Südlicher Heidekampgraben, Berlin

As today is May 9, observed in most post-Soviet states as the holiday commemorating the end of World War Two, an appropriate hidden water to profile is the Südlicher Heidekampgraben, (southern heath camp ditch) a stream located inside Berlin’s Treptower Park. The park is the site of the largest Soviet war memorial outside of the former USSR.

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The photo was taken by Berlin resident Lienhard Schulz and posted in the Wikipedia page for Treptower Park.

History of the creek

In its natural state, the creek originated in the forest and meadow landscape of  Köllnische Heide (Heath of Kolln) that separated the ancient towns of Kölln and Kopenick, south of old Berlin. Today, both of these towns are part of the enlarged city of Berlin. Most of the woodland has been developed as the Ne, although the Köllnische Heide train station retains the historic name.

At the turn of the 20th century, all the former kingdoms and duchies that spoke German (with the exception of Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) united to form the German Empire. An ambitious country, it embarked on a canal digging program that enabled boats to travel the country’s width from the Rhine to the Oder without having to go around Denmark. The canals transformed Berlin into a seaport for small vessels. In southern Berlin, the Britz Canal cut across the Heidekampgraben to connect the Spree River with the Havel River on the city’s southeast.

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On the map above, Britz and Teltow canals are highlighted, while the Heidekampgraben is marked in red. The section of the creek to the south of the canal was buried, with the exception of a pond in the Späth-Arboretum, a plant nursery founded in 1873.

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The pond is reminiscent of an impressionist painting. To the north of Britz Canal, the Heidekampgraben flows through the Neukölln neighborhood with its blocks of identical concrete apartment blocks.

Berlin Wall

In the postwar division of the German capital into allied occupation zones, the east-west line ran in some places through tight neighborhoods and in other locations where it was easier to separate the two halves. In Neukölln, the Berlin Wall was built along the path of Heidekampgraben between Forsthaussallee and Kiefholzstraße. Here, there was plenty of green space along the wall that did not necessitate demolition of apartments.

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After the reunification of Berlin in 1989, the ugly communist-built barrier was demolished. Its in place, a double-file line of bricks marks its route as a memorial to those killed trying to escape from East Berlin. A bike path follows the bricks (highlighted), utilizing the former symbol of division as a convenient linear park. The view above is at Sonnenallee, with the former East Berlin on the right and West Berlin on the left. The creek is hidden by the row of trees to the west of the brick line. Where the wall’s path was not developed, there are historic markers, parks, and paths that connect to its history.

Allotment Gardens

Continuing north, the creek passes beneath the Baumschulenweg–Neukölln railway and enters a neighborhood of small homes surrounded by produce and flowers, the Planterwald district of allotment gardens dating to 1898. Recall that in my birthplace of Riga, my family also had an allotment garden. In communist-run eastern bloc states, such gardens gave nearby apartment dwellers a chance to grow their own food. Today, they are still cooperatively run. The photo below is from the same individual as our title shot at the top.

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Treptower Park

Upon entering Treptower Park, the creek takes on a naturalistic appearance, flowing through a forest that was designated as a public park in 1876. It is one of four large Berlin parks dating to the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I. Designed by Gustav Meyer, the park includes plenty of monuments, including a couple on a rock in the middle of Karpfenteich (Carp Pond). That sculpture is the 1907 work Nök vom Meeresgrunde by Otto Petri.

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In a time when emerging imperial powers were eager to show off their advances through Industrial Expositions and Worlds’ Fairs, Treptower Park had its show in 1896, transforming the green space into a fairground.

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Highlighted is the Heidekampgraben, which widens into the Karpfenteich and then continues towards the Spree River. One legacy of the fair was the Neuen See (New Lake) a reflecting pool at the center of the park. Its design is akin to the lagoons of other contemporary fairs, such as the one in Chicago in 1893 or 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri. The exhibits around Karpfenteich were devoted to Germany’s colonial possessions, which included Togo, Namibia, and Tanzania.

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In the 1902 guidebook Berlin und die Mark Brandenburg by Fedor von Zobeltitz, we see a lively outdoor restaurant scene by the Karpfenteich. The photo caption is in the Gothic-like Fraktur font favored in imperial Germany, appearing in books, newspapers, advertisements, as a way of asserting the country’s identity. As Bismarck once said, “I do not read German books in Latin letters!”

The Soviet War Memorial

The Second World War exacted the highest death toll of any war in the history of humanity and although Nazi forces had been on the retreat since their death at Stalingrad in February 1943, Adolf Hitler refused to surrender, holding out hope for a turnaround. By April 1945, the capital had been encircled and what was left of the “thousand year Reich” were shrinking urban blocks with the dictator in hiding beneath the streets in a bomb shelter.

Yet he persisted, ordering his storm troopers to flood the subways and kill anyone who surrendered. In this pointless battle whose outcome was determined, some 100,000 Germans were killed along with around 80,000 from the Soviet and Polish forces. On May 8, 1945, the red banner flew above the Reichstag (photo taken by a Jewish war photographer) while white flags hung from bombed-out windows across Berlin. The unconditional capitulation of the Nazi government reached Moscow in the early morning hours of May 9, 1945.

Within four years, the Neuer See was drained, filled and developed as the Soviet War Memorial. Its plan was designed by Yakov S. Belopolski, with a 30-meter statue by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich.

At the tip of the memorial, Vuchetich’s soldier-liberator stands atop a crushed swastika holding a rescued German girl. With the Reichstag in ruins and out of commission as a seat of government, the Soviet War Memorial marked the symbolic end of the road for Soviet forces. A multiethnic force of millions, its members hailed from as far as Central Asia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East. Here, the victorious soldiers paid tribute to their fallen comrades, Russian tourists laid down flowers, emigres gather every May 9th to mark Victory Day in the presence of dignitaries and surviving veterans.

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Here he stands looking at rows of monuments and the final resting places of 7,000 Soviet war dead. Although the deeds of the Red Army have been tarnished somewhat by mass rape and looting committed by many in the ranks, the imposition of communist rule across eastern Europe and the division of Germany, I was raised to regard the fighting men and women as heroes who not only defended their country but quite literally their homes and families.

Those who fought included both of my grandfathers (one who fought at Stalingrad and lost his arm), two of my grandmother’s brothers (one of whom fought all the way to Berlin) and my great-grandfather, who was killed in combat. They fought not only for their homes but also to avenge the holocaust that took my grandfather’s entire family.

Berlin is a city of many canals, ponds and creeks. Its pre-development terrain was so soggy that it stood in the way of Hitler’s megalomaniacal Germania plan. It’s a city that I would love to visit someday. I will follow the path of the Heidekampgraben to the Soviet War Memorial and stop to pause.

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