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Writers’ retreats: Discover Berlin’s literary history

The Brandenburg countryside has long been an escape for the Berlin literati. Follow the footsteps of four major figures in these three-day trips.

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Brecht and Weigel’s “Iron Villa” got its name from the iron grilles over its windows, installed when the house was rebuilt after a fire in 1909. Photo courtesy of www.prinzmediaconcept.de

Brecht and Weigel’s Buckow

If there’s a word that is used to describe Helene Weigel more than any other, it’s “matriarch”. Bertolt Brecht’s second wife wasn’t just a motherly presence at home, where she took care of two children and cooked legendarily delicious suppers, but onstage – in the title roles of The Mother and Mother Courage and Her Children – and, after Brecht’s 1956 death, as the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble. And her domain, more than the house in Mitte where the couple lived most of the year, was their summer home in Buckow: the “Iron Villa”.

You’ll get a beautifully untouched insight into how East Berlin’s power couple lived out their summers

The two purchased the property, named for the distinctive iron grilles over its windows, in 1952, after they’d returned to Germany from their Nazi-imposed US exile and re-established the Berliner Ensemble in the GDR. Surrounded by fir trees, perched on the deep blue Scharmutzelsee in the heart of the hilly Märkische Schweiz (“Brandenburg Switzerland”) region, it would’ve been an ideal getaway from what Brecht called the Gummimensch of the big city – those who become warped due to the absence of nature. In this “sphere of isolation”, he wrote his last works, including Turandot and Buckower Elegies. But the Brecht-Weigels also had an open-door policy, welcoming friends and colleagues for meals and staff meetings. This was where “Helli” shone, up until her death in 1971.

It is to Weigel that most of today’s Brecht-Weigel-Haus museum and memorial is dedicated. Sketched portraits of her, taken from Brecht’s diaries, line the hallways, capturing a warm and inviting soul. In the heart of the house, the dining room, a photo hangs over the original table showing Weigel holding court among 10 fellow Berliner Ensemble members, among them actor Ernst Busch and film writer Manfred Wekwerth. Weigel held her staff meetings here, and it is clear even without the photograph that this woman had clout. The tremendous amount of sunlight that filters through the firs and studio window looks just as calm in the photo as it does now.

Just through a garden dotted with George Roch sculptures is a permanent exhibit dedicated to 1949’s Mother Courage. The ceiling is decorated with promotional posters from various international productions of the play, giving testimony to the greatness of East Germany’s favourite stage actress in myriad languages. The message is the same for each: Helene Weigel will be on stage; don’t miss it!

If you’re looking for concrete historical information on either Brecht or Weigel, you’re better off checking out the museum on Chausseestraße (the couple’s regular residence), because you won’t find it here in Buckow. Instead you’ll get a beautifully untouched insight into how East Berlin’s power couple lived out their summers, which is certainly captivating in its own right. Those craving more Brecht should definitely pop into Antiquariat on Wriezener Straße, which offers low-priced used books from local authors and a few shelves’ worth of Brecht’s works. You might even be able to find a rare collection of Helli’s recipes or letters. Either way, the views of Buckow alone will make your trip worthwhile.

  • Address Bertolt-Brecht-Str. 30, Buckow. Website.
  • Hours Mon-Fri 13-17, Sat-Sun 13-18.
  • From Berlin Take the RB26 from Lichtenberg (on S-Bahn line 5/7/75) about 45 minutes to Müncheberg Bahnhof, then bus 928 to the centre of Buckow.

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The Kurt Tucholsky Literaturmuseum is housed on the grounds of the picturesque Schloss Rheinsberg.

Tucholsky’s Rheinsberg

Before embarking on a career of scathing journalism and satire during the Weimar era, Kurt Tucholsky published the 1912 novel Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers. Inspired by a romantic trip the Moabit-born author took to Rheinsberg with his girlfriend in his early twenties, the youthful story of two unwed lovers indulging in sex over a long weekend starkly contrasted the bourgeois conservatism of the time, and it immediately gripped audiences.

Another object you’ll find is Tucholsky’s hulking wood desk, where the author wrote 10 books and more than 3000 articles

You can visit the sleepy Brandenburg municipality that the author conjured in his novel in just two hours of finicky train rides from Berlin. Even though Tucholsky never returned to Rheinsberg, the town is proud to be the setting of his first book and houses a Literaturmuseum honouring the Jewish writer’s life – both his passionate efforts to warn audiences about the rise of the Nazi regime, and the endless layers and personalities he showcased by writing under multiple pseudonyms. As Peter Panter, he was a meticulous critic. As Theobald Tiger, he was poetic. And perhaps most famously, as Kasper Hauser, he was melancholic and philosophical.

Located next to the sprawling grounds and gardens of Schloss Rheinsberg, a 16th-century chateau designed by Prussian king Frederick the Great and restored exhaustively by the GDR after WWII, the little Tucholsky sanctuary doesn’t seem like much at first: tidy and sparse with three rooms that boast the author’s letters, drafts and photographs.

But the ephemera is surprisingly intimate. For €4, you can read letters from the Berliner’s early days living in Paris and inspect multiple copies of Die Weltbühne, the celebrated Weimar leftist political magazine that Tucholsky edited for a short time. As you peruse notes Tucholsky sent to his successor, Carl von Ossietzky, the handheld audio guide (available in English) informs you of Ossietzky’s later imprisonment by the Nazis for treason, and the author’s regret that he couldn’t be at his friend’s trial to defend him.

Old vinyl records represent the lighter side of Tucholsky’s career, when he arranged some of the Weimar Republic’s well-known cabarets and chansons, and the museum even has a first-edition copy of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, a social critique Tucholsky produced with Dadaist graphic designer John Heartfield.

Another object you’ll find is Tucholsky’s hulking wood desk, where the author wrote 10 books and more than 3000 articles. He abandoned it around 1930, when he resigned as both an author and a German. The rise of Adolf Hitler was imminent and Tucholsky felt his efforts to alert audiences had been complete failures. He renounced his country, writing: “I suppose I need not tell you that our world in Germany has ceased to exist, so I’ll just shut up for the moment.”

Tucholsky lived his dejected final years in Sweden before overdosing on pills at age 45. Just before his death, he would communicate the extent of his disillusionment. “If I could die now, I would say, ‘That was it?’ And, ‘I didn’t really understand it.’ And, ‘It was a little loud.’” He suggested his epitaph himself: “Here rests a golden heart and an iron snout. Good night!”

It’s a sombre trip, but informative and rooted in the author’s reality. A stroll on Rheinsberg’s Kurt-Tucholsky-Straße likely won’t cheer you up. You’ll find the shell of what used to be Tucholsky Café; it shut down recently. Luckily, there is Café Claire, named after the lead female character in Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers. Eat your sorrows away here with snacks and slices of cake.

  • Address Mühlenstr. 1, Rheinsberg. Website.
  • Hours Tue-Sun, 10-17:30. Closed Monday.
  • From Berlin Take the RE5 from Berlin Gesundbrunnen to Löwenberg (Mark) Bahnhof and transfer to the R54 to Rheinsberg Bahnhof. The museum is an 11-minute walk from the station. Be warned, the R54 only runs every two hours and stops between 12:45-3:45pm.

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The pharmacy owned by Theodor Fontane’s parents is still around and in use today.

Theodor Fontane’s Neuruppin

Theodor Fontane, the beloved German writer, was born on Neuruppin’s main street in 1819.

If you’re thinking, “And who the hell is Fontane?”, worry not.

On his travels through Brandenburg, Fontane documented everything he saw in close detail

Though Effi Briest (a tale of adultery referred to as the “German Madame Bovary”) met international success both in book form and as a film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the bulk of the Prussian author’s work still awaits English translation. Ironically, Fontane spent many years as a correspondent in London and wrote several books about Britain. In fact, English history and landscape were his first fascination, before he returned to Neuruppin to write Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Ramblings through Brandenburg), a multivolume work about the history, people and beauty of his home province.

On his travels through Brandenburg, Fontane documented everything he saw in close detail – almost 100 pages are devoted to Neuruppin. He originally published his writings in instalments in Prussian newspapers, but later compiled the series into five volumes, cementing his place as a master of poetic realism and one of the most important German writers of the 19th century. Visiting the little town on the shores of the Ruppiner See may be the best way to access his thoughts without understanding his native language.

Sit under the shade of a statue, built in 1907, of the writer sitting pen in hand, looking out towards Brandenburg

Settled after the 30 Years’ War by French Hugenot refugees, including Fontane’s ancestors, Neuruppin became a Prussian garrison in 1688. After a fire in 1787 destroyed most of the town, leaving only its eastern and western outskirts – “as if from a round bread, the two edges left”, described Fontane – it was rebuilt in the neo-classical style.

As you step off the train onto the cobbled streets, the charm of the place seeps in slowly. You can walk by the Gymnasium Fontane attended, visit his father’s still-functioning pharmacy, and sit under the shade of a statue, built in 1907, of the writer sitting pen in hand, looking out towards Brandenburg.

The influence of Fontane’s words is still felt today. Just ask Austrian filmmaker Bernhard Sallmann, who decided to move to Berlin 28 years ago after reading Fontane as a young man. “I was very impressed by his descriptions about the landscape,” he said. He’s now working on a four-part film series based on the Wanderungen books. Sallman recommends that after walking down the town’s main street, you “walk along the Ruppiner See, leave the city and move into a beautiful landscape full of lakes.” If you hike or cycle for 10km, you will arrive at Wustrau – another charming village featured in Fontane’s work.

If you’re not up for the journey, settle down by the water with a notebook and immerse yourself in the simple pleasure of looking out across the water, feeling the breeze on your face. “A piece of bread … is poetry,” Fontane wrote, and as you enjoy a treat from a waterside café you might agree.

  • From Berlin Take the RE6 train from Henningsdorf, the northernmost station on S-Bahn line 25, to Neuruppin, Rheinsberger Tor Bahnhof.