Spanish border). Further down the same street, a modest plaque commemorates one of Berlin's largest synagogues, burned down by the Nazis on the Night of Broken Glass.

Another historical site can be seen directly from my living room window: the distinctive building which served as the broadcasting center for RIAS - the radio station of the American Sector in divided Berlin. This station, established in 1946, was  founded by the US occupation authorities in order to provide the German population in and around Berlin with news and political reporting and quickly became an important tool in the cold war. Today it serves Deutschlandradio Kultur, a public broadcast station focused on culture and the arts. Not far from there stands the Schöneberg city hall  - a site I visit regularly on my West Berlin tour, as it is the place where JFK gave his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech.

 RIAS House

photo: SchiDD/Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-SA-BY-4.0

 

The closest site mentioned in a guidebook, however, is located in the other direction, further from the city center: It's the Stubenrauchstrasse Cemetery, officially City Cemtery III. Priding itself on being 'the artist's cemetery', it is home to the graves of such illustrious personalities as composer Ferruccio Busoni, fashion photographer Helmut Newton and film icon Marlene Dietrich. The last two are buried just a few plots from each others, and locals say Newton leaves his grave every full moon to try to peek under Dietrich's skirt.

My favorite place to roam, however, is the neighborhood of Friedenau, just south of where I live, which is a haven of late-19th-century and early-20th-century private mansion, laid out in the Historicistic style of the era. It's not on anyone's tourist map (except the very few of my clients which I take there), but it's beautiful and relaxing, and, well, close to home.

 

 

 

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