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Culture

Out of a Turbulent Past, New Hope

Hohenlychen Sanatorium's reputation as a leading health facility was sullied by Nazi war crimes. Now, the tiny east German town is hoping the crumbling complex can recapture its old allure - and profits.

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The legacy of the Russian Army is obvious in Hohenlychen

It is the perfect backdrop for a fairytale. Standing in a grove of beech trees, on the shore of a smooth, grey lake stands a large, half-timbered villa. Mist shrouds its blackened roof.

This building, which lies on the Zenssee in Hohenlychen, less than an hour’s drive from Berlin, has sunk into the mists of oblivion.

Ingo Lück leads the way through an iron gate, legacy of the Russian Army, decorated with a bright red star. The hobby historian and Hohenlychen enthusiast is one of the few locals to set foot here on a regular basis. Discarded by its last inhabitants, the Russian Army, and misused by the Nazis, locals tend to avoid this secluded spot in Brandenburg’s woods.

Beyond the gate, several large, greying buildings stand forlorn and dilapidated in the drizzling rain. Lück points out turrets, stained glass windows, arched doorways. They were designed, he explains, a century ago to please the children of affluent North Germans, and were made to look like small castles. What is left today of the former children’s sanatorium is a cluster of large villas, with crumbling turrets, bordered up bay windows and overgrown, unkempt gardens.

Even today, with its breathtaking view, historic flair, numerous glass fronts and huge balconies, the former sanatorium would make the perfect setting for a place to relax and recuperate. It would also bring a welcome boost to a depressed East German town facing 30 per cent unemployment.

Hohenlychen’s Mayor Evelyn Wienold sighs. "Lychen isn’t as chic as the Baltic seaside resorts" she says – referring to those former East German coastal towns newly renovated and still gleaming in fresh paint. "We just don’t have the cafes, the restaurants and the shops to attract visitors".

There was a time things were different.

From children’s home to top recuperation destination

Built by the Berlin Red Cross in 1902 as an alternative to sanatoriums in Switzerland for children suffering from tuberculosis, it soon evolved into a leading health and relaxation destination.

By the 1930s the "Märkische Interlaken" - the northern equivalent to the popular holiday resort in the Alps - had gained worldwide recognition.

"Jesse Owens, King George IV, Max Schmeling, the Japanese Emperor" all stayed at Hohenlychen, says Lück, listing the names as he treads his way across threadbare floorboards and broken tiles, his footsteps crunching on shattered glass.

"Those were the days when the sanatorium was Hohenlychen’s main bread-winner", he explains. The complex not only employed gardners, maids and nurses, its good reputation also supported the local hotel industry.

The sanatorium itself employed up to 400 people, about 400,000 in need of recuperation stayed in the tiny village at the best of times. "The sanatorium was a motor for trade in the area", Mayor Wienold says.

Trying to close a horrific chapter

By the mid 1930s, the sanatorium’s reputation began to change for the worse. With the 1936 Olympics in mind, top Nazi doctor Prof. Dr. Karl Gebhardt built up a new clinic for sport medicine at the sanatorium, complete with swimming pool, sports hall, arena and massage benches.

During his position as top doctor at the sanatorium, Gebhardt’s deputies conducted experiments using sulfanomid, a possible remedy to war injuries. The chosen guinea-pigs were mostly women, prisoners at the nearby Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück.

Their legs cut open and deliberately infected with bacteria, wood shavings and glass splitters, the men and women suffered indescribable pain and excruciating deaths. Furthermore, Gebhardt carried out more experiments in plastic surgery, such as the extraction of a prisoner’s shoulder-bone and replacing it in a young soldier’s body.

It is still contended whether some of these operations actually took place at Hohenlychen, which by then had an extraordinarily well-equipped operation room and the latest in medicinal technology. Gebhardt, later sentenced to death in Nuremberg, was said to have never performed experiments himself, transferring the responsibility to the doctors at Ravensbrück.

"Everyone immediately links Hohenlychen to Gebhardt’s experiments", Lück says, with resignation in his voice. "But the experiments themselves all took place at the concentration camp."

Opening a narrow door to to a former physiotherapy room, Lück explains how four time gold medalist Jesse Owens had a knee operation at the sanatorium during the 1936 Olympics. The fact that the black American was treated here is an important one for Lück and the rest of the village.

"We do not deny Gebhardt’s responsibility", he says. But it is the constant connection between the sanatorium and the makings of one treacherous doctor which is clearly regretted by the village.

A common, yet unique obstacle

"It is not the sanatorium’s past which discourages potential investors", Dr. Roland Schneider, monument protection commissioner at Brandenburg’s building ministry claims. The reasons he says, are manifold.

Hohenlychen is faced with a problem common to villages, towns and cities across eastern Germany: vacancy.

A shrinking economy, a rise in unemployment, plus an exodus of 1 million looking for better job opportunities and higher wages in the west since reunification, has led to a 13 per cent level of both urban, and rural vacancy in eastern Germany, including a large number of old buildings under monument protection.

Plattenbau in Ostdeutschland

As one million apartments in east German high-rise apartment blocks – the hallmark of the former GDR – stand empty, the state of vacant old buildings, such as the former sanatorium in Hohenlychen, easily fall short of public awareness.

As a result, getting public funding is no easy task. The sanatorium’s rural location makes it easy to get overlooked by programs such as "Rebuilding East" a 2 billion euro federal aid package that aims to revitalize former East German cities.

The sanatorium’s unique layout also poses a problem, concedes Schneider. It is almost impossible to find one investor to purchase the 10 buildings spread across 15 hectares of land. "We are therefore looking for several, separate investors," he says.

A ray of hope

Today, there is new hope for the small village and its troubled sanatorium. A southern German company has bought one of the larger buildings and plans to turn it into a home for the elderly later this year.

Though the company plans a tedious renovation of the building and its immediate surroundings, the other buildings remain an eyesore.

On the way out, Lück points to a small building, which Lück explains, was one of the very first. "Just look at the turrets, the timberwork, the stained glass – perfect for a child’s fairytale". As in a fairytale, the sanatorium has its own gruesome and chilling chapter. Still missing, however, is the happy end.