Dispatches from Olsztyn: The House that Erich Built

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog.

Erich Mendelsohn had a skewed relationship with his hometown. The man who would become one of Germany's most prominent inter-war architects was born into a Jewish family in Allenstein in 1887, as the fifth of six children of Emma Esther (née Jaruslawsky), a hatmaker and David Mendelsohn, a shopkeeper. The family home was situated in the old town (just one bloc down from where I'm living at the moment), and Erich went to the nearby humanist gymnasium. But from there he went to Berlin and Munich to train as a merchant and study national economics, but soon switched allegiance to architecture and began studying his profession at the Technical University of Munich in 1906.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the  Creative Commons   Attribution 3.0 Unported  license.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

From there, he went on to a stellar career as one of the most visionary architects of Germany: first working as an independent architect in Munich, then after the First World War opening his practise in Berlin which employed 40 people thanks to such iconic buildings like the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, the Schaubühne in Berlin or the hat factory in Luckenwalde. He even designed whole neighbourhoods like the WOGA-complex at Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius founded the influential progressive and humanist architecture group The Ring. Erich also travelled extensively, often with his wife Luise: to Palestine (where Erich built a hydroelectric power station), the Soviet Union, the US.

He did rarely return to his hometown. What he did do here however was to realise his first ever project: the Tahara house of the Jewish community. Commissioned when Erich was still studying in Munich and completed in 1913, the Bet Tahara (a place where the Jewish deceased are prepared for burial) was built as a component of the Jewish cemetery of Olsztyn and also came with a second building designed as the residency for the cemetery's caretaker. The building showed many of the organic-looking characteristics that made his later buildings stand out, and came with a fine tiled cupola, while simplified geometric elements around the main hall and specially designed lamps showed the influence of Art Nouveau and expressionism.

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

After 1933, Erich and his family emigrated to Palestine, London and subsequently the US. He died in San Francisco in 1953.

Many other Jews from Allenstein did not survive the war: in the summer 1942 the Germans deported them to the Minsk Ghetto and the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The Jewish community ceased to exist, but the cemetery and Erich's building remained. After the war, it was used by the new Polish administration as a magazine for the municipal archive, the headstones for building materials and the cemetery slowly turned into an unofficial park used by the neighbours (my own grand-cousin, who lived in Olsztyn until 1961, remembers using it as a shortcut often).

Today, Olsztyn is rightfully proud of its famous son, also because his building is accessible again: in 2005, the Borussia Foundation (Fundacja Borussia) initiated the reconstruction of the building. Borussia is a group of local writers, artists and teachers founded in 1990 and dedicated to the research of East Prussian heritage and cultural dialogue (and one of my main partners in the city). The restoration project was realised with the support of European Founds, and the building and the adjacent cemetery were acquired by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Since 21 March 2013, the 126th anniversary of the Mendelsohn's birth, the building has been used as a center for intercultural dialogue by Borussia Foundation and was named Mendelsohn House (Dom Mendelsohna) in memory of Erich.

There is however another instance that might symbolise Erich's skewered relationship with his hometown: in 1943 he collaborated with the U.S. Air Force to build a "German Village", a set of replicas of typical German working-class housing estates and other building types, where the effects of incendiary and other bomb types could be tested. In this way, Erich contributed to the Allied war effort in the way he knew best. And even though Allenstein was never bombed during World War 2, I wonder if he thought about his hometown and its fate when he designed the buildings to be bombed, and about the first house he had built there.


Dispatches from Olsztyn - Practitioners

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe, and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog. As an amuse gueule, here is one of my first pieces for the Stadtschreiber blog, about a wander along the local river.

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“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I like walking. This seems to be an odd statement, given that anyone does that on a daily basis. But I think we don’t walk enough these days, and not consciously enough. Or, as writer and editor Paul Sullivan writes in his essay Walking the City:

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

So during my first week in Olsztyn I did what I always do when I want to learn about a place: I went for a walk. I actually went on a walk every day, though some days I cheated by taking a bus or the tram. I first drew circles in and around the old town with my feet, exploring the main thoroughfares and shopping centres, but also the back alleys, laneways and suburbs of the city.

For me, someone who is now living in a central location and without a car, Olsztyn really is a city that lends itself to walking. The new parks along the Łyna river (the German Alle) are pleasant places to stroll and to linger, and on Friday afternoon there where students and teenagers sitting under bridges or on the wooden steps that lead down to the water, swigging from beer cans and smoking; office workers on their lunch break sat on benches and licked ice cream, parents leisurely pushed buggies along the pathways left and right of the river.

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From the parks, I then walked northwards, past the castle from 1346 and the Warmia brewery from in a former mill building from 1868, and finally under the railway viaducts from 1871 and 1893 and the newer road bridges into the city forest proper. Every time I see the viaducts I’m reminded of Robert Budzinki’s tongue-in-cheek travel book 'Die Entdeckung Ostpreußens' (The Discovery of East Prussia).

Budzinski (1874 -1955) was a painter, graphic artist and author, and – even though he himself was born in East Prussia in Klein-Schläfken (Sławka Mała today) – in 1913 published his 'travel book' which is not only full of wonderful woodcuts, but also sardonically talks about East Prussia as the proverbial distant eastern province. He also records the often exotic-sounding East Prussian place names, before they were 'Germanised' by the Nazis 20 years later:

During my wanderings I continuously discovered places with not very known but quite illustrious names; so that I often thought I was roving about in a magical landscape. One day I took the train from Groß-Aschnaggern to Liegentrocken, Willpischken, Pusperschkallen and Katrinigkeiten, breakfasted in Karkeln, arrived in Pissanitzen, Bammeln, Babbeln, and had dinner in Pschintschikowsken while aiming to overnight in Karßamupchen.

The book remains in print until today, which I think is a testament to his enduring humour and skill as an artist. From under the bridges then I made my way into the city forest proper, with the Łyna growing wider to my right and only the occasional biker disturbing my solitude. I like to be out, walking, slightly removed from the noise of the world. Or, as Walter Benjamin writes in 'Berlin Childhood around 1900', 'Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.' The beauty of Olsztyn is that the forest proper is never far – so I can train to get lost both here and in the city. The lady walking her dog just that came towards me on the forest path did not seem to agree with my Waldeinsamkeit: the look she gave me over the rim of her sunglasses seemed to suggest that only idiots stand in the middle of a forest and scribble in notebooks.

I continued for another 30 minutes before I decided to leave the Łyna valley and loop back to the city centre. I walked up the wooden slope right of the river and came across the Leśny Stadium, now almost completely reclaimed by grass and trees, where athlete Józef Szmidt (the so-called 'Silesian Kangaroo', born in 1935 and an honorary citizen of Olsztyn today) broke the world record for triple jump in 1960 with a length of 17.03 metres. I wonder if the soft peat soil here had something to do with that. Further on, I came across a graffiti of three knights on a wall, maybe a harmless reflection of the Teutonic Knights that haunted these woods long ago.

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A not so harmless reminder of the violent past was just up the road – two cemeteries of honour, one a German one with dead from both World Wars that was restored and is looked after by the German Minority Association of Olsztyn, with men who died in 1914 lying next to men who were born in 1914; and the other a small Russian plot, with no headstones left but a German memorial set up in 1914 that reads:

Here rest Russian soldiers who followed the orders of their ruler, found their death fighting against the liberators of East Prussia and are now buried far from their home

It seems a futile honourable gesture, something that would have surely not been set up following the industrialised mass murder of the Somme and Verdun and during the Brussilov offensive, which surely eradicated all humanity left then.

When I walked back from the cemeteries, my head full of somber thoughts, chance and sunlight and the city cheered me up: a pizza taxi stopped near the forest entrance and two teenage girls emerged from the woods, inexplicably wearing white plastic antennae and white plastic fairy wings. They paid for the pizza and skipped back into the woods, to what I can only imagine must have been the first fairy pizza picnic of spring in Olsztyn this year.

Postcard from... Gdańsk

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By Paul Scraton:

Under the archway at the end of the Long Market, two photographs looked down on the pedestrians as they moved through to cobbled streets of the Main Town or out to the car park by the theatre, where the Christmas Market was in full swing. Not many people looked up, to contemplate the vision of Gdańsk as it was at the end of the Second World War. Perhaps they had seen them so many times before. But for the new arrival, they were enough to make you stop and stare.

Here, in the city where the war began, roughly 90% of the buildings were destroyed. The photographs showed the devastation in brutal black and white. It was possible to make out the streets, but barely a single building survived intact. What remained were the stone steps, leading up from the street to where once elegant townhouses stood, now reduced to piles of rubble.

The rebuilding of Gdańsk was an incredible achievement, the Main Town of the city once again reflecting the Hanseatic heyday of this port city that would later come to symbolise the opposition of everyday people to the Communist elites via the Solidarity movement born in the shipyards. On the waterfront or along the Long Market, in front of the grand churches or the amber shops of the atmospheric Ulica Mariacka, the rebuilding made it possible to imagine a city where the war never happened; even with the knowledge that behind those façades, so true to the originals, were buildings of a much more modern construction.

Elsewhere in the city, the reminders of what happened in Gdańsk in the 20th century were easier to discover. The Old Town, to the north, was a fairly nondescript residential district, with only a few pre-War buildings, such as the iconic Post Office, still standing or rebuilt. There were many memorials, of course. To the Post Office workers who held out against the German forces. To the victims of the Second World War and the Communist regime that followed. There were museums seemingly around every corner, trying to tell the story of the city via the many events that shaped it and the different periods of its long history.

Kashubia and Poland. Hanseatic League and Teutonic Knights. Prussia and Germany.

Free City. Destroyed city.

Danzig / Gdańsk

But perhaps the most striking reminder of the past appeared back in the Main Town, on Świętego Ducha. There, on one side of the street, the houses had been rebuilt as elsewhere. Red brick and ornate façades. Crow-stepped gables and Dutch-inspired roofs. But on the other side of the cobblestoned street, the space had been left empty when the rebuilding began, eventually filled a little by trees, a car park and a public toilet, standing in the shade. On that side of the street the steps that survived the war lead up from the pavement to only the memory of the building that stood there before. A ghostly entranceway to a city almost completely destroyed, now re-imagined. The steps were like a postcard from the past, enough to stop you in your tracks – just like the photographs, hanging beneath the city gate.