Kinderheim Makarenko: The biggest children's home in the DDR

Filed 14/5/2015 | Updated 15/5/2015
The shrill sound of children’s cries has been replaced by the heavy clunk of builders’ boots. There were a few years of quiet solitude in between but those days are over now.
Kinderheim Makarenko was East Germany’s largest kids’ home, abandoned in 1998, outliving its country by eight years. The kids grew up, unlike their country, but Makarenko remains in their hearts to this day, even as it’s being converted to apartments…
“The home in which I was brought up is the largest children’s home in Europe,” wrote Ursula Burkowski in her book ‘Crying in the Dark,’ first published in 1992. “It’s in the south of the city of Berlin (East) in a forest, the Königsheide. The home is reached from the street, the Südostallee, through a wrought iron gate adorned with squirrels.”
The squirrels (squittels as I like to call them) are still there, adorning the gate, though that’s now guarded by one of those construction site fences you see all over Berlin. They brought down the Wall but they’ll never get rid of the fences. There were none when little Ursula arrived in the 1950s.
“The main path ends right in front of the school, directly across from the gate. Smaller paths branch left and right from the broad path to the dormitories.”
Apparently (according to press reports) kids were drilled, beaten and punished here. I don’t know. I only know how they were treated in Ireland by the authorities and it doesn’t bare thinking about. Maybe it wasn’t as bad in the DDR. Maybe it was.
What is certain though is that many kids were abandoned by their parents, hundreds or them, thousands even. There are no definitive numbers available but Welt am Sonntag reported in January 1991 that there were 17,500. It should be pointed out Die Welt is published by the staunchly anti-DDR Axel Springer group, so this number should be treated with suspicion.
The Kinderheim was named after Anton Makarenko, an educator and one of the founders of Soviet pedagogy. He died on April Fool’s Day in 1939, by which time his ideas had taken hold.
Kinderheim Makarenko was conceived as a sort of kids’ town with a babies and toddlers area, a school, sports facilities, outpatient clinic and accommodation. After opening on Nov. 30, 1953, it housed up to 134 kids by the end of that year. It could handle around 600 children at a time. By the time it closed it was also home to physically and mentally challenged children. Some 6,000 kids passed through its doors altogether. Kids from the age of 0 to 18 lived here without having any idea where they came from.
“Finally tell us who are parents are!” was a B.Z. headline from 2006.
“Most still don’t know how they ended up in the home, what happened to their parents,” Mario O. told the paper at the time. The children were rarely told the real reasons – fleeing to the West, detention, falling foul of the regime, whatever.
Mario O. was only told he was in there for malnutrition. “I can’t imagine that’s the real reason,” he said.
He hadn’t bad memories of his time at Kinderheim Makarenko, but recollection of long corridors, full rooms and anonymity.
“You didn’t have any personal belongings, not even your own closet, and sweets were stolen by the older ones,” he said. “We had to eat at midday, otherwise you’d be locked in your room. We had to clean every evening. The washroom, the toilets.”
But he still reckoned: “Altogether, I think we had it pretty good there.”
Kids these days set their bars a little higher I think. Certainly the kids who move into the new apartments with their parents will have higher expectations than their predecessors. Not that they’ll ever know…

What
Kinderheim Makarenko, the biggest kids’ home in the DDR, where some 6,000 East Germans grew up without ever knowing where they came from.

Where
Südostallee 134, 12487 Berlin.

How to get there
Get on yer bike and cycle there. The weather’s beautiful, you’ve no excuse. If you’re particularly lazy, or American, or just don’t have a bike you can get the S-Bahn to Schöneweide (S5, S9, S45, S42 and others) and just walk from the station. You’ll need to go under the bridge, along Sterndamm, turn right onto Südostallee and the Kinderheim will be on your left after you’ve walked a couple of minutes. Here’s a map so you don’t go wrong.

Getting in
Go around to the right of the site, along the forest trail and you’ll soon find a bit of the fence that isn’t as it once used to be. Get in through there, hike a bit through the trees and you’re in.

When to go
Soon! And probably best to go on a Sunday, when construction workers aren’t working there. They tend to get a bit ornery when disturbed by intrepid explorers as they’re pretending to work.

Difficulty rating
4/10 It’s very easy, but you do need to keep an eye out for the construction workers. I went May Day, the best day of the year for exploring anything – all builders are off, all the Polizei are in Kreuzberg – and so I had the place to myself. I suggest if you want to go that you go before the next May Day however. I don’t think it will still be explorable come next May.

Who to bring
Bring that girl or boy that you like. It’s good to share these experiences.

What to bring
Bring beer of course – there are no Spätis at Kinderheim Makarenko. Perhaps something to nibble on if you think you’ll want to be nibbling on something later on. Bring a camera if you want to take pictures, but to be honest it’s already too late to get the nice shots. I’m too late with this one, sorry.

Dangers
Angry builders. It’s the German ones you need to look out for.

Many thanks to Claudio De Sat for providing the top photo (all others are by the author), to Stefan for the tip and to Mark Rodden for being the guinea pig once again.

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5 comments

We were there last weekend and walked around the building for some time but we didn't go in because of the builders inside. The fence is open at some places.

Been there yesterday, sad to report that it is hardly worth a visit now as it's just a massive building site. Not many original features remain and all the buildings are gutted and the windows have been taken out, and in some cases new ones are already in. Even the lovely decorations on the outside of the buildings were barely visible because of all the scaffolding. It's a lovely plot and I am sure the 200+ homes they are building will be lovely... I'll post some pictures as soon as I download them (I am traveling at the moment). As always, thank you Spudnik for the precious tips.

I have tried to post some pictures from my visit, but I can't seem to be able to. I am happy to send you and you can publish them if you wish, thanks.

Was here today after a failing to get into the brewery, such bad luck, (also should have read the comments for d0ra), the whole place is a working building site with cars, vans, trucks and lots of builders everywhere, all the buildings are covered in scaffolding. There's even a big sign at the front with plans to re develop the whole area.

L.s.
I was there last week and it was completely rebuild. Also the signs from the Jung Pioniere has been restored. No exploring but great that this place is saved!

Greetings Panzerfaust

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