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December 2022 marks 21 years since The Circus arrived on Rosenthaler Platz, with the opening of The Circus Hostel. Seven years later and The Circus Hotel opened across the square. Rosenthaler Platz has been our home for more than two decades, but what came before? Here’s a brief history of our neighbourhood…
THROUGH THE GATE TO BERLIN
With the development of Berlin as a royal city in the 18th century, the population expanded from its historical settlement on the banks of the Spree river and a new city wall was built to enclose the development. Today, only one of the gates from Berlin’s original wall still stands – the Brandenburg Gate – but back then Rosenthaler Platz was the square in front of the Rosenthal Gate. Where the hotel now stands was just inside the walls, the hostel beyond the city limits.
The wall was not built for defensive reasons. Indeed, it was intended as a customs wall, controlling the entrance of goods into the city. When it came to people, everyone was free to pass. Everyone, that is, except Jews.
JUDENHERBERGE: A JEWISH POORHOUSE AT ROSENTHALER PLATZ
The area within the walls close to Rosenthaler Platz was long a centre of the Jewish community in Berlin, and one reason was that although there were many gates through which you could enter the city, the only one Jews were allowed to use was the Rosenthal Gate. And once through the gate, on the site of The Circus Hotel, was a Judenherberge – a place where the local Jewish community housed poor travelling Jews, especially on the Sabbath and holidays.
Jewish arrivals in Berlin faced many difficulties, including special taxes and the need to have a Jewish sponsor who would commit to providing room and board for new arrivals. The local Jewish community placed their own employees at the Rosenthal Gate to decide who was allowed to enter the city and who was to move on, because the authorities held the Jewish community collectively responsible for the actions of their fellow believers.
BEYOND THE ROSENTHALER GATE TO THE NORTH
If you stepped through the Rosenthaler Gate in the first half of the eighteenth century you would have seen vineyards. The name Weinbergsweg (where The Circus Hostel is located) bears witness to this: Weinbergsweg means “vineyard path”. Eventually the vineyards and the orchards were swallowed up and replaced by theatres, cabarets and taverns, and not long after that the current buildings which house both The Circus Hotel and The Circus Hostel were built.
Life was generally tough in this area directly north of the city’s border, known as the Rosenthaler Vorstadt. It was a wretched place, and the level of poverty of this neighbourhood was greater than anywhere else in or around Berlin at the time. This was also a period of great political upheavals as well, including the 1848 revolutions and the unification of Germany in 1871, with Berlin as its capital. With the coming of the railways and the industrial revolution, the city grew to become one of Europe’s largest and – with the city walls demolished in 1861 – Rosenthaler Platz found itself no longer at the edge of Berlin but part of its beating heat.
INTO THE 20TH CENTURY
Both before and after World War I, the Rosenthaler Strasse was one of the most important shopping streets in Berlin. There was a men’s clothing store, a cigar dealer, and the restaurant “Aschinger” that was famous for their legendary lunch buffet restaurants. The Aschinger on Rosenthaler Platz was located across the road from The Circus Hotel, in the building that now houses the St Oberholz cafe.
Other progress was taking place in the city, and it was underground. The subway from the district of Neukölln in the south to Gesundbrunnen in the north passed underneath the Rosenthaler Platz, the line which still takes travellers to this day from Alexanderplatz to the Circus Hostel and Hotel.
The Nazi seized power in 1933 and brought many changes to the area around Rosenthaler Platz. Many of the Jewish stores gradually disappeared, and increasing marginalisation and violence drove many people to emigration. After 1938 most of the businesses still owned by Jews were forcibly “Aryanised”. Those who stayed in Berlin and in the German Empire suffered unimaginably, including considerably smaller rations for Jews during World War II, the public humiliation of being forced to wear the yellow Star of David, to heavy inhumane force labour.
In October 1941 the deportation of Jews to ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps began. Of the 160,000 Jews who lived in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi reign of terror, about a quarter had emigrated before the end of 1937. By the start of 1943, following this emigration and the many deportations only a quarter of the population remained in the city. The planning for a “final solution” to make Berlin “free of Jews” began towards the end of 1942.
DESTRUCTION, THE POST-WAR PERIOD, AND SOCIALIST HIBERNATION
After the end of the war, the occupation, and the division of the city into four by the winning Allies, the district of Mitte and Rosenthaler Platz fell inside the Soviet sector of Berlin. Subsequently Rosenthaler Platz sank into a long sleep, accentuated by the eventual division of the city through the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The decaying historical buildings in Berlin were viewed as outdated in the socialist planning concepts of the 1950s and 1960s. The goal was to offer all citizens modern, comfortable housing with central heating and even an elevator., mainly built away from the historic centre on the edge of the city. What all this meant was that the streets around the Rosenthaler Platz remained mostly untouched during the division of the city, and they became a magnet for those who wanted to escape the new orderliness of the socialist regime.
Many artists, authors, intellectuals and people who did not agree with the political developments of the time sought refuge in the cheap housing of neighbourhoods forgotten by the government, and used the chance to build new networks, exchange ideas, and create. The areas around became a meeting point for those who fell through the cracks of the strict East German socialist system, or those who did not want to be caught up by the system in the first place.
THE FALL OF THE WALL AND THE 1990s
The centre of the city – Berlin Mitte – once again became the focus of attention. Large scale rebuilding was hampered by the unclear ownership status of many lots, caused by the dispossession before and during World War II, and the nationalisation of the East German period. With the ownership status unclear rents were cheap, and many students, artists and creative types moved into the neighbourhoods to take advantage.
Over time though the developments came ever closer to the Platz. The principal attraction of the area was, ironically, the reason why it had been so neglected in communist times. The historical buildings were attractive – to investors, tourists and Berliners alike – and the neighbourhood was becoming more and more popular, year on year.
ROSENTHALER PLATZ IN 2001 AND TODAY
These processes have continued over the years since The Circus Hostel first opened its doors in December 2001 and indeed, we have noted many changes to Rosenthaler Platz since it became central to our own story. Some of these changes we have been a part of, others we have watched with interest. Some changes have been positive, others have brought new challenges. But through it all Rosenthaler Platz has remained our home, and we continue to be committed to our square, our neighbourhood and our community.
For a literary exploration of our neighbourhood’s history, Berlin-based author Paul Scraton created for us a series of short stories titled ‘Stories from the Square’, all of which take place on and around Rosenthaler Platz at different periods in the city’s history. You can listen to Paul reading all the stories on our website here.