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Wilmersdorf: the former centre of Russian emigration

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Wilmersdorf
Ulf Nammert / Shutterstock

Wilmersdorf is a first-class, well-kept residential area in the west of Berlin. This is one of the greenest districts of the city: the Grunewald forest covers almost half of its area. Wilmersdorf is part of the prestigious Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district.

Housing is expensive here: an apartment in Wilmersdorf costs an average of 5,520 euro per square metre, according to the Immowelt’s data for 2022. The house will cost 9,550 euro per square metre.

Property for sale in Wilmersdorf 12 listings on Tranio

Wilmersdorf is first mentioned at the end of the 13th century as a village near Berlin. Gradually, the settlement grew and became a city. In the 19th century, its name was changed to Deutsch-Wilmersdorf to distinguish it from another city of Wilmersdorf in Brandenburg. In 1920, Wilmersdorf became part of “Greater Berlin” as a district.

In the 1920s Wilmersdorf became a centre of attraction for the cultural elite. The quarters around the Kurfürstendamm began to grow with numerous cafes and theatres. At the beginning of the century, writers Erich Maria Remarque, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Kestner, Anna Segers and many others lived here.

After the 1917 revolution, more than 300,000 Russians immigrated to Berlin, many of them settled in Wilmersdorf and the neighbouring areas. The immigrants quickly created their own world with Russian restaurants and shops, bookshops and schools, hairdressers, banks, theatres, newspapers and exhibitions. Russian speech was heard everywhere in the district and quite often prevailed over German. The locals called this “city within a city” the Russian Berlin. Russian writers, journalists, artists and actors settled here. Later, in 1936–1938, a Russian Orthodox cathedral was built in the area.

In the Russian Berlin of the first wave of emigration, there were about 20 restaurants with Russian cuisine. Among them were the first Russian restaurant Liberty at 65 Nuernbergerstraße near KaDeWe; the famous Prague cafe at Prager Platz; Landgraf at 75 Kurfürstenstraße; Kulinar at 16 Shaperstraße; Medwjed at 11 Bayerischer Straße, where they served “borscht with buckwheat porridge at any time”; the Russian Corner at 9 Neue Wintrefeldstraße. In many Russian restaurants, balalaikas and gypsy romances could be heard and Cossacks could be seen dancing. There were also scandals leading to fights, for example, if the monarchists stood up at the sound of the “God Save the Tsar!” anthem and the Provisional Government’s supporters continued to sit.

In 1927–1929, the famous Künstlerkolonie (or artists’ colony) was built on Ludwig-Barnay-Platz. Berliners nicknamed it “the Red Block” because of the political beliefs of this community’s members. Publicist Ernst Bloch, actor Ernst Busch, journalist Axel Eggebrecht, writers Alfred Kantorovich, Arthur Koestler and Manes Sperber settled here. 

The Prague Square (Prager Platz)

The Prague Square (Prager Platz)
Lisa-Lisa / Shutterstock

Prager Platz (or the Prague Square) was built in 1870. It was named after the Peace of Prague, the 1866 peace treaty between Austria and Prussia that ended the Austro-Prussian War. As a result of this war, the hegemony among the German states passed from Austria to Prussia.

The famous Prager Platz has become a symbol of the cultural life of West Berlin. Scientist Albert Einstein and writer Egon Erwin Kisch once lived nearby. In the centre of the square, there is a statue of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, donated to Berlin by Prague in 2007.

After the revolution of 1917, Wilmersdorf became the centre of Russian emigration, and Prager Platz in turn became a symbolic place for the “Russian literary Berlin.” Alexey Tolstoy and his wife and son, Marina Tsvetaeva and her daughter, Ilya Ehrenburg and his wife rented rooms at the Prager boarding house. Russian writers and poets met in the legendary Prager Diele cafe. In addition to Tsvetaeva and Ehrenburg, Boris Pasternak, Sergei Yesenin, Andrei Bely and Maxim Gorky have visited Prager Platz as well.

“The Prager Diele cafe was especially popular. It became a meeting place for new arrivals from Russia. Andrei Bely even coined the verb ‘pragerdiele’, by which he meant spending time philosophising, in polemics, in a blue haze and with cognac”, says the German writer and journalist Thomas Urban in his book “Nabokov in Berlin.”

“Without going outside, in Prager Diele, Ilya Ehrenburg wrote. He can live without coffee, but he cannot live without the cafe. Therefore, when the cafe was not yet weathered and the chairs stood in rows on the tables, he was already sitting in the Prager Diele and, finishing his thirteenth pipe, he put a chapter of the novel on each”, says writer Roman Gul in his “Essays on White Emigration.”

During the Second World War, the square was badly damaged, and the Prager Diele cafe was destroyed. Prager Platz itself was later restored.

Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral (Russische orthodoxe Auferstehungs-Kathedrale)

Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral (Russische orthodoxe Auferstehungs-Kathedrale)
Mo Photography Berlin / Shutterstock

The Resurrection of Christ Cathedral is part of the Berlin Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. The cathedral was built in 1938 on Hohenzollerndamm Street, not far from the former, demolished Russian church. It was erected in the “Russian district”, where several thousand Russian emigrants lived.

The basilica in the Russian-Byzantine style was built according to the project of the Russian émigré architect Sergei Shostovsky, who was inspired by Novgorod architecture in the exterior and Byzantine-Romanesque style in the interior. However, the construction of the church was carried out by the German architect Karl Schellberg for two years.

The German government bought a plot of land for the cathedral’s construction and made the first donation. Private donations were also made by Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich and Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. The single-altar cathedral for 500 people was founded by Bishop Tikhon (Lyashchenko). A two-tiered iconostasis of pre-revolutionary work was sent from Warsaw by Metropolitan Dionysius (Waledinsky), head of the Polish Orthodox Church.

The cathedral is named in honour of the Resurrection of Christ. Easter is annually celebrated here with a special exultation. The service is often led by clergy from Russia along with the Berlin priests.

Berlin Ahmadiyya Mosque (Wilmersdorfer Moschee)

Berlin Ahmadiyya Mosque (Wilmersdorfer Moschee)
ebenart / Shutterstock

Not far from the Russian Resurrection of Christ Cathedral stands the oldest surviving mosque in Germany, which was built in 1923–1925.

The Berlin Mosque was designed by the architect K. A. Hermann. The building has two stepped minarets, one of which is 32-metre high, and can accommodate up to 400 people of faith. The architecture style is based on the famous Indian Taj Mahal.

During the Second World War, the mosque was heavily damaged, but subsequently carefully restored. In 2007, the building was temporarily closed due to the lack of funding and staff. The mosque has been reopened on a regular basis since 2010.

Schaubühne Theatre (Schaubühne)

Schaubühne Theatre (Schaubühne)
Mo Photography Berlin / Shutterstock

Berlin's Schaubühne Theatre is considered a young theatre with provocative performances, a modern reading of the classics and a combination of politics and art. The theatre gained worldwide fame and recognition thanks to the director Peter Stein’s performances, which had been staged here since the late 1970s. It is believed that Stein has created a “new theatre” with actors who participated in the selection of repertoire and the creation of performances.

The theatre style is experimental performances of classical works. Stein worked carefully with the original text of the plays, while creating a modern psychological drama. Among his main performances were Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”, Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

The new director Thomas Ostermeier pays more attention to the work of young German playwrights than to the “golden classics.” The theatre’s repertoire focuses on the acute social problems of the Germans; political topics are also brought into the picture.

The theatre building itself is a converted Universum cinema, originally built by Erich Mendelssohn in 1928. It was one of the first modernist cinemas in the world. In 1981, the interiors of the theatre were completely changed and the theatre hall was redesigned so that nothing was separating the audience from the actors.

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