#13/25 Once Bleak and Grey, Now Alive and Green!

Watchtower Hohen Neuendorf (c) Martin Gentischer

The dense forest in Berlin-Frohnau ends abruptly as a perfectly straight bike path runs through a clearing. This is the Berlin Wall Trail, announced on 13 August 2002 by members of the Berlin Senate to mark the 41st anniversary of the Wall’s construction. We’re standing in front of an 8.5m high white tower with a square footprint in Hohen Neuendorf, what’s known as the Naturschutzturm (“Nature Conservation Tower”). A symbol painted in green on the tower reads “Deutsche Waldjugend” (“German Forest Youth”, DWJ for short). The origins of the tower are somewhat hidden by its current appearance, such that it is not immediately obvious that this was once a watchtower used by East German border troops.

Berlin Wall Trail Hohen Neuendorf (c) visitBerlin

Berlin Wall Trail Hohen Neuendorf (c) Martin Gentischer

A “green classroom” in a former wasteland

“You first have to explain to the students what used to be here,” says Marian Przybilla, teacher of biology and Latin at a secondary school in Berlin-Schöneberg. He maintains the tower and has been sponsor of Naturschutzturm Berliner Nordrand e.V. since its founding here in June 1990. Along with Helga Garduhn, a teacher from Hohen Neuendorf he met by chance shortly after the fall of the Wall at Teufelssee nature education facility, he came up with the idea of creating this a place for city kids to learn about nature conservation. That the two teachers would want to turn this place that had been left a desolate and barren wasteland by the border fortifications into a “hands-on green biology classroom” was hard for many locals to believe.  Indeed, hardly anyone could imagine that a blade of grass would ever grow again on the site. But Helga Garduhn and Marian Przybilla wanted to prove them wrong. Both found the idea of healing the wounds of division with such a project to be stimulating. This spot would symbolically implement what Willy Brandt had declared at the Brandenburg Gate on 10 November 1989: “Now that which belongs together must grow together.”

Watchtower Hohen Neuendorf 1990 (c) Marian Przybilla

Watchtower Hohen Neuendorf 1990 (c) Marian Przybilla

A Difficult Transition from Watchtower to Conservation Tower

Brandenburg native Helga Garduhn was at that time looking for a replacement for her “eco-cellar” that its rightful owners had reclaimed after reunification. She had previously been very involved in promoting conservation among East German youth. West Berliner Marian Przybilla had often taken his classes on field trips to the forest near Frohnau and had been one of the founders of the DWJ in Berlin. He also harboured a desire to create a permanent biological learning centre for children and adolescents. Garduhn suggested using the now abandoned watchtower for this purpose, because its location in the middle of the forest seemed ideal for such a project. “Getting the tower, however, ultimately turned out to be much harder than we had anticipated,” says Przybilla. So the two applied with the East German border police still in existence at the time and were surprised to hear that their request had been approved as follows: “1 command centre: no warranty service, spare parts or repairs will be made by the grantor.” After reunification, this donation of the watchtower was rendered null and void and the tower went into the temporary possession with the trustees charged with disposing of the property of the former East German state. So the negotiations had to start over. “In the end we had to bite the bullet and buy the tower – and for considerably more than just a symbolic mark,” the Schöneberg teacher reports with a slight bitterness. They then needed a building permit. The tower had been damaged by vandals and had to be reconstructed. Locals had taken out their resentment against the symbols of German division right after the fall of the Wall which eventually escalated into acts of vandalism. This is certainly one of the reasons why of what were once 302 border surveillance towers of this type, only four have survived: one each at Schlesischer Busch, Kieler Eck and Niederneuendorf and this one in Hohen Neuendorf, the latter two having been saved through the efforts of Przybilla’s organisation.

Hands-On History and Biology in One

“The memory needs to remain alive,” says Przybilla, describing the reason for his commitment. He had also endeavoured to ensure that the spot where 18-year old Marienetta Jirkowsky was shot and killed while trying to escape in 1980 was not overbuilt. The personal stories that took place at the border are what keep the memory alive. “The students get upset when I tell them about these young people who were killed just so because they wanted a different kind of life.” Marian Przybilla pauses for a moment, during which all you can hear is the faint rustle of the wind sweeping through a colourful sea of grasses, flowers, fragrant herbs and trees. “We are discovering all sorts of new plant varieties here,” says Przybilla. Among the plants occurring here, for example, is the narrow-winged bugseed (Corispermum intermedium) that otherwise only grows around here on the sandy, barren shores of the Wannsee. There’s also a service tree (Sorbus domestica) here, although it is a native of Hesse where its fruits are used to add tannins to that region’s famous hard apple cider. Some plants start as volunteer seedlings and others were planted by the club, especially with the active support of school classes. It is also about give and take. 80,000 pine, oak and lime trees, most of which were donated by a tree nursery, have found a new home here. And there is now enough wood available to cut some down and use it as firewood – a special experience for inner-city children who learn hands-on about sustainability and the never-ending natural cycle of things. “But the highlight is when suddenly a lizard or a grass snake appears and I catch it – that immediately raises my credibility with the students,” says Przybilla.

A Lush Natural Idyll in a Former No-Man’s Land

What was once a wasteland has become a natural idyll. Hohen Neuendorf is not the only place along the 160km of the former no-man’s land in and around Berlin where these kinds of changes have taken place. If you follow the Berlin Wall Trail, you will discover many such oases of green in the city. The best known example is the Mauerpark (Berlin Wall Park). Where once stood automatically triggered machine guns, is now home to Berlin’s most popular outdoor karaoke stage surrounded by elderberry trees and purple heather. Where once vehicles were barricaded, is now a favourite spot for an outdoor barbecue and making music. The Sunday flea market here provides an additional splash of colour to the surroundings. Only the road once used by the border patrol and the hinterland Wall that has been turned into a legal graffiti canvas bear witness to the site’s past. As in Hohen Neuendorf, the patrol road once used military vehicles has been repurposed as a path for walkers and cyclist. It takes just a few minutes by foot or by bike to reach another spot on the former border that has since become known for a beautiful natural spectacle each spring: the cherry trees along the former patrol road near the Bornholmer Straße S-Bahn station, just a stone’s throw from the Bösebrücke. This is spot where, at 11.30pm on the night of 9 November 1989, the East German police gave into the crowds and opened the Iron Curtain in Berlin.

Cherry trees next to Bösebrücke (c) visitBerlin

Cherry trees next to Bösebrücke (c) Martin Gentischer

The cherry trees were given to the city of Berlin by the people of Japan as a symbol of freedom and peace. But Japanese ornamental cherry trees have found a new home not just here, but also at many other locations in and around Berlin. Some of them can be seen to the south between Kreuzberg and Alt-Treptow along Lohmühlenstraße near the Park am Schlesischen Busch. By far the largest part of this tree donation can be found, however along the Berlin Wall Trail at Kirschbaumallee (“Cherry Tree Boulevard”) between Lichterfelde and Teltow, where some 1,200 trees put on quite the show each spring.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall gave Rise to New Parks

The Park am Schlesischen Busch, a favourite meeting spot for young people in summer due to its proximity to the Kreuzberg bar scene, is one of many parks big and small created with the disappearance of the former border. Only a BT9 watchtower, the same model as that found in Hohen Neuendorf, gives any clue that this was once not the natural idyll we see before us. A popular lawn for sunbathing along the river Spree at the East Side Gallery is another prominent example of a newly created green recreational space. On Berlin’s south-east side, along the A113 towards Schönefeld, 64 hectares where the Wall once stood have been turned into the Landschaftspark Rudow-Altglienicke, the largest park created in Berlin since the 1980s. A curious sight that can be seen there are the water buffalo that graze on the ecologically valuable wetlands and are slowly re-establishing themselves in Germany.

Growing together that which belongs together on the Havel

On the River Havel between Berlin and Potsdam, you can see another beautiful example of what Willy Brandt demanded. It is a unique eighteenth-century parkland that has finally been reunited after the fall of the Wall. While the Wall was still standing, the Glienicke hunting lodge and its English-style landscape garden in West Berlin was separated from its historic neighbour at Babelsberg in Potsdam and the nearby Sacrower Heilandkirche was marooned in the middle of a closed-off military zone. By December 1990, this landscape was incorporated as a unit into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which served to some extent as an impetus to the restoration of the ensemble. How these parklands that were partially obliterated by the Wall were eventually restored after reunification is documented in the current open-air exhibition “Garden – Border – Garden” being shown by SPSG, the organisation operating the Prussian state palaces and gardens. Nearby, the West Berlin exclave of Steinstücken and the East German enclave of Klein-Glienicke both suffered deep wounds in their greenscape caused by the border fortifications. Miraculously, the wounds are no longer visible.

Marian Przybilla in front of the Nature Conservation Tower (c) visitBerlin

Marian Przybilla in front of the Nature Conservation Tower (c) Martin Gentischer

The Final Wounds Will Soon Be Healed

Nature is slowly, but surely reclaiming the scars left by the Wall, with or without human assistance. Some wounds have long healed and it is only the information boards along the former Wall that remind visitors about the former terrors inflicted at these spots. Other wounds still need time to heal in full, such as those in Hohen Neuendorf, where the cuts into the natural landscape were particularly brutal. Even the Herthamoor, a bog in the area, was drained by the border troops. It is currently being rehabilitated by volunteers of the club and as such is one of the last major projects left in restore the natural environment at Berlin’s northern edge. I ask Marian Przybilla when he thinks nature will finally reconquer the Berlin Wall. “Nature has long since won,” he replies. For some time now, the forest is no longer be replanted by hand; it now takes care of sowing its own seed. All that gets added now are pairs of trees occasionally planted in the few remaining bare spots by newlyweds as “green witnesses” to their union. These trees are helping speed up the restoration of the forest to its former glory.  Soon the trees will be as dense as they are in the adjacent Berlin-Frohnau forest. Then all that will remain of the former border strip will be the signs along the bicycle path and a tower-shaped building.

Martin Gentischer