European DeSpair, Day Two: Beelitz Blitz!

June 29, 2014

On the morning of June 29, 2014, Susanne and I arose and headed from Hamburg to Berlin to meet up with our encaustic photography friend Katsy. We had plans to spend the day shooting just one location, but we were running a bit late so there was no time to spare as we gathered up Katsy’s luggage, rearranged our bags like Tetris, and left the airport behind for an adventurous day. Early in our friendship Susanne told me about the first abandoned place that she had explored back in Germany, which was also the place closest to her heart. It was an old hospital called Beelitz that had been abandoned for many years. Hitler had stayed here when he was recovering from injuries during World War I. The way Susanne described it, I imagined dimly lit, creepy, cold cavernous rooms where the only sounds apart from your own breathing and heartbeat were an occasional drip or creaking as the wind blew against the long-shuttered windows. I imagined the hair standing up on the back of my neck while walking down the darkened hallways, thinking that maybe I just heard footsteps behind me, imagining that the shadow that appeared to just move was really the ghost of a German soldier, the uniform darting across the corner of my eye, always just out of view. In other words, I imagined it would be my idea of perfection. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t live up to the expectation. It might have if we had spent the extra few hundred euros to purchase a private tour for the three of us. However, we went the thrifty route and purchased admission to attend a much cheaper event with many other tourists. Oh, so many tourists. They were everywhere. Walking in front of your camera just as you were preparing to take a shot, taking forever to take their own shot (I’m looking at YOU, HDR people!) when you were politely waiting to walk down the hallway to another room, laughing and joking with their friends and completely destroying that somber mood you were trying to harness, forcing you to take a lesser angle in a room because you can’t wait forever for them to quit hogging the ideal angle in the center, etc. Yes, dammit – selfish people taking pictures of things that I want to take pictures of! And worst of all, WHEN I want to take pictures of them!  They put me in a rotten mood from the beginning. And then there was my equipment, which mocked me and toyed with me all day. My new tripod with its ridiculously designed plate that requires a coin or a screwdriver to secure onto the camera and kept coming loose on me all day; my new wide-angle lens, which was having auto-focus issues; and my own learning curve in trying to get used to the tripod and lens. Why I didn’t try them out earlier? Well, I was too busy having fun all summer with my (I think now ex) girlfriend to get out and do any photography. And I paid for it with a less-than-stellar day of image-making. Lousy attitude, lousy photographs. I think those two go hand in hand.  (Okay, looking at the photos again, they aren't lousy... they just could have been better.) The location, however, was indeed incredibly beautiful. Not all of the buildings were open for tours and we didn't have time to cover everything, but what we saw was gorgeous.  I’d love to go back again with a better attitude, but I'll just have to be grateful with the photos I took and with the time I got to spend inside this historic space. So I suppose I should probably tell you about it? Beelitz-Heilstätten is a vast complex of 60 buildings on 140 acres which was originally opened by the National Insurance Institute of Berlin as a 600-bed tuberculosis sanatorium in 1902, and it continued to be expanded for many years. One of the primary treatments for tuberculosis at the time was rest in pure mountain air, so Beelitz seemed the perfect location – close enough to Berlin to be convenient, but far enough to be out of that dirty city air. Eventually, the complex turned into its own little village, with apartment buildings for the workers, church, post office, butcher shop, bakery, restaurant, and an enormous power station.

Young Adolf. during his Tom Selleck phase.

Shortly after the beginning of World War I, on August 3, 1914, all the transportable patients were kicked out of (okay, “discharged from”) the sanatorium and it was turned into a hospital for the German military. And in October 1916, who should come and stay here but a corporal named Adolf Hitler who had been injured in the thigh by an accidentally exploding shell. He spent two months at Beelitz and here’s how he described the place in Mein Kampf: "What a change! From the mud of the Battle of the Somme into the white beds of this miraculous building! In the beginning we hardly dared to lie in them properly. Only gradually could we reaccustom ourselves to this new world." In 1920, the hospital was re-opened as a sanatorium. During World War II, several buildings were bombed by Allied forces, and after the war, it fell on the eastern side of the dibs and was used as Soviet military hospital from 1945 until 1995. Interestingly, another dictator, GDR leader Erich Honecker, also stayed at Beelitz to receive treatment for liver cancer in 1990, before fleeing to Russia to escape prosecution. The hospital stayed open for limited use until 2000 when it was completely abandoned. But hey, morbid sightseers – there are even creepier stories about Beelitz than Hitler and Honecker! Between 1989-1991, a serial killer haunted the Beelitz forest who came to be known as “The Beast of Beelitz” or “The Pink Giant” – named after his habit of using pink lingerie to strangle or gag the women and then laying it across their corpses. He killed five women in total, but perhaps his most horrific crime was when he ambushed a woman pushing her baby in a stroller through the woods near the hospital where her husband was working, snatched the three-month only baby out of its stroller and smashed it to death against a tree in front of the horrified woman. He then gagged the mother with a bra and strangled her to death. Eventually, the “beast” was revealed to be another Tom Selleck lookalike named Wolfgang Schmidt who was sentenced to 15 years detention in a psychiatric ward. (Fun Fact: In Germany, 15 years is the maximum sentence. That doesn’t mean they will let someone like Wolfgang out in 15 years, but it does mean that every 15 years they automatically review the sentence to see if the prisoner should be released or sentenced to another 15 years. Wolfgang ain’t getting out. Oh, and another fun fact: since 2001 he’s undergone hormone treatment for gender reassignment and is now known as Beate. And he wants to have a sex change but hasn’t gotten approval and he said, “The others are nasty to me they say I could get a fat ass. That hurts. Then I have to cry. I cry a lot now, it helps me….” Oh, you poor little thing. Our hearts BLEED for you. But I digress…) Oh, one more morbid thing before I get to the pictures! In 2009, a photographer lured a goth girl out to Beelitz for a special photo shoot. You know what your Mom always said about going out into the middle of an abandoned hospital in the middle of the woods with strangers? (Okay, in this case it was actually in an apartment in the gatehouse of the abandoned hospital complex, but that doesn’t sound as creepy.) Well, Mom was right! He ended up beating the model with a frying pan, strangling her, and then having sex with her corpse. Here’s the poor Google translation of the intro to the German article: “He was regarded as a model scientist, was a successful researcher who dealt with long-lost worlds. But Michael F. led a double-life – his morbid hobby became a young woman finally undoing. He is murdered they have desecrated the corpse.” I have absolutely no idea what that last line means – as he still seems to be living – but hey… coming to Lifetime soon! Alright, enough of my blabbing, let’s get to the photos!  (Tour information is at the bottom of the post - but if you want to go, go NOW!  Tours may be ending in 2015.) If you'd like to take your own photo tour of Beelitz-Heilstätten, you'd better book it soon!  Renovation plans are afoot and tours will probably end in 2015.  You can book a tour at the official website: Beelitz-Heilstätten

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