Back in the early 1700s, the land just north of the River Spree from near present-day Friedrichstraße station to Alexanderplatz, sat outside the city of Berlin – and beyond the Spandauer Tor, a city gate that led to the settlement of Spandau nearby. Like with most of the areas surrounding Berlin’s old boundaries, agriculture would play a large role in the attempts of the people living here to remain self-sufficient – yet the inhabitants of these hamlets outside the city walls would be noticeably poor. When in 1750, King Frederick the Great ordered the expansion of Berlin’s central districts to the north of present-day Torstrasse – beyond the river Spree and Monbijou Palace – this area, by that time known as the Spandauer Vorstadt (the district facing Spandau), would be integrated into the city. With it the Jewish families that had relocated here over the last century.
In 1671, a number of prominent Jewish families had arrived here from Vienna – after being expelled from the Austrian capital by Emperor Leopold I. They would form the core of the city’s Jewish community in this area for the next three centuries. When invited to Berlin, these Viennese Jews were exempt from tolls in traveling, but had to pay a yearly protection tax of eight thalers per family, and one gold florin for every marriage. They were not permitted to have a public synagogue but five years later would be awarded ‘protected Jewish status’ (Schutzjuden) by the ruling Great Elector, Frederick I.
As Berlin had suffered greatly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Great Elector was eager to see the city’s population grow again and the commercial activity of the city increase. The mercantile participation in the economic redevelopment of what would become the Prussian capital earned some of these Vienesse Jews, particularly the Veit and Riess families, prominent roles in the relationship between the state and the members of the city’s most notable minority.
Persecution, expulsion and execution, accusations of host desecration and ritual murder, are sadly common themes within the annals of Berlin’s Jewish history – with the first mention of the Jewish population in the city being a letter from the Berlin local council in 1295, forbidding wool merchants to supply Jews with yarn.
From the re-establishment of the Berlin Jewish community in 1671, some would thrive under these improved conditions as Schutzjuden, garnering wealth and social recognition, others would falter under the draconian restrictions and exclusions from certain trades, ending up either impoverished or destitute from the taxes, or forced to resettle elsewhere.
Although Berlin has never had an official ghetto, the Jewish inhabitants of the city who did not already have a permanent residence would be ordered, in 1731, to settle in the district north-west of Alexanderplatz known as the Scheunenviertel (the Barn Quarter) by King Frederick William I. This area had been specifically established some sixty years earlier to store hay outside the city walls, as it was forbidden to keep flammable materials within the city limits.
Part of this Scheunenviertel to the east, and the Spandauer Vorstadt to the west, would come to be recognised as the Jewish quarter of Berlin from the mid-1700s.
If you head into the courtyard of the KW Institute you will find a collection of birch trees, part of an art project introduced to the city in the 2000s - these trees were nursed in the soil surrounding the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland and transplanted to grow in this former Jewish quarter in Berlin.
The most symbollic landmark in this area was opened in 1866, as the largest synagogue in central Berlin – the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue). It should be easy to distinguish by the same of this building that there was indeed a predecessor building – the Old Synagogue – which sadly no longer exists, nearby on Heidereutergasse 4. Consecrated in 1714, this would be known as the Grand Synagogue until the construction of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse.
Designed by non-Jewish architect Eduard Knoblauch in a Moorish Southern Spanish style, this impressive brick and terracotta structure – topped with a series of iconic ribbed domes – was inaugurated in the presence of Count Otto von Bismarck, then Minister President of Prussia. It would play an important role in the development of Conservative Judaism – as one of the largest synagogues in Europe, with space for around 3,000 people inside and religious services reflecting the liberal developments in the Jewish community of the time. Even scientist Albert Einstein would perform a violin concert inside the synagogue in 1930.
Around the corner from the New Synagogue is Krausnickstrasse and the former home of the first ever female Rabbi – Regina Jonas – leading to Grosse Hamburger Strasse (or the street of tolerance as it is often referred to as by the Berlin tourist office). Home to a Catholic hospital, Protestant church, and a number of sites related to the Jewish community that once lived here – including a former Jewish boys school, the site of the city’s first Jewish retirement home, and the old Jewish cemetery – where Jewish reformer Moses Mendellsohn was buried.
This area of the city is also home to a large number of the bronze Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones), that were first introduced in 1992 (there are now more than 75,000 across Europe). These small plaques commemorate the people who once lived in this area and fell victim to Nazi genocidal plans or, in some instances, managed to escape. The prevalence of them is a clear indication of the number of Jewish Berliners who previously called this neighbourhood home.
Following the division of Berlin in 1945, the Spandauer Vorstadt and the Scheunenviertel ended up in the East of the city – as part of the German Democractic Republic. Like many other areas of the country, this district fell into terrible shape, with crumbling buildings and bombed-out, bullet ridden facades, still visible into the early 1990s.
Some trace of this Cold War period is still visible, and the district has managed to retain aspects of what some see as its former derelict charm; although with rent prices and demand for housing rising in Berlin, this part of the central Mitte district has become one of the more desirable areas of the city. Full of art galleries, coffee shops, clothing stores, and restaurants. No longer the city’s Jewish quarter but home to many young creatives and entrepreneurs who are attempting to find their way – both because of the city, and in-spite of it.
Some useful links related to the former Jewish Quarter of Berlin: