We’ve had what the Germans call a “Golden October” this year, continuing to linger on still in to the first cool days of November. My environmental dashboard notes that this is perhaps more than we Northern Europeans actually deserve; that we should be well and truly grey and damp and dismal by this point in the calendar, but my romantic soul loves that we can still walk through streets lined with yellow-leafed trees and enjoy dry sunny days sitting at cafes with our faces turned to the sun like lizards on rocks.
Last weekend I made my way down to Potsdam to visit a newly renovated museum/cafe called “Das Minsk.” Potsdam, the capital of the state of Brandenburg and a fascinating historic city in its own right, was until 1989 part of old East Germany, in fact it was the KGB-infested nest of espionage and listening devices made famous in the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies”since it was literally just across the Havel River from the Allied-controlled West Berlin. Das Minsk was an East German restaurant during the DDR heyday but after the fall of the wall and German reunification, it fell out of favor into crumbling disrepair. Interestingly, Hasso Platner, the German partner of the SAP software firm, bought the site from the city of Potsdam and has turned it into an art center and a reincarnation of the formerly beloved eatery. It had a grand opening in September and was highly touted but I’ve been distracted of late; with this lovely fall weekend I finally had the time and inclination to go.
Buuuutttt….I was completely underwhelmed. Ten Euro! Only two small exhibits! The place packed with visitors and screaming children! In under 15 minutes I had retrieved my belongings from my rented locker and had run screaming for the exit myself. But I’ll share one lovely picture by Wolfgang Mattheuer called “Wintersonne “Winter Sun,” painted in 1994, almost but not quite worth the visit:
Okay, I sez to myself, NOW what? Too soon to turn tail and head home. Of course the obvious answer is “ramble on, girl, ramble on.”
First, a lovely signpost, a reminder that Potsdam, like Berlin, is truly in the middle of everywhere. I was particularly charmed by the useful information about the Südtirol, an astonishing magical place if ever there were one, and well worth the 1700 km trip, although perhaps not by bike. The Baltic Sea (Ostsee) island destination of Rügen is perhaps more attainable at 600 km.
Since I had no time limits and no plans, I decided to see where my feet took me. While Potsdam is chock-a-block full of justly famous historic places and possibilities (Frederick the Great! More palaces than any other city in Germany! Close to the German film mecca of Babelsburg!) this post will be about the odds bodkins that I found in a completely random fashion that afternoon. And isn’t that the most interesting way to learn about a place anyway?
On my way to the more historic parts of the city, I came across this piece of guidance of use for a local park. Verboten, verboten, verboten! (Just exactly IS one allowed to do here?) And if anyone knows what the cryptic symbol is in the lower right-hand corner, I’d be grateful to be enlightened. (Update: the hive mind suggests this is a banana peel thus enjoining us not to litter. I’ll buy it.)
Chastened and humbled, I then moved in the direction of the historic center, now home to the recreated Museum Barberini and the recreated St. Nikolaikirche Potsdam. Shortly thereafter I found myself in the city square known as the Bassinplatz, something that looked like a perfectly normal city park, until I looked a little closer and saw…these…
…graves, which on closer inspection….were clearly inscribed in Cyrillic. I had unknowingly stumbled onto the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, the Soviet Memorial to “680 ‘Red Army’ soldiers and officers buried in 291 individual and 18 mass graves. They fell in the last days of the War in the struggle for Potsdam.” What we in the US appear to be very ignorant of is the incredible role (and incredible human toll) the Soviet Army played (and paid) in the liberation of Berlin. The US troops stayed quite a distance outside the city while estimates of around 80,000 Soviet soldiers died and an additional nearly 300,000 soldiers were wounded to defeat Hitler in the final days of World War II, around late Spring and early May 1945. The mind can hardly take it in.
I was particularly struck this one grave:
My Russian is rusty, but what I make out is “Martinenko, Maria Timofeevna, 1920-1946. If anyone has anything to add, I’d be grateful. (Update: friends suggest several lines read “Sleep well dear, your faithful Vasily.”) But of course like so much in Germany, the place asks more questions than it answers.Who was she and why was she here?
Close by was another memorial, this one to the demonstrators who helped bring about the end of the East German regime. Nearly 100,000 people joined this peaceful demonstration in Potsdam on November 4, 1989, just five days before the fall of the wall.
Musing on all these brave souls, I kept moving onward closer to the center of town. I soon entered the delightful Dutch quarter of Potsdam. According to local authorities,
“The Dutch Quarter, also known as ‘Little Amsterdam’, includes four squares and a total of 134 two-storey houses. The unique district is home to the largest closed Dutch-style buildings outside the Netherlands. The facades of terraced houses consist entirely of red Dutch brick with white joints…
Frederick William I, the ‘Soldier King’, originally commissioned the construction of the Dutch Quarter to attract skilled workers from the Netherlands. A large number of well-trained craftsmen were needed to help with the expansion of Potsdam, which at the time was largely a garrison town. The shortage of workers meant many craftsmen were recruited from outside Prussia, including the Netherlands. To attract potential immigrants, workers were offered a home and attractive work contracts. The result was the creation of the new Quarter, which was built by Dutch architect Jan Bouman between 1732 and 1742. The area also attracted military families, as well as French and German artists and artisans.”
But on this sunny afternoon, I just mostly enjoyed seeing the lizards:
Nearby, another Russian echo, interesting enough. I wouldn’t want to be trying to write their business plan for 2023, but it appears their hearts are in the right place, or at least I’d like to think so. The translation reads: “Dear Friends, we cook, back, roast ourselves and every day (the peace sign).”
This is just one of the multitude of interesting and inviting cafes, shops, and restaurants to explore throughout the historic town center, which goes one for blocks and blocks, a veritable feast for eyes, feet,(and probably pocketbook). Every time I come to Potsdam, I say to myself “Why aren’t you here more often?” It’s only 30 km away, maybe 45 minutes by public transportation, but truly another world.
Perhaps it’s because I just can’t behave myself very well in Germany sometimes. My dear spouse knows signs like this one below, advertising a fish restaurant specializing in flounder, typically send me into paroxysms of giggles. (Lord knows when I’ll ever grow up.)
Even after nearly fifty years of East German rule and neglect, the city continues to shake off its socialist dust and rise again into astonishingly beautiful civic elegance. Here’s an entryway to one of the local postal complexes:
And as a parting shot, an advertisement for a local cabaret theater. This is a complicated picture that needs some explanation. First, the photo is of Karl Lauterbach, the Federal Minister of Germany for Health. It’s been his doleful task to oversee, with others, the whole COVID situation for the last nearly three years. The sign reads “Killer Variant,” and clearly this latest show is a some kind of political play on the pandemic and its impact on all of our lives. Herr Lauterbach is known for his limited fashion sense, hence the somewhat greasy coiffure. And the point of all this is…Karl was actually one of the students in the programs I was running during my time at the Harvard School of Public Health in the early 1990s. I never thought that quiet nerdy guy, always turning in things late and missing meetings and sporting food stains on his sweater…would end up at the top of the health food chain in his native land. Ya just never know:
Trust me, I’ll hurry back here again soon. So much to learn and explore. Stay safe and healthy.