Updated: Jan 21
By Christopher Larson
The door opens, light goes on. The stale smell of dust fills my nostrils as my eyes adjust to the darkness. Light flickers on. Door creaks shut.
Time to run through my cellar as fast as I can to grab a box of Christmas decorations and bring them up to the apartment.
Now I have made this run literally hundreds of times over the past three years. This eerie feeling pushes me through the cellar until I am free again in the open air of the courtyard. Each time the same story, the same feelings. This is just a slightly scary place used to store my stuff, one I would prefer to spend as little time in as possible.
That was until I got a "guided tour" from my neighbor, Astrid Vehstedt.
I grabbed a tea with Astrid on a cold day in November and walked around our little small corner of Moabit. Astrid is interested in history and moved to Berlin in 1986 with the hopes of being in a city torn between world powers. She wanted to be a part of that history. Now she passes it on.
As we walk she tells me what it was like when she moved here - "these buildings were not there," - "there was a park here, this building was still damaged from the war" she begins. "From your current apartment" she tells me, "you could see the Spree. I even considered buying your apartment too, knocking out the wall so I could have the view." Obviously, she didn't. But when she moved in the view was open - now the only thing you see are the windows of other buildings. Now I find this all fascinating, but the real surprise was about to come.
While I knew we live in an altbau, or pre-war building, I never really took the time to understand all that happened in my own apartment.
The apartment was built in 1912/1913, Astrid believes. In our building alone, six Jews were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz - their names carved on bronze memory stones placed before our house. After the war, the Russian Commander lived in the apartment on the ground floor before moving to an apartment somewhere in Mitte. While these stories of atrocities as well as famous people are fascinating, it is easy to forget about the "normal" people that called this place home.
The door creaks open, light flickers on, and Astrid points to the wall. We are back in the cellar. "Do you see that?" she asks. I squint, eyes adjusting to the light. There is some very faint yellow paint on the wall.
"You mean behind the gardening tools hanging there on the wall? What does it say?" I wonder aloud.
"Durchbruch zum Haus 10" with an arrow pointing left.
"Through passage to house 10"
Chills roll up my arm. I instinctively reach out to touch it, seeking some sort of connection.
I look where the arrow points and there is a hole in the wall that has been bricked over, with some trash cans standing in front of it.
This was painted during the bombing of Berlin so that anybody who was hunkered down in the cellar knew where to go in the event their house was bombed and they couldn't escape up the stairs. There was a way to reach the neighboring apartment building, a way to "safety" - well maybe..
My mind begins to wander, lost in a rush of emotions. It is one thing to see these things in a museum, but in your own apartment building?
But this story isn't unique to Moabit.
I head up to Neu-Moabit or New Moabit to interview an apartment building owner there with Fabienne. His Grandfather moved over from Wedding (the neighboring quarter to the north of Moabit), purchased the building and started his bakery here after the war. The building was damaged during the war, but not destroyed. Built in the late 1800s, he shows us the drawings of how the building would have looked before later renovations created all of the apartments we have today.
Long hallways connected large rooms used for entertaining or eating. Floors were complete apartments - only later turned into individual apartments. Kitchens had old fire and coal burning furnaces. Bathrooms were located on the top floor as separate entities. But again, it is the cellar that holds the true secrets.
He opens the door and leads down another set of dark stairs. Although, unlike my cellar, this is not used for the tenant's storage now. There is a renovation process going on here - the uncovering of an almost secret underground world.
There are windows and windowsills of an earlier structure - the signs of urbanization as people made their homes underground because of lack of space in the late 1800 / early 1900s. There are columns, and a ribbed-pattern brick ceiling overhead. We even discover bricks from Rathenower Brick House - a bygone brick-making company in Moabit.
We head through an old door, and, like out of a museum, three iron beds stacked on top of each other are hanging on the wall.
The beds of those that bunkered here during the war.
I go to pull out my camera but have to stop - I need a moment to let the feelings of those that would have bunkered here wash over me. My heart races a bit, you can almost feel the ground shake and see the lights flicker as the bombs go off above. I have to wonder, did they ever get used to this? Were they able to sleep? How did they feel sleeping here underground, not knowing if, when they woke up, their home and all of their possessions would still be there.
As I crouch, I close my eyes and touch the ground, again seeking a connection.
I pull out my camera, take a couple of shots, and we move on.
After about 30 minutes of exploring, we open the door back to fresh air. It is now dark, and a somber feeling comes over me. I have only been in two cellars here in Moabit, but both share a connection to a frightening past. One that I am now living above - one that I pass by often.
You hear stories about the war, the bombings, the fear, the destruction. You visit museums with bunkers reconstructed to give you an idea of what it was like for the "normal" people who lived in the city. But, when you live in Berlin, and especially Moabit, the chances of you living both above and inside a museum are high. All you have to do is take a look around.