It’s already August, the last month of Germany’s €9 ticket. Time to make a trip outside of Berlin, perhaps one of the last ones this summer. With 29 degrees in the forecast I packed my cap, sunscreen and sunglasses. I added my lunch and a book and took a train to the Beelitz Heilstätten, about 45 minutes outside of Berlin.
The Heilstätten was a huge sanatorium, mainly for people with tuberculosis. It was built at the end of the 19th century, in a time where Berlin was going through industrialization and attracted many people from the countryside. Hygiene was poor, with dozens of people living on the same floor and sharing a bathroom. It was the perfect place for TB to spread. So all over Germany these sanatoriums started to appear, particularly in places like the Alps, with good air quality. Beelitz was chosen as a site closer to Berlin. The complex became one of the biggest in the world at the time and could accommodate hundreds of sick Berliners.
It was opened in the early 1900s and grew into a sanatorium with 4 quadrants: non-contagious men, non-contagious women, men with TB and women with TB. It was a state-of-the-art facility, which started with a well thought-through architecture. Nurses and doctors were advising the architect so that the building would be optimal for patient care and recovery. Rooms were facing south to use the sun’s healing power. Any corners were round, so that dust wouldn’t collect on any edges. Even the heaters were hinged so that you could move them away from the wall to clean behind them.
Patients would come to the Heilstätten for months at a time. TB couldn’t be cured, so it was mostly about getting the poor workers ready to go back to work. They would arrive malnourished, so they were fed proper meals with meat and vegetables to help build up their immune system. They got a nice room and were meant to recover in the sun and breath in the fresh air. It was a different world compared to the harsh worker life in Berlin. But at that time the treatments were pretty experimental.
The complex had a big surgery building. One treatment was to have the lower rib and part of the lung removed. For some people it brought some relief or a few more years. But not all operations were a success. As our guide said: “It wasn’t a success for the patient, but the doctors learned from it.” In the second world war the complex became a military hospital and was later taken over by the Soviets, who were there until the 90s. But once the Soviets left, the buildings fell into disrepair. Parties were organized, graffiti was sprayed and people stole any valuable materials they could take. So now the buildings are overgrown and falling apart.
The section that housed women with TB has now been turned into a park and there are guided tours through some of the buildings. They are making an effort to preserve the buildings, fixing the roofs and outer walls. Inside, history and sometimes nature prevails. I booked a tour through the old surgery department. I was surprised by the sheer size of the building. It was partially covered in scaffolding and in front of it bushes, flowers and trees had started growing. The paint was coming off the walls and the windows had no glass, or even no frames. But just like in the old days, there were colorful flowers hanging off the veranda’s railing, in stark contrast with the destruction just behind.
Equipped with a hardhat we went inside. Our guide shared so much about the history in the one hour tour and along the way we could take pictures. We only covered the ground floor, but there was plenty to learn. This building actually housed men on one side and women on the other. The tiles on the walls had different colors to make it appealing to them. In the middle there used to be a big elevator that could fit the hospital beds. Much of the hallway still had the original floor tiles, that were made in such a way that they were easy to clean and keep hygienic. Coincidentally that meant they were hard to steal without completely ruining them. Hence they are still there.
Wherever we walked they had cleaned the path, but in adjacent rooms or pushed up against the walls lay piles of rubble. Some rooms still had some basic furniture, like a wash basin or a cabinet. In the operating rooms you could still see a steel beam hanging from the ceiling and leftovers from the heating system. The pictures of the old days our guide had brought made the place come to life a bit more. The grand finale of the tour was in the bath house. It was round with a domed roof and turquoise tiles. It used to have a few bath tubs lined up, but now it’s empty and there are some traces of graffiti on the walls. It’s strange to stand there and think that very sick people came here, enduring basic procedures with only local anesthetics. Doctors and nurses lived here among all these infectious patients. And then in the 90s people came here for raves, drinking and dancing.
After the tour I make my way to the trees. They’ve built a big viewing tower and walkways through the trees at a height between 14 and 21 meters. From the walkways and platforms you get great views of the abandoned buildings. The Alpenhaus has trees covering its roof and the walkway goes right on top of it. Through the windows you can see graffiti. It is possible to visit this building on a tour too, but I’ll leave that for another time. For now I follow the walkway and enjoy the views. I don’t need my sunscreen, hat and sunglasses though. There is a thick layer of clouds and right when I’m enjoying my lunch, high up in the trees, it starts to rain. It wasn’t much and the temperature was still perfect. I enjoyed the fresh air of the former sanatorium. After all, it’s what people used to come here for.