Spectacular Romanesque abbeys of the Meuse

St. Willibrord’s basilica, Echternach, Luxembourg, seen from the Wolfsschlucht hiking trail.

Last weekend, with Covid-19 containment measures kicking in again across Europe, my old friend Marcel and I managed to sneak away for a classic (and fully legal!) Dead Emperors’ Society road trip. The original plan was to visit Cologne for its famous 12 Romanesque churches, but Germany imposed quarantine on people from our part of Holland so that didn’t work out.

Fortunately a few years ago I bought a used copy of Kubach & Verbeek’s Romanische Kirchen an Rhein und Maas. It is old but it is still the authority on anything Romanesque in the Rhine and Meuse valleys. Cross-checking with travel restrictions and church concentrations, we ended up in Luxembourg.

Kubach/Verbeek 1971, inside cover.

After some wine-tasting (mandatory on our trips, this time we sampled Luxembourg Crémant and Pinot Noir) we ended up in the small town of Echternach, perched on the river Sauer which today forms the border with Germany. Echternach abbey was founded in 698 by Saint Willibrord, a monk from Yorkshire who was responsible for Christianizing much of what today is The Netherlands.

Saint Willibrord’s gown (c. 700 AD?), in Echternach abbey’s reliquary chapel near the West entrance.

The feeling of standing face to face with ancient objects and buildings, especially if they’re over 1000 years old, for me almost goes beyond description – a magical historical sensation probably comes closest. This is what I enjoy so much about our trips – coupling academic art historical knowledge with experiencing buildings and objects firsthand.

First floor west chapel of the Princely Abbey at Corvey, consecrated 844 AD.

On our first trip, many years ago, we saw the c. 800 AD ‘Westwerk’ of the Abbey at Corvey in Central Germany, and Bishop Bernward’s bronze church doors at Hildesheim. Standing so close to works of art that have survived a full millennium made me go very quiet – and also makes me want to return time and again.

These medieval buildings and objects, and their histories, appear to be much better known and loved in Germany than they are in the Netherlands. We can blame the romanticism of 19th century nationalists: when they looked for an ideal historical example for Bismarck’s united Reich, they ended up with the Ottonian to Hohenstaufen periods, c. 1000-1300, as Germany’s Golden Age. Like much 19th century nationalist mythology, it has stuck until today.

Echternach Abbey, from the northwest. The church was heavily damaged in the 1944 Ardennes Offensive; most of what you see here is a post-war reconstruction. The Romanesque design of the façade was inspired by the church at Paray-le-Monial.

In contrast to Echternach’s restored church, the 8th century crypt is original and this is where I experienced my strongest ‘historical sensation’. We were surprised to find that Kubach/Verbeek did not cover it – until the penny dropped: this Carolingian crypt is simply too old to be considered Romanesque.

Barrel vaulted ceilings in the 8th century crypt at Echternach. This is a cross-view of the five-nave crypt, from North to South, showing four of the five naves.

One of the naves holds a staircase that descends to the ‘Willibrord fount’, where spring water comes bubbling up – a reference to St. Willibrord’s baptisms.

Another nave has two Merovingian sarcophagi, embellished with engraved lines, that have been dated to the 7th century AD!
The central nave’s ceiling has sketches for a fresco that are allegedly 11th century. This dating is not very convincing. If true, the drawings must have been heavily restored.

The abbey’s most prized relics, Saint Willibrord’s bones, sit in a sarcophagus that is also Merovingian, right below the altar of the church upstairs. You can just see it in the picture – it is hidden inside an elaborate neo-gothic baldachin in white Carrara marble, created by Genovan artist Guiseppe Novi in 1906. You can also see the hole in the roof of the crypt that leads directly to the altar above – establishing a direct spatial link between the priest celebrating mass upstairs and the relics of the Saint down below.

Abbeys from the era of the Carolingian Renaissance, like Echternach, contained important scriptoria, workshops where books were copied and illuminated with magnificent miniatures. Echternach is famous for creating many Gospel Books. These evangeliaria contained the four gospels of the New Testament. The most famous is the Codex Aureus Epternaciensis or Golden Codex of Echternach from c. 1040, kept at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum at Neuremburg. It is unfortunate for the abbey museum that none of the books created at Echternach have remained in its collection: all they have are images and facsimiles. The originals of these precious books have ended up in libraries across Europe – not so surprising, as they were often commissioned from the Abbey by imperial princes for use as gifts.

Front cover of the Echternach Gospel Book (facsimile). By Zinneke at Luxembourgish Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In case of the Codex Aureus its history is unclear: the book’s front cover, with its ivory centrepiece, is some 50 years older than the manuscript and was probably commissioned by Emperor Otto III and Empress Theophanu, but the manuscript was completed after their deaths, and scholars do not agree on the book’s original beneficiary.

Echternach Abbey, nave, with alternating columns and blind arches.

Moving to the Romanesque nave of the (reconstructed) abbey, there are alternating columns, with modified corinthian columns in the middle of each blind arch, and square pillars, some in alternating layers of natural stone, linking the arches. This feature created the link with another treasure listed in Kubach/Verbeek and our next destination: the former abbey church of St. Amelberga at Susteren, in the Limburg province of the Netherlands.

St. Amelberga’s basilica, Susteren, Limburg, The Netherlands

This wonderful but not very well known abbey was founded in Merovingian times and had Willibrord, who later moved to Echternach, as one of its abbots. Willibrord used it as a welcome stop on his frequent travels from Utrecht, the seat of his archbishopric, to the abbey at Echternach. Two later bishops of Utrecht, Gregorius and Albericus, were buried here at their deaths in 755 and 784.

St. Amelberga, southeast view.

After its destruction by Viking invaders, King Swentibold of Lorraine restored the abbey and gave it to Amelberga who became the first abbess and educated Swentibold’s daughters there. The current building dates to c. 1060, and the abbey remained a Damenstift until Napoleonic times. In the 19th century, it turned into a parish church.

Nave and walls of St. Amelberga at Susteren. Note similar alternating columns and blind arches to Echternach. The capitals of the pillars here are ‘die-shaped’ instead of Corinthian, a typical

The crypt at Susteren is a special and unusual feature. It is above ground and protrudes beyond the apsis of the church.

Northeast view of St. Amelberga at Susteren. The low construction on the left is the external crypt.

A crypt of this type is very uncommon – its only prominent counterpart is in the abbey of Werden, near Essen:

The external crypt (bottom right, 1059) of St. Liudger’s, another former abbey church, at Werden. Drone shot from a 2019 trip.
Interior of external crypt at Susteren. A five-nave design like Echternach’s, but with cross-ribbed vaulting.

This crypt is Romanesque, in contrast to Echternach’s, but it also contains a Merovingian sarcophagus. The story of how we got into the crypt – and the church’s treasury – is typical of the joys of seeking out lesser known architectural gems like these:

The church’s front door was unlocked when we arrived around 5 pm on a Sunday, allowing us to enter the vestibule. The church interior was visible, but only through a glass wall. So we walked around the exterior, took photos, and then the caretaker arrived to close the front door for the night. When hearing that we were art historians, she graciously took the time to turn on the lights and give us a complete tour of the church. Then, when she was about to close up, the church’s official guide, Mr. Wil Schulpe, passed by on his evening walk and was also happy to take us into the church’s vault and show us all its treasures.

Fabric of St. Alberic’s tunic, Persian, 8-9th c. AD, showing juxtaposed winged horses. Susteren church vault.
Gilded silver relief plates from a relic shrine or altar antependium, 10th c. AD, Susteren church vault.
Amelberga Shrine, 11th-19th c., Susteren church vault

The church’s treasure also contains a famous illuminated manuscript, now being restored at Liège: the Susteren Gospel Book (Evangeliarium van Susteren).

Miniature from the Gospel Book of Susteren (c. 1174). The Abbess Imago van Loon offers the Gospel to Saints Gregory and Albericus.

In contrast to several gospel books named after Echternach, in this case the book wasn’t created at Susteren – it would not be realistic to expect the Stiftsdamen, daughters from royal and noble families to spend their days painstakingly copying texts like ordinary monks – but it is named after the abbey because it now resides there.

Finding these incredible treasures in a church vault that is normally closed to the public, a church that is also (unlike Echternach) completely off the beaten tourist track was a wonderful conclusion to this weekend trip.

Best regards from the Dead Emperors’ Society – keep exploring!

All photos: (c) Robin Oomkes.

Best Berliners #3 – Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), aviation pioneer

Although the history of human flight really took off, as it were, when the Wright Brothers put an engine in a glider, they were always careful to attribute much of their success to the groundwork  done by another pair of brothers: Berlin aviation pioneers Otto and Gustav Lilienthal.

Replica of one of Lilienthal’s flying machines, Technisches Museum, Berlin, photo: Robin Oomkes

The shape of an airplane as we know it today – two wings, longish body, horizontal and vertical stabilisers at the back – was developed by Otto and Gustav during their long years of observing birds, testing in wind tunnels and jumping off elevations in home made gliders. Berlin’s Technisches Museum has a great collection of Lilienthal gliders, including the type Otto built in a series of at least ten – making it the world’s first commercial aeroplane.

As Otto Lilienthal said in one of his lectures – there are three challenges in aviation: taking off, stability and landing. As clichéd as this may sound today, the principle is still valid. It was achieving stability during flight that caused him the greatest problems, and, in 1896, ultimately cost him his life. During a flight from the cliffs at Stölln, some 40 km north-west of Berlin, Otto’s glider suddenly stalled, plunged straight down, and broke his neck. There is a museum at the site.

Photos of Lilienthal’s flying attempts at Stölln, Technisches Museum Berlin.

The Lilienthal brothers grew up in the provincial town of Anklam (another Lilienthal museum!) and had been fascinated by the flight of birds since they were children. The area is a well known stopover for migrating storks, and observing these large and heavy birds glide through the sky without much visible effort convinced the Lilienthal boys that human bird-like flight must be possible. They experimented by jumping off hills with wings of fabric attached to their arms, but of course never managed to even glide.

But their observations of birds put them, once and for all, in the ‘heavier than air’ camp. ‘Heavier’ or ‘lighter than air’ was a fundamental debate between aviation pioneers. Hot air and helium balloons (‘lighter than air’) had been available since the 1780s, but Otto Lilienthal wasn’t impressed. He had seen the French use them to escape the siege of Paris while fighting the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), but they usually drifted straight into the clutches of the German forces.

Balloons evolved into airships (the alternative word ‘dirigible’, means ‘steerable’), but the Lilienthal brothers’ ideal remained to unravel the mystery of the flight of birds. In a polemic with famous Berlin physicist Helmholtz, who had stated that human bird-like flight was mathematically impossible, Otto made the point that as no-one had yet understood how birds flew, it was also impossible to deny that capability to humans.

Another Lilienthal flying machine replica at the Technisches Museum, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

Returning to Berlin after the war, Otto, a mechanical engineer, set himself up as a manufacturer of compact steam engines to fund his flying experiments. He also got involved in the ‘social question’ – the plight of the hundreds of thousands of poor factory workers living in abominable circumstances. Unlike Gustav, he never became a communist, but he was the first employer to introduce profit sharing for his workers.

Gustav, meanwhile, trained as an architect and tried and failed at different careers – working in London as a builder, returning to Berlin to start an applied arts school for wealthy girls, and, most famously, inventing toy sets that would be the forerunners of today’s Lego. Together with Otto, he invented the famous ‘Anker’ stone building bricks, as well as the forerunner of Meccano, but due to dodgy business partners, failed to make much money from them.

Otto married Agnes, a girl he had met on an early project developing machinery for Saxon coal mines. They had four children, but Otto wasn’t much of a family man. As the years progressed, he developed an almost maniacal energy in pursuing a wide range of interests.

In 1892, Otto had accepted a share in a broke theatre (the Ost-End, located on what now is Karl-Marx-Allee) in lieu of payment for a heating system, and got fascinated with the art of theatre (and with a certain young actress). Otto would spend his days in the factory and evenings at the theatre, playing minor parts (to everyone’s embarrassment) and eventually publishing a play. Otto felt that workers should be able to enjoy a good play and staged the classics at low prices – offering the Volksbühne a stage before they eventually acquired their own theatre in 1914.

Lilienthal’s “Fliegeberg” at Lichterfelde, today a monument. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

By 1896, the year when Otto fell to his death, he was able to glide distances of up to 250 metres. Near his home in Lichterfelde, in south-west Berlin, he built the ‘Fliegeberg’ (flying mountain), a 15 metre high artificial hill (today, a monument in a small park that is worth visiting). From here, he could take off in all directions, independent of prevailing winds, and it also meant he could do some flying between working at the factory and leaving for the theatre, instead of having to wait until Sunday to go to the cliffs at Stölln.

Otto pursued his dream of flying with ever greater tenacity, and both Agnes and Gustav unsuccessfully tried to discourage him. After Otto’s death, the factory soon went bankrupt, and Agnes had to raise her four children as a poor widow. When the Wright brothers found out, they mailed Agnes a $1000 check as a token of their respect for Otto, and visited his grave (in Lichterfelde, one of Berlin’s graves of honour) both times they gave flying demonstrations in Berlin.

Berlin’s soon-to-be-closed Tegel Airport is named after Otto Lilienthal. In this 2014 photo, you can see an Air Berlin banner – an airline that used Tegel as its hub and went bankrupt in 2016. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Gustav, meanwhile, never gave up the idea of truly flying like a bird. At Tempelhof airfield, as late as 1928, passengers on Lufthansa flights to Vienna or Königsberg would see him working on a contraption with engine-driven flapping wings. All it ever was able to do was slowly roll across the tarmac – it never flew.

Best Berliners, #2 – A Woman in Berlin

Imagine yourself as a woman in a famished, besieged city. A rapacious horde of soldiers, hell-bent on revenge for the wrongs done to their country, is at the gates. When a drunken bunch of them grab you and take you to an empty apartment, what do you do? Do you resist, fight, and possibly get killed? Or do you resign yourself to your fate, and try to limit the damage by seeking protection from a higher-ranking soldier – who will still rape you of course, but might fend off the others and also bring you something to eat?


Book cover, courtesy of Virago Modern Classics

The anonymous author of “A Woman in Berlin” chose the latter. Although the internet knows who she was, here I will honour her wish not to disclose her identity, and stick with “Anonymous”, a woman in her early thirties, who, in her war diary, describes 1945’s Battle of Berlin from the ground. 

As the Red Army approached Berlin and the city braced itself for the oncoming onslaught, the civilian population – mostly women since the men had long been sent to war and most of the children to the countryside – had long been in survival mode. Every night, air raid sirens would summon them to their basement shelters, and they were also used to coping with food and fuel rationing; after all, Berlin had been being steadily bombed by the US Air Force and the R.A.F. since 1942. But a new, even more terrifying prospect now awaited them. 

Goebbels’ propaganda ministry had been spreading horror stories involving wholesale rape and murder about the advancing Soviet troops, which was probably meant to spur the remaining German defence troops into defending Berlin more valiantly; but when the Soviets arrived, some of those rumours proved to be true. 

An estimated 100,000 women were raped. Although Anonymous, and some other women, were able to cope by resorting to macabre humour – “how many times?”, they’d ask each other when they’d meet at the water pumps, many more suffered permanent psychological damage. When comparing notes after the worst of the Russian onslaught was over, Anonymous found that only a few women in her block had managed to escape, by hiding in upstairs apartments (very unsafe in air raids, but the Russians, most of whom were farm boys unaccustomed to cities, hated climbing stairs).

“Anonymous”, a professional journalist, had travelled widely before the war, which is how she learned some Russian – a mixed blessing , as it turned out. On the one hand, she could translate herself, and others, out of critical situations; on the other hand, she attracted attention to herself – she became popular as a sex partner with higher ranking officers, one of whom even tried to recruit her for intelligence work. 

When her diary, tracing the two months from late April to mid June 1945, was published in the 1950s, it attracted severe criticism in Germany. Although she took care to make specific persons and places unrecognisable (all you can tell is that she must have been somewhere around Berliner Strasse in the Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg area), her narrative was viewed as shameful to German women. It certainly was bad news for German men, who, like Anonymous’ own fiancé upon his return from the front, didn’t want to know about what their women had had to go through. Conversely, Anonymous describes how women had started viewing men differently: as the weaker sex, who after all their Nazi prancing, had lost the war and brought ruin upon themselves. In the after-war years German men were busy reasserting their manliness, and “A Woman in Berlin” brought an unwelcome message.

After the devastating criticism, “Anonymous” wanted to have nothing more to do with the book, and would allow a second edition only after her death. 

When the reprint duly appeared in 2003, with a new English translation, the world had changed. Many other previously taboo subjects (such as Nazi collaboration in countries like France and The Netherlands) were now open for discussion, and the book received the critical acclaim that it was due – a chilling, honest and perceptive account of the atrocities of war in general, and of the Battle of Berlin in particular. The only criticism levelled against the book this time round was that it “must be fake because it is too well written”. A group of eminent historians however dismissed this theory: the diary is real, and the author’s evocative writing only serves to make it even more of a recommendation.

This article was originally written for the forthcoming book 100 Favourite Berliners, and edited by Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican.

The Clara Zetkin Memorial near Berlin – a tribute to the founder of #InternationalWomensDay


C_Zetkin_wikipedia_public domain

Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), image via wikicommons

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide every March 8th, apart from religious feasts, is the oldest internationally observed annual holiday. It came about via Clara Zetkin, a German writer, politician and public speaker who considered feminism a phenomenon for upper class women; to Zetkin, it was socialism that would set working class people free, women and men alike.

But that didn’t stop her proposing a special day to demand equal rights for women – universal suffrage specifically – at a Socialist Women’s International meeting in Copenhagen in 1910. The proposal was accepted and from 1911, Women’s Day was celebrated on March 19th, mainly in German-speaking countries.

Portrait of Zetkin painted by her husband Georg Friedrich Zundel. Photo by Robin Oomkes.

In 1917, as a reaction to the horrors of World War I, German communists added the concept of ‘peace’ to the day’s objectives. The date was moved to 8th March in 1921 as a tribute to the strike organised by female workers in St. Petersburg that triggered 1917’s February Revolution – Russia at the time was still on the Julian Calendar so March 8th in the West was February there – which in turn marked the beginning of Russia’s socialist revolution.

In Germany, Women’s Day is still very much regarded as a socialist as well as a communist phenomenon. After the 1917 split between Communists and Social Democrats, there were even two separate Women’s Days for a while, which the Nazis replaced with a single Mother’s Day to undermine the event’s leftist credentials and emphasise the importance of motherhood.

After World War II, the Soviet Authorities reintroduced Women’s Day in the Eastern Zone and it remained a state-sponsored socialist affair until the end of the GDR in 1989. The GDR memorialised Zetkin by putting her on their ten mark banknote and twenty mark coin and, in 1954, established the Clara Zetkin Medal (Clara-Zetkin-Medaille) to honour female women’s rights activists.

Its communist connotations meant that West Germany hesitated introducing its own Women’s Day until the broader feminist movement gathered pace there during the 1970s. Likewise, the United Nations only moved towards creating an International Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace in 1975, and it took until 1995 onwards to become a fixture on the UN calendar.

Zetkin’s Birkenwerder house, now a public memorial. Photo by Robin Oomkes.

In order to learn more about Zetkin and the day she created, I took a trip to Birkenwerder, in the north of Berlin, a 30-minute trip from Friedrichstrasse. Alighting at Birkenwerder S-Bahn station, I crossed the railway tracks and followed the signs to her memorial, which is set inside the last German house in which she lived.

After a ten minute walk I found myself outside the village library that now occupies the lower part of the house. The librarian, who seemed happy that someone was interested in the museum, took me upstairs and showed me around the two room exhibition. When I asked her if anything special was planned there for March 8th, she seemed sorry to say that there wasn’t. But she said that from time to time, women’s clubs from the ex-GDR do come and visit the memorial.

Inside, Zetkin’s sitting room is preserved as it was in the early 1930s, complete with writing desk and mementos from her life, during which she rubbed shoulders with famous socialists such as August Bebel and Rosa Luxemburg. She was even visited by Lenin himself in 1907, and she interviewed him in 1920 about the topic of women’s rights.

Another room documents her life and work via a series of German texts. I learned that she was born Clara Eissner in 1857 to a devout Saxon school teacher and his educated wife, that she trained as a teacher – the only career open to girls from her background in those years – and joined the Socialist Workers’ Party in 1878.

Moving to Paris to escape Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, she met Ossip Zetkin, from whom she took her name – despite not being married – and bore two sons, Maxim and Kostja. After Zetkin’s death, she married painter Georg Friedrich Zundel, also a staunch socialist. Throughout her life, Zetkin maintained strong ties to the Socialist International group. Following the party’s 1917 split from the SPD (due to its pro-war stance), she helped co-found the Spartacus League with her close friend and political companion Rosa Luxemburg.

Statue in the memorial's garden showing Clara Zetkin (l) and her friend and fellow communist Rosa Luxemburg, by Berlin sculptor

Statue in the memorial’s garden showing Clara Zetkin (l) and her friend and fellow communist Rosa Luxemburg.

While Luxemburg didn’t survive the Communists’ 1918 revolution attempt and the subsequent crackdown by the ‘bourgeois’ parties (including the social-democrat SPD) that followed, Zetkin managed to continue her political career. In 1919 she joined the fledgling KPD (Communist Party of Germany), representing the party from 1920 in the Reichstag and serving, between 1927 to 1929, as a member of the central committee.

After separating from Zundel in 1928, when he turned increasingly religious and mystic, Clara’s son Maxim bought her the house at Birkenwerder, which enabled her to live closer to her work at the Reichstag (the S-Bahn was as fast and practical then as it is now), and where she remained a member until the Nazis took power.

Gift plate received from Russian china workers

Gift charger received from Russian porcelain workers. The inscription says: “USSR – Workers of the World Unite – To The International Women’s Secretariat – From the workers of the Dulevo Porcelain Factory 8 March 1923 – May the union of male and female workers of the world flourish and strengthen”. Photo by Robin Oomkes, translation by Chris Hernon.

As the party’s most senior MP, she had the honour of opening the first parliamentary session after the 1932 election – in which the Nazis polled 33% – and used the opportunity for a courageous 40-minute speech against the dangers of National Socialism. Soon after the Nazis came to power, she fled her native country again, this time to Moscow, where she died the same year of natural causes. Stalin himself carried her urn to the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

Many streets in eastern Germany are still named after the “mother of German communism”. One of the most important disappeared however. Today’s Dorotheenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte, which Zetkin would have probably walked along as part of her commute between S-Bahn Friedrichstrasse and the Reichstag, was named Clara-Zetkin-Strasse in 1951 – but in 1995 it was restored to its prewar name, honouring Prussian Queen Dorothea.


Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkstätte (memorial)

Summter Straße 4, 416547 Birkenwerder

Tel.: 033 03 40 27 09

Opening hours: weekdays 11am – 4pm

Admission: free

Directions: take any regional (RE) or S-Bahn train towards Oranienburg, get off at Birkenwerder Station. Take the road bridge across the tracks and turn left on Unter den Ulmen, then right on Summter Strasse. Alternatively, walk along An der Bahn and take the magnificent footbridge (Rote Brücke) across the tracks and straight into Summter Strasse. It’s less than 1km either way.

A Hard Hat Day at the Opera – Berlin’s Staatsoper nearing completion.

The Staatsoper in June 2017, scaffolding now removed from the front portico. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

Berlin’s State Opera House started life in the 1740s as Frederick the Great’s Court Theatre. It was special in the sense that it was the first European court theatre to have a standalone building that was not part of a royal palace. Frederick’s architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753) also made this building one of the first works of German Classicism: a neo-Palladian temple front on the Unter den Linden side, possibly inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda outside Vicenza, but also influenced by English Palladianism, and a “a radically new architecture consisting of load-bearing elements with all unnecessary elements eliminated” (Watkin/Mellinghoff 1987, p. 19).

Berlin, Deutsche Staatsoper, Außenansicht
The State Opera House in 1951. Wartime damage and the remnants of the huge stage tower of the 1920s are clearly visible. Photo: Bundesarchiv 1951, Schmidtke.

The opera house has gone through a lot of reconstruction since then. Some of it was intended to improve it, such as the remodelling of the interior by Carl Friedrich Langhans (who also built the Brandenburg Gate) in the 1780s, or the controversial addition of a stage tower to handle large stage scenery in the 1920s. But just as many restoration efforts were required to repair the effects of fire, or of war. In the 1840s, Langhans Jr. rebuilt the opera house after a devastating fire, in 1941 it was one of the first Berlin victims of an aerial bombing raid, and it was reconstructed by none other than Nazi top architect Albert Speer, only to be bombed again in 1945.

Finishing the details of the decoration of the State Opera’s Apollo Hall, June 2017. Photo © Robin Oomkes.


IMG_0627 (1)
The Parole Room at Sans-Souci, renovated in 2016. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

This time, restoration efforts did not get underway until the 1950s, but Richard Paulick (1903-1979) decided to return, as much as possible, to Knobelsdorff’s original designs. The interior regained its original baroque atmosphere, but in a sparse, stripped manner. The only exception is the Apollo Hall, the room that Frederick planned as a dining room that sits right at the piano nobile of the building. Paulick remodelled this hall, in a mixture of classicist and baroque glory, based on the designs of the “Parole” room at Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam, another Knobelsdorff job for Frederick. Another improvement that Paulick made in the 1950s was the addition of a huge complex of scenery building workshops, rehearsal halls and dressmaking ateliers, across the street behind the opera building itself.

In the current restoration, which started in 2010 and is due to finish in the summer of 2017, the baseline is Paulick’s work of the 1950s, just like Paulick himself went back to Knobelsdorff.

Parquet floor laying and upholstering the walls with fabric panels, June 2017. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

The public areas are faithfully restored and redecorated to Paulick’s designs, with one huge difference: the roof over the main opera hall and stage has been raised by about 2 metres. This means patrons on the third balcony level have more breathing space, and, more importantly, the acoustics will improve a lot.

Composite honeycomb roof raised by 2 metres to improve acoustics. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

Stage technology seen from the “cable ceiling”. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

Backstage, noone talks of restoration and monument preservation. Here, everything has been ripped out and replaced by the latest high tech stage technology.

Underground transport tunnel to backstage buildings. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

But where star architects HG Merz, who also reconstructed the State Library, have really gone overboard is in the backstage building, Paulick’s project from the 1950s. Because an opera company usually needs to change stage backdrops several times a week, anything to make life easier for the technical staff is welcome. Here a James Bond-like subterranean empire has been created with a tunnel, wide enough for two trucks to pass each other,  that links the opera house to the back stage building. This means whole opera sets can be exchanged using a system of huge lifts and trolleys in a matter of hours.

Duplicate of main stage in back stage building. Photo © Robin Oomkes.

The back stage building has a complete duplicate of the stage in the opera house for rehearsals. There are also state of the art choir rehearsal rooms, orchestra rehearsal rooms, and ballet studios. It is an artists’ paradise, just like, in a sense, the whole of Germany is an artists’ paradise – here, the state is willing, as well as able, to invest in culture! The only regret that I have, is that by the time the opera will be open for business (concert hall rehearsals and final acoustic fine-tuning are now planned to start in July 2017) I will have left Berlin…




Best Berliners, #1 – Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

As my time in Berlin is coming to an end, I’d like to share a series of portraits of Favourite Berliners that I wrote over the past few years on request of Slow Travel Berlin editors Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican. Here’s the first: Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, on an engraving by Franz Krüger

The name “Humboldt” to most people brings up images of South American jungle expeditions and scientific breakthroughs in geography, botany and zoology. But that was Alexander. His brother Wilhelm, two years his senior, may have led a less spectacular life, but probably had a greater overall impact on scholarship, and universities in particular, than his more famous younger brother.

The Humboldt brothers grew up on their parents’ estate at Schloss Tegel outside Berlin. Their father died when Wilhelm was twelve, and the boys were brought up in relative isolation by their mother. They were home-schooled by a succession of tutors, who did a great job intellectually. However, both Humboldts later described the atmosphere as oppressive. To escape, extroverted Alexander explored the Tegel woods, but Wilhelm, who was quite an introvert, dug himself ever deeper in books, especially Greek Classics.

Schloss Tegel, the family pile, after Schinkel’s remodelling. The four corner towers carry the names of the Greek winds (photo: Robin Oomkes).

When Wilhelm was 18, their tutor ended the brothers’ boredom by introducing them to the main characters of Berlin’s Age of Enlightenment. They met Henriette and Marcus Herz, and were immediately accepted into their philosophical and literary salons. Wilhelm probably had a crush on Henriette, but it was she who introduced Wilhelm, very much a womanizer, to the love of his life, Caroline von Dacheröden.

After finishing university at Göttingen, Wilhelm wrote to Alexander how much he was looking forward to a simple, bourgeois life with Caroline in Berlin. But Alexander, who may have been gay, was abhorred by such a boring existence. Both brothers recognized the way in which their characters contradicted and complemented each other. Alexander wrote about Wilhelm: “He is a wonderful person. But it’s easy to get him wrong. He can be very offensive, like Goethe, repelling, or forcibly civil. It all happens inside him, he’s too esoteric. And his marriage reinforces that apparent aloofness and coldness. Apparent, because it is not really what he is like … He is the strangest being I’ve encountered”.

Caroline von Humboldt, née von Dacheröden (1766-1829). Litho by Wilhelm Wach.

Wilhelm and Caroline moved to Thuringia, where he continued his writing on the conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. Mankind’s objective was to achieve the Great and the Whole, and the individual should edify and educate himself. Only then would he be able to exercise any wider impact on the outside world. In Jena, Wilhelm was introduced to poet Friedrich Schiller. In 1794, Wilhelm (and Alexander, who was visiting), finally managed to get to meet famous writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The meeting of Goethe, Schiller, and the Humboldts is now seen as the kickoff of the Weimar Classics literary movement.

Schiller, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and Goethe at Weimar

In 1802, Wilhelm became the Prussian King’s ambassador to the Vatican. Alexander, who had just returned from his South American expedition, had vowed ‘never to set eyes on the towers of Berlin again’ and set up house in Paris, but Wilhelm implored him to not relinquish his “Germanness”, return to the city, “even if it is a sandy waste”, and report to the King on his travels. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had not only lost a great deal of territory, but also the universities that were located there. King Frederic William III had vowed “to replace lost territory with intellectual prowess”, and in 1808, he appointed Wilhelm, who didn’t want to leave Rome, as education secretary and asked him to reform the education system.

The system that Humboldt designed was true to his convictions and put the human spirit at center stage – not the needs of the state, or any specific profession. It consisted of elementary education, where the student learns how to express and understand thoughts, secondary education, where pupils gather linguistic, mathematical and historical knowledge, and at the same time learn to learn. At university, the third stage, students should conduct their own studies, guided and supported by professors. Wilhelm’s educational theory projected his own intellectual development on Prussia’s schools.

Wilhelm von Humboldt’s statue (Paul Otto, 1882), outside the university building on Berlin’s Unter den Linden that bears his and his brother’s name.

The only thing missing in Berlin was a university. In 1809, Frederick William allowed Wilhelm von Humboldt to create one. Berlin University started operating only a year later, at the palace on Unter den Linden that is still its headquarters today. It was named after the King in 1828, and then after the Humboldt brothers in 1949. The combination of teaching and research, which made sure that students would always be taught cutting-edge insights, was a unique tenet of the Humboldtian education ideal. Berlin’s university may be relatively young, but it was so ground-breaking that its teaching system has made a major impact on universities worldwide.

After several stints as ambassador and minister, Wilhelm got disappointed with Prussian politics, discovering that, post-Napoleon, he couldn’t implement his Enlightenment ideals and his passion for a unified German nation. From 1818, he returned to life as an independent writer and scholar. He spent the rest of his life at Tegel, where he asked Karl Friedrich Schinkel to redesign his parents’ manor house, studying exotic languages but never travelling far from home again. His theories on languages and their “world views” (Weltansichten) still have their followers today.

Wilhelm von Humboldt’s desk in his study at Schloss Tegel. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

Caroline’s death in 1829 caused Wilhelm immeasurable sadness. Fearing Humboldt would end up a total recluse at his Tegel retreat, the King called upon him to set up the collection of the new museum in Lustgarten (known as Altes Museum today), which would at least get him to travel to Berlin several days per week.

The family graveyard at Schloss Tegel. The park and burial monument can also be visited when the house itself is closed to the public. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Wilhelm von Humboldt died at 68, at his home in Tegel. He lies buried there, together with Caroline and Alexander. The country house, with its memorial, is still the private residence of descendants of the Humboldts, but there is a small museum that opens on Mondays from May to September.

Further reading: Manfred Geier: Die Brüder Humboldt. Eine Biographie, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2009.


9th of May – Russian VE Day in Berlin’s Treptower Park


Somewhat like the October Revolution actually taking place November, Russia’s Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th, not 8th, as in most of Europe. The reason is simple – Soviet commanders countersigned the Nazis’ surrender document late at night on May 8th 1945 at Berlin-Karlshorst, but by that time it was past midnight in Moscow and hence May 9th. Even Russians abroad engage very much with this national holiday, which showed when I visited Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park on Sunday, May 7th. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and Russian-speaking visitors galore.


In recent years, tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the war in Eastern Ukraine, the attack on Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, Russia’s support for Syria’s Assad, Russian interference in Western elections, and its poisoning of political opponents with chemical weapons. As a countermove, “Moscow” is framing the celebrations of the 9th of May ever more strongly as a show of Russian military force and anti-Western propaganda.


This is a pity, because it tarnishes the memory of the Red Army’s heroics and the suffering of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War. It may be a truism, but just like you cannot compare today’s Germany to the Nazi Germany that tried to force Slav Eastern Europe into slavery, there is also no comparison between today’s Russian regime and the Soviet Union that vanquished the Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I wandered among the Russian speakers at the Soviet memorial.


This war memorial, built in 1949, is also a military cemetery, just like the Soviet monument with the two tanks near the Brandenburg Gate that is probably more familiar to most Berlin visitors. Indeed, the Red Army had 80,000 dead to bury after the Battle of Berlin, so, sadly, they needed all the burial space they could get. But the Treptow memorial is something different.


You enter through a simple triumphal arch, and then arrive at a grey granite sculpture (at a still normal, albeit larger than life size scale), of a woman who might be “Mother Russia”. But if you then look south, down the main axis of the monument, your jaw will drop. The monument stretches over a distance of about half a kilometer.


Along a slowly rising avenue, framed by weeping willows, you reach two colossal, red stone triangles that symbolise Russian flags, each flanked by a statue of a Russian soldier, one old, one young, both already lavishly decorated with flowers on May 7th.


Passing the red flags, you reach a kind of balcony from which the vista of the main monument unfolds itself, with at its end, on an artificial mound, the huge statue of a Russian soldier, holding a small child on his left arm, crushing a swastika with his boot. Statue and mound together are some 30 m, or 100 ft, high.


Between the balcony and the statue, spread along a large expanse of stone and grass,  are four large fire dishes. On the left and right hand sides are two symmetrical rows of seven, white chalk sarcophagi, decorated with socialist realist reliefs which express the suffering of the Soviet population and the heroism of the Red Army.


On their short sides are quotes from Joseph Stalin on the war, on the left in Russian, on the right in German translation. These inscriptions survived getting destalinised after 1956, possibly because Stalin’s words on sacrifice, suffering and heroism of the Soviet population during World War II still largely ring true.


At the base of the monument, there is a cupola-shaped room that you can look into, but not enter, with a socialist-realist mosaic with Russian and German inscriptions.


Visiting such a monument as a jaundiced Western European, born in freedom, never having experienced war,  it is easy to scoff at all the ideology and propaganda behind everything you see. But it’s important to try and find the key to the background of the propaganda – the unspeakable suffering of the Soviet population at the hand of the Nazis in World War Two, for example, and the fact that the Soviet authorities were able to build this memorial right in the capital of their arch enemy.

I’m still struggling, however, to find the key to today’s Russian propaganda on RT and Sputnik. Somehow I hope there’s more than just a corrupt country struggling to establish a place for itself in the post-Cold War world that allows it to pursue its variety of illiberal crony capitalism, a country that would rather destroy the successful example of western democracy than reform and adapt.

But the little green men in the pictures? Those are my sons.

All photographs: © Robin Oomkes 2017

“But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” Ikegaya’s Nested Churches at Berlin’s St. Elisabeth’s.


Elisabethkirche, c. 1994. Photo: wikiwand

“Des Herrn Wort bleibt in Ewigkeit”.This text, 1 Peter 1:25, was on the frieze of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Elisabethkirche in Berlin from 1834, when it was built, through its destruction in World War II, until well into the 1990s, when it sat as a ruin.


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The church in April 2017. Photo: Robin Oomkes

But although the church exterior has been beautifully restored since, the epigraph  signifying eternity hasn’t returned. Berlin artist Riku Ikegaya created a temporary installation based on this story of destruction and reconstruction of architecture: a model of Schinkel’s church, made out of scaffolding pipes for the frame and construction timber for the benches, inside the actual church – hence the project’s name: Nested churches. He fronted the church’s model with Saint Peter’s words, in neon.

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes

During opening hours, the  words are partially visible from outside, creating a compelling desire to enter. Meanwhile, the artist would like us to consider our expectations of eternity, in a digital age where change seems to be the only constant.

Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes

On the altar, which is not part of St. Elisabeth’s standard equipment (it is no longer used for religious services), there is a dish containing communion wafers inviting you to explore the background of  Ikegaya’s work. If you’re lucky, you can catch the artist wandering around the church!

Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes

WhatNested Churches by Riku Ikegaya

Where: Elisabethkirche, Invalidenstr. 3, 10115 Berlin. U/S: Rosenthaler Platz, Nordbahnhof, trams 8 and 12.

When: Daily, 20 April until 1 May, 12-7 pm.

More at: bit.ly/-ewigkeit


9. November – Stolpersteine vor der Haustür: die Familie Goldbrenner

Die Stolpersteine für Lea (1888-1942) und Josef (1890-1942)  Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Heute ist 9. November – ein Tag der in Berlin vor Allem mit dem Mauerfall verbunden ist. Und das ist gut so – auch wenn es an diesem deutschen Schicksalstag noch vieles anderes zu gedenken gibt. Neben der Hinrichtung Robert Blums am 9.11.1848, der Abdankung des Kaisers am 9.11.1918 und dem Hitlerputsch am 9.11.1923, ist das vor Allem die Reichspogromnacht am 9.11.1938. In dieser Nacht (und an der Nacht des 10.11) überfielen die Nazihorden und ihre Mitläufer Jüdische Geschäfte, Synagogen und andere Eigentümer. Die Aktionen trieben etwa 400 Juden in den Tod; viele mehr wurden verhaftet und in Konzentrationslager überführt.

Zum Gedenken der Reichspogromnacht 1938 finden an vielen deutschen Orten von Freiwilligen veranstaltete Putzaktionen für Stolpersteine statt – jene kleine im Bürgersteig eingelassenen Gedenktafeln aus Messing, die seit 1992 vom Künstler Gunter Demnig überall in Europa  vor den letzten frei gewählten Wohnungen ermordeter Juden angebracht werden.

Das Haus Invalidenstrasse 2, Berlin-Mitte. Vor der Haustür befinden sich die zwei Josef und Lea Goldbrenner gedenkenden Stolpersteine. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Vor unserem Wohnhaus in Berlin-Mitte befinden sich zwei Stolpersteine, für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner. Die Steine gab es schon als wir Anfang 2014 einzogen, und uns war von der Familie Goldbrenner nicht mehr bekannt, als was wir auf die Steine lesen konnten: Josef wurde 1890 geboren, 1939 verhaftet und nach dem KZ Sachsenhausen gebracht, und wurde dann 1942 nach verschiedenen Verlegungen (über Dachau und Buchenwald) in der Tötungsanstalt in Bernburg/Saale ermordet. Lea Goldbrenner wurde 1888 geboren und 1942 nach Riga deportiert, wo sie ermordet wurde.

Günter und Gisela Wongel putzen die Stolpersteine der Fam. Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Aber im Juni 2016 erfuhren wir mehr: vor unserer Haustür traf ich zwei knieende Personen, die die Stolpersteine putzten. Es waren Günter Wongel (geb. 1941) und seine Frau Gisela. Sie waren, zusammen mit den Enkelkindern der Familie Goldbrenner 2013 für die Initiative zuständig, Stolpersteine für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner anbringen zu lassen. Günter Wongel ist im Haus Invalidenstr. 2 aufgewachsen; er wohnte mit seinen Eltern in der Wohnung am 5. Stock. (Durch Kriegsschäden gibt es diese Wohnung nicht mehr; das Haus ist heute oben des 4. Stockwerks mit einem flachen Satteldach ausgestattet.)

Günter war zu jung um die Deportation 1942 Lea Goldbrenners bewusst zu erfahren, und zur Zeit der Verhaftung Josef Goldbrenners 1939 war er noch nicht geboren. Trotzdem hat seine Mutter Emilie, die im Haus die Hauswartsstelle inne hatte, ihm viel über die Familie Goldbrenner, die im 1. Stock wohnten, erzählt – wie Lea geweint hat, als Josef von der Gestapo weggeführt wurde, und wie sie damals für die Goldbrenners am Sabbat Feuer gemacht hat. Als es Juden schon nicht mehr erlaubt war, einkaufen zu gehen, hielf Emilie Wongel die Nachbarin indem sie für sie einkaufen ging. Emilie Wongel wurde beschimpft dass sie ‘wohl wieder für die Juden einkäufe’, weil die von ihr gekauften Waren, zum Beispiel frische Gurken, für die Familie Wongel wohl zu teuer waren.

Günter Wongel, Blick auf das Gemeindehaus der Elisabethkirche, Öl auf Pappe1976.

In den siebziger Jahren haben Günter und Gisela Wongel selber noch einige Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse 2 gewohnt, und immer wieder an den weggeführten Nachbarn gedacht. Seitdem sind die beiden nach Pankow umgezogen, aber ein Kunstwerk von der Hand von Günter, gelerntem Grafiker, erinnert noch an die Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse.

Mindestens einer der Kinder der Familie Goldbrenner, Willy, hat den Krieg und die Konzentrationslager überlebt. Willy emigrierte nach Frankreich. Er und seine Frau Estera bekamen 1943 einen Sohn, Jean-Claude. Estera wurde kurz nachdem verhaftet und in Auschwitz ermordet. Jean-Claude Goldbrenner überlebte den Krieg geschützt von seinen französischen Grosseltern und lebt heute in den USA. Über seine Lebensgeschichte erfährt man mehr unter http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700168866/Holocaust-survivor-treasures-mothers-last-letters.html?pg=all.

Günter und Gisela Wongel haben ihre Erinnerungen an und Spurensuche nach Josef und Lea Goldbrenner in zwei Dokumente erfasst, die ich gerne empfehle:



Heute Abend werden meine Frau und ich für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner bei den Stolpersteinen eine Kerze brennen.