‘It’s one of Berlin’s few ghost stories,’ said Fritz, gesturing at a blank wall on the north side of Oranienburgerstraße, the long, famous street in central Mitte. ‘But I don’t believe it.’
I ran my hand along the wall. Pennies and other small coins had been lodged between the bricks.
‘According to the legend, the spirits of two children are sometimes seen running across the street and disappearing here into the Gespenstermauer, the ghost wall,’ he explained. ‘The idea is that if you give them a coin, your wish will come true.’
‘Any wish?’ I asked.
‘As long as it’s not too selfish.’
I’ve long been puzzled by the absence of ghosts in Berlin. Almost every English village boasts many more spooks than the German capital, despite Berlin’s abundance of suffering and death during the last century. The past may be ever present here but it does not manifest itself in the paranormal or ectoplasm.
I asked Fritz, a sixtysomething painter who has lived all his life in the neighbourhood, for an explanation.
‘Berliners don’t have much time for the ethereal,’ he volunteered. ‘We trust our senses. We prefer experiences which we can taste, feel, grasp in our hands.’
‘Which of course is Oranienburgerstraße’s other claim to fame,’ I pointed out. The street is known for its prominent street prostitution, which is legal in Germany.
‘I hardly notice them,’ he said with a laugh. ‘You know, prostitutes have worked Oranienburgerstraße since the start of the twentieth century. They vanished from the street in 1933 but within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 they – or at least their daughters -- were back.’
Oranienburgerstraße runs south-east from Friedrichstraße toward Hackescher Markt and is popular with tourists and Berliners alike for its nightlife, restaurants and bars. In days gone by it was also a centre of Jewish life with schools, orphanages and even a cemetery, all now lost, as well as the restored Neue Synagoge. Perhaps the children of the ghost wall could even be Jewish, speculated Fritz, if he believed in them.
‘There’s always been a tremendous sense of community along the street,’ he told me, ‘among the old Jewish residents, among the hookers, among today’s artists, among those of us who lived here during the DDR days.’ He gestured at the Gespenstermauer. ‘Look here.’ He point at a pair of neat, plugged holes in the bricks. ‘In 1988 the East Germany government – specifically the Politburo member Günter Schabowski – wanted to demolish all the old buildings along Oranienburgerstraße, and replace them with pre-fabricated, concrete Plattenbau boxes. He wanted to turn the whole neighbourhood into a soulless Neubaugebiet, a “new development area” like Marzahn.’
Fritz shook his head at the thought.
‘So residents started to play a cat-and-mouse game with officials. They drilled holes like these into all the old buildings, to be filled with dynamite. But as soon as the wreckers turned their backs we stuffed them with stones, cement, anything to frustrate their plans. The game went on for more than a year, until the Wall fell and Schabowski and his comrades were kicked out. But it was a close call.’
‘Maybe someone had made a wish at the ghost wall in 1989,’ I suggested, gesturing again at Oranienburgerstraße 41.
‘Maybe,’ replied Fritz with a laugh. ‘So maybe there are real ghosts in Berlin after all...’