The mysteries of Leinestrasse

The night of the US elections I stayed out until 7 at an election party in Neukölln, then had the now rare to me experience of taking the subway home at an hour when other people are already on their way to work after a full night’s sleep. The party was in what you could call the graveyard district of Neukölln – not in some figurative sense of lack of action, but because there are literally six cemeteries in the vicinity of the Leinestrasse U-Bahn station. When I walked to the train in the morning, feeling bleary-eyed but electorally triumphant, the foggy cemeteries lent a lovely quietness to the neighborhood, which seemed to hold wonders and mysteries. Two of them, to be specific: the Zauberkönig magic store and the Tunnelpfeifer in the U-Bahn.

The Zauberkönig (king of magic) is a shop on Hermannstrasse abutting the St. Thomas cemetery. It sells old-school practical joke items (I saw some plastic dog poo in the window), magicians’ supplies, fireworks, costumes and stage makeup. I was intrigued by its jam-packed window display and the sign claiming it’s existed since 1884, so I looked into its history. The story I found is a fascinating microcosm of twentieth-century Berlin.

In the late nineteenth century the Leichtmann sisters, a Jewish family from Vienna, ran Berlin’s original Zauberkönig – named after an even older magic shop in Vienna – on Friedrichstrasse across from the Varieté Wintergarten, a venue where many magicians performed. One of the sisters, Charlotte, married the Berlin magician Arthur Kroner, and the Kroners presided over the store in the early twentieth-century heyday of magic shows, when magicians were a staple of the Berlin cabaret scene. The Kroners even had a little stage in the shop where magicians could try out the goods. The Kroners lost the shop to Aryanization in 1938, then both committed suicide in 1943, shortly before they were to be deported to concentration camps. The Zauberkönig passed into the ownership of the Kroners’ gentile apprentice Regina Schmidt, who ran it through the war. As of 1952 Schmidt, a West Berliner, was no longer allowed to own a store in East Berlin, so she moved the Zauberkönig to its current location in Neukölln, where it claims to be the world’s only magic shop on the premises of a cemetery (some sort of church connections got Schmidt permission to do this). After Schmidt died in 1978 the shop passed on to Günter Klepke, a Berlin magician who’d learned his first magic tricks from GIs when he worked for the American occupiers after the war. The current owner, who took over just this year, is Klepke’s granddaughter.

Here is an amazing quote about the magician’s art from past owner Mona Schmidt: To perform magic you need to understand people. For example, the further south a magician travels, the tougher the crowds. People who are sitting in the heat are hard to trick. Children are also hard to trick. By the way, the more knowledge you accumulate, the less you’re able to see. The magician needs a knowledgeable audience. The more knowledge the spectators have acquired, the more they shut themselves off and stop looking, stop seeing. This is exactly what the magician needs. The best events I perform are the ones among doctoral students at the TU. Those people cannot see objects.

The Zauberkönig is not the only mystery of Leinestrasse. In the Leinestr. U-Bahn station there is a billboard (above) that alleges to announce the discovery of a mole-like whistling animal native to this particular subway stop, the Tunnelpfeifer, and to ask commuters’ help in documenting its existence. This message claims to be from a Tunnelpfeifer research team. The billboard had the intended effect on me – I was intrigued – but I was also wary of going to, thinking this might be a clever ploy to advertise some product. Happily, it is not. It seems to be a conceptual art project which gives an imagined animal form to a whistling sound that trains make approaching Leinestrasse. The website invites readers to post drawings of the Tunnelpfeifer creature or reports of their encounters with it. The picture at the top of this post is my favorite of the drawings submitted so far, eight-year-old Lena’s rendering of the Tunnelpfeifer. Is the animal wearing a red sweater? Does it have a goatee? And what are those curly lampposts lining the train tracks? It’s an intriguing place, Leinestrasse.

Click here for more (in German) about the early twentieth-century Jewish magicians of Berlin, here for more (also in German) about the history of the Zauberkönig.

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