In 41 years I have lived in 16 houses. And never once given thought to the people who were there before me. At least, not until I moved into my current home in Friedenau. Because one of the former residents was Rosa Luxemburg.
To my embarrassment, possibly shame, her significance passed me by for the first year or so. I’d noted the memorial in the street outside – a modest iron structure stood amid a bed of red rose bushes – but never taken the time to wonder who the woman in the black-and-white photograph was. Only when walking home with a German friend did her importance strike home.
‘Rosa Luxemburg lived here? Wow.’
His faced conveyed awe, admiration; so much so that, once inside, I asked my German wife who she was, why she meant so much. As I listened, new connections dawned: with the square that takes her name in Berlin’s city centre; with the memorial outside the zoo, marking the point where her body was thrown into the Landwehr canal, a hundred years ago this week.
Berlin is a city where you are unable to escape history. No trip to see the clear waters and huge skies at Wannsee can pass untainted, knowing what occurred in the houses on the opposite bank. Any walk around the Museumsinsel is now spent looking for the bullet holes that pock the building walls; once they’ve been pointed out, they’re impossible to overlook.
And this history is found everywhere. At the end of our street is a Schuttburg, one of Berlin’s rubble mountains that provide the few elevation points in this horizontal city. Outside our door, near Rosa Luxemburg’s memorial, are the Stolpersteine that silently remember two others who were taken from our house and murdered: Gertrud and Leo Friedländer.
None of these would have been in place when Rosa Luxemburg was here; nor would the swastika we found marked on the ceiling of our cellar, a painted reminder that the place you call home does not dictate your politics.
Every month or so, a tour party calls at our building, wanting to see the place where she lived. They carry that familiar look of awe and admiration that I now understand and share.
A good introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s life is Red Rosa.