Neukölln, although ever-gentrifying, is still one of the grittier districts of Berlin. Discarded furniture lines the streets, graffiti lines the walls, and when walking down the uneven pavements you always have to keep one eye on the ground, because for some reason, people in this bezirk seem incapable of picking up dog excrement. When the urban chaos gets too much a retreat to nature seems like the obvious remedy, and Comenius Garten, in this very district, fits the bill perfectly.
You know those disaster movies where the protagonists are in the eye of the storm, and everything is calm and quiet whilst cows and barns fly around in the distance? Comenius Garten is kind of like that. A quiet oasis, where the hustle and bustle of city life constantly swirls around but never penetrates.
Rixdorf, home of Comenius Garten
Rixdorf, the area of Neukölln centered on Richardplatz, was once a village in its own right before it was swallowed up by the city of Berlin. Although people had lived in this area since the 14th century, it was in 1737 that the village of Böhmisch-Rixdorf was officially founded. Protestants were suffering from Catholic persecution in Bohemia, and so many made their way to safer countries. It was during this time that hundreds were invited to settle here by the King of Prussia, Frederick William I. And so Rixdorf was born.
Today, the area still possesses a village-like charm, with beautiful historic buildings and a peaceful atmosphere, despite it being so close to the hectic Karl Marx Straße. It’s here on Richardstraße that you find a gate, and once you step inside you’re in Neukölln’s luscious little paradise — a quaint garden full of all kinds of wild grasses, flowers, and fruit trees.
The origins of Comenius Garten
The 12,000 m² space that the garden now occupies was once Richardsburg, an area of mixed housing that was built in 1905 and demolished in 1971. After a few years, a proposal for what to do with the area was finally accepted, and plans for the garden began to be drawn up in the early 80s. The park’s namesake, John Amos Comenius, was a Bohemian philosopher and theologian from the 17th century whose work helped to shape modern education across Europe, particularly in Sweden where he sought refuge.
As well as producing the first illustrated textbook for children, his ideas on education revolved around learning through play, objects, pictures, and the world of nature itself. Typical teaching of the time was focused on learning latin and reading books, and so his ideas were somewhat radical. It was these philosophies of Comenius that inspired the concept behind the garden.
The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree. – Comenius
The garden forms part of a tour, of the life cycle of man. A walnut tree at nearby Karl Marx Platz represents the beginning of life: an adjacent graveyard (Böhmischer Gottesacker) represents death. In between, the garden takes you through a journey along the different phases of learning throughout life, based on the ideas of Comenius. The medicine garden, for example, represents knowledge gained for the survival of the individual and the community.
The proposal was the brainchild of Henning Vierck, a local resident and a man who to this day still takes care of the garden. Often you can see his tall, elderly frame among the flowers and trees as he keeps the garden in shape, as well as scolding anyone who should break the modest rules (such as not drinking alcohol or walking through the delicate, knee-high wild grasses).
Tranquility in the heart of Neukölln
Of course, you don’t have to have any understanding of the garden’s concept to appreciate it. People enjoy it in many different ways. Some laze across the grass basking in the summer sun, couples embrace in the gazebo, others walk around and enjoy the sights and smells of the flora, and there are those that come to pick apples, pears, or plums from the many fruit trees that line the pathways.
Gaining entrance to this idyllic sanctuary comes at a slight cost though, should you not be forewarned. The first time I visited I stood around for five minutes looking confused as I tried to open the gate, only for a young mother inside to approach and show me, with a slight look of pity on her face, that there’s a tiny silver button on the inside of the gate. It’s supposed to be a secret, but I’ll save you from sharing my embarrassment. Comenius was all about educating after all.
Words and photos by James Fancourt.