Berlin's Jewish quarter — Scheunenviertel

Scheunenviertel ("hut quarter") is a historic area in the modern Berlin district of Mitte, north of the Berlin city wall between Hackescher Markt and the modern Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. The area between the Friedrichstraße and Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, which is bordered to the south by the municipal railway and the Spree, and to the north by the Linienstraße and Torstraße. In reality, the Scheunenviertel only covers part of the Spandau suburb (Spandauer Vorstadt) east of Rosenthalerstraße. The hut lanes, which gave their name to the Scheunenviertel, were located around today's Rosa Luxemburg square between Almstadtstraße to the west, Hirtenstraße to the south, Linienstraße to the north and Kleine Alexanderstraße to the east. None of the hut lanes have survived to this day in their historic form.

History of the quarter

In 1670, Grand Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I forbade the keeping of fire-hazardous ovines in Berlin, and around 1672 ordered the construction of 27 huts in the vicinity of the city wall. The huts were used to store the hay and straw that was needed in large quantities for the functioning of the Alexanderplatz livestock market. To the north of today's Dircksenstraße, there were extensive agricultural areas, and farmers lived in the block of huts. After the demolition of the city wall the area was built up, but retained its name.

King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered the Jews of Berlin, who did not have their own homes, to move to the Scheunenviertel in 1737. This decree, as well as the stipulation that Jews were only allowed to enter Berlin through the two northern city gates, led to a quarter with a strong Jewish cultural tradition emerging on this site. Next to the old synagogue on Heidereutergaße, Jewish cemeteries in the Mitte district and Schönhauser Allee emerged in close proximity to the Scheunenviertel. This Scheunenviertel was also close to Jewish immigrants who had arrived from the east in the mid-nineteenth century, which led to a rapid growth of the population in this district. Families had to share their sleeping quarters in shifts with the tenants of the beds. A typical trade in the Scheunenviertel in the second half of the 19th century was the family trade in cigarettes.

The process of industrialisation has left an indelible mark on the Scheunenviertel. After the founding of the German Empire in 1871, Berlin became the largest industrial city in Europe. The population density in Berlin increased drastically over the years, the housing shortage was only reduced by the late construction of tenement houses in the new districts that were springing up. Residents of the old development in the Scheunenviertel suffered from overcrowding. Newcomers often started from this very area. The shortage of sleeping space in the re-located flats was often used according to the shifts at the nearby Borsig factories. The rare off-work hours before sleep had to be spent outside or in numerous taverns. Grenadierstraße, today's Almstadtstraße, was at that time the main street of orthodox Eastern European Jews and was often called "open-gate ghetto".

The disastrous housing and social situation forced the Berlin authorities to undertake a complete redevelopment of the quarter in 1906-1907. After the four remaining "hut lanes" were demolished, traffic around Rosa Luxemburg Square was reformatted. The reconstruction of the Scheunenviertel was interrupted by the First World War: the western part remained dilapidated, while the square was already dominated by modern buildings from the first decades of the 20th century.

In the Weimar Republic, against the background of the hyperinflation of 1922-1923, the Scheunenviertel suffered anti-Semitic pogroms. On 5 November 1923 thousands of unemployed people gathered in front of the labour exchange in Gormannstraße in a queue for benefits. After hearing that there was no money for the payments, agitators spread the rumour among the crowd that the money had gone to the local Jewish "Galicians". The crowd quickly turned to attacking anyone in the Scheunenviertel who looked "Jewish". People were beaten up, shops were looted and newspapers reported on the inaction of the police, who could have easily called the crowd to order.