Perturbed penguins and a helpless hippo: The sorry tale of the Wernerbad

Filed 28/8/2014 |
He’s lonelier than the last dodo. Can’t take any more. Turned his back on the pool that turned its back on him. Now he waits and waits and waits some more. He’s waiting so long he turned to stone, his bored yawn frozen in time to petrified perpetual.
Knautschke’s been waiting since 2002, when his habitat was closed down for reasons he struggles to comprehend. Three desolate penguins bow their heads nearby. None of them can understand…
The authorities know better of course, they always do. Needless to say, they didn’t consider the wants and needs of a much-loved hippo or three polite penguins before they closed down the Freibad Wernersee.
They only thought of themselves. It just wasn’t good enough for them anymore. Too loud! Too dear! Not enough parking spaces! Bad public transport connections! It was good enough for the DDR and 1990s but not for much longer, not for the precious citizens of the confident new state. Suddenly, there were standards.
Traffic concerns, water quality concerns and concerns for nearby neighbors’ ears trumped those of the Wernerbad’s inhabitants or visitors. They’d been coming in their droves since 1905, when it became Berlin’s first outdoor swimming pool.
There was originally a small natural pond here, a so-called kettle hole formed by a retreating glacier. I assume the glacier had fully retreated by the time Wilhelm Werner, who bought the land in 1899, opened the Badeschlösschen, a bathing lodge with restaurant, beside the pond in 1901.
It was officially termed a swimming pool four years later. The city took it over in 1951 and expanded it to a 50-meter pool suitable for competition between 1957-59. The hippo and penguins were created by local sculptor Erwin Kobbert sometime between 1954-58, when he had a studio at the nearby Schloss Biesdorf.
The pool still gets its water naturally, from the ground, one of the reasons its continuing use is problematic for today’s fussy swimmers. A water treatment plant would have to be built at an estimated cost of around €10 million, not the kind of money most swimmers have knocking around in their trunks.
Not even the “Friends of the Wernerbad” have that kind of money and no investor is going to splash out on something unless they get their money back, and more. Unfortunately for Knautschke and his ilk, conservation doesn’t pay.
He’s swum his last swim. Local politicians decided last year that the Wernerbad’s sporting career is definitively over. Instead they plan on turning it into a complex for dementia patients with a restaurant and medical facilities. They should just move right in.
Knautschke was named after a famous hippo born in Berlin’s zoo in 1943, during the war that claimed his mother and plenty others’ too.
The original Knautschke fathered 35 calves (some of whom he also grandfathered) until he was injured so badly by his own son/grandson Nante during a family dispute that he had to be put down in 1988.
His namesake also faces an ignoble end. For now he languishes by the side of the pool and awaits his fate. He maintains stubborn watch without any real hope through his robotic right eye.
Tall reeds grow with impunity beside his gaping jaws and strange colorful birds with shock-blue tails flitter over the water. Goldfish frolic in the peaceful pool, while it seems foxes have made their homes in the easy-to-burrow sandy soil around it.
Lazy foxes. Then again, maybe they have the right idea. It’s quiet here and nature is happily reclaiming its old pond. There are worse places to be turned to stone.

Freibad Wernersee, more commonly known as the Wernerbad. Berlin’s oldest open-air swimming pool, now home to a lonely hippo, three perturbed penguins and some opportunistic wildlife.

Ridbacher Straße 44, Kaulsdorf, 12621 Berlin, Germany.

How to get there
I came from Kaulsdorf but it’s a shorter walk from S-Bahnhof Mahlsdorf, reachable on the S5 from Ostkreuz, Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstraße and even as far west as Spandau. Turn left coming out of the station, walk in a northerly direction until you come to a roundabout and take the second left onto Ridbacher Straße. Walk up until you come to the Wernerstraße crossroads, keep going a little bit more and the Wernerbad is on your right. Here’s a map to assist.

Getting in
Find the gate, any of them, and hop over. There’s nothing to it.

When to go
A nice sunny evening with an ice-cold beer in your backpack. Sit down at the edge of pool and raise your bottle to Knautschke.

Difficulty rating
2/10 Very easy to get onto the grounds as mentioned already. One of the buildings can be accessed through a hole in the door though I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort. Otherwise, the greatest hindrance is the time it takes to get here on an S-Bahn.

Who to bring
Bring your partner for a romantic evening beside the lake.

What to bring
Beer. Maybe a few biscuits.

I didn’t see any crocodiles but it’s best to avoid falling into the lake just in case. There were no stone crocodiles around so perhaps they’re still mobile. Otherwise the lakefront is clear.

Thanks to andBerlin for the tip! You can read what he wrote about the Wernerbad and see some lovely autumnal pictures of it here.
Wernerbad 8865271005099392595


A super set of photos and write up of a charming little location. I'm glad that concrete Knautschke is getting some visitors - I hope you didn't feed him though (Bitte die Tiere nicht füttern).

Did you notice the blue sign on the right side of Knautschke's ass? It says, this area is under video control. Then there is that strange silicon-fixed "eye", which might be a waterproof sort of presence detector. And there is a camara-like device on that sign in the water between hippo and shute. Anyhow, I've had some pleasant hours there and wasn't disturbed by anyone. Approching the hippo through the thicket of reed has been the only difficulty. The small tavern with its barred windows is closed.

That robotic eye is suspicious alright, though I imagine a normal CCTV camera would be a lot less expensive with the added benefit of its deterrent value. I also had some pleasant hours there with no disturbance whatsoever.

we have been there on the weekend and i think that it is wiser to go there during the week. some neighbours who had barbeque watched us and threatened to call the police. we went out and waited a bit and later came back. so during the week it should be more quiet. other than that we have meet a sprayer and two other explorers so it seems like the spot is getting more famous. it is beautiful to chill out for a while in the sun but the buildiungs are not worth going there. finding the path throught the reeds to go to the hippo is however really nice. an easy to reach and nice short time visit for sure if the weather is nice.

Went there Thursday 30 Oct around 2 pm. Really quiet area and although people saw us jump the fence from the road none seemed to bother. I saw the video sign too but couldn't see any cameras. We found a jungle gym made of ropes, with a sign dating 1998. Steady as new and we could sit on top of it and share a few Berliner Kindls. Nice, tranquil place.

That's the place I learned how to swimm long times ago as a school child. Thank you so mutch for the pictures, even it is sade to me to see all this now like it is in present.

No problem! Thanks for your comment! Did you have any old photos of the Wernerbad from your school days?
Viele Grüße

I hope you are writing a novel. I'd buy it. You're damn good, Spudnik! I look like a stalker now commenting on all your posts at once, but actually, I just discovered your blog and I am killing my shitty afternoon dreaming of going back home (Berlin) behind the bars of my horrid job in Paris. And your words perfectly carry that nostalgia. Danke schön

Thanks Manon! Appreciate the comments and the kind words. You know there are plenty of ruins in Paris too, right? But yeah, Berlin is special.

I was there a week ago, thanks for the tip. it was very nice. i met a few ducks and fought my way through the gras and trees to see knautschke. i gave him an apple and had a beer with him. very nice place, i even got into the old little cafe that was there.

We were there last week, the door on the backside was open. All is quiet and the plants are extremely high so that you can hardly see Knautschke, the concrete hippo.

We have launched a documentation for memory of a beautiful time in our childhood

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