Restoring Schönholz


A few weeks ago I finally went to visit the Soviet Memorial in the Schönholzer Heide in the northeast of Berlin. I first saw the landmark in the film “The Lives of Others” during the scene where the main character and his dissident friend seek out a spot to stroll and talk unobserved. I’ve been wanting to visit ever since.

Approaching the snow-covered obelisk and mourning Mother Russia statue on that gray winter afternoon proved every bit as cinematic as the scene in the film. Unfortunately you couldn’t get closer than 100 yards of the memorial because of the construction fences all around it. Stacks of tiles and scattered port-a-potties stood guard around Mother Russia, and the sign said restoration would be taking place until 2012.

Even from that distance, the Schönholzer memorial has a completely different atmosphere than the tank in the Tiergarten or the mighty monument in Treptow, which features a giant statue of a soldier crushing a swastika under a sword while rescuing an orphan child. The main statue at Schönholz is of a kneeling woman cradling her fallen son on her lap. It expresses loss and solemnity — intimations only amplified by the vacant, snow-covered surroundings that afternoon.

We walked around the perimeter but could see very little over the foreboding border wall, which still had the hooks for the banners and flags that must have once decorated it on ceremonious occasions. I wanted to sneak in, but since there are over 1,000 soldiers buried there, one must enter the place with a level of respect that is difficult to achieve when trespassing.

Still, I’d come a long way, and I didn’t think getting a closer look would cause any real harm as long as I was careful. Just outside the marble gates I found a gap in the fence wide enough to step through. I took a few steps and looked around before beating a hasty retreat, like a mouse scurrying back into its hole after getting the sudden sensation it isn’t safe. I peeked back around the construction trailer into the center courtyard. Now or never. I started back in only to look up and see this…

…a definite sign I should go no further.

So I went home. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to come back after the restoration is finished.

I suspect some of the drab, overgrown quality that attracts me to the place will be scrubbed away in the restoration process. Still, the Schönholzer Heide has been through a lot in the last 100 years, serving as a forest grounds, amusement park, internment camp, and today, a sled-friendly park sprinkled with monuments like the Soviet Memorial. It deserves to be seen in a new light.

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