The Bohemian Quarter – a chapter of Czech history in the heart of Berlin

Rixdorf, photo: Bohemian Museum in Rixdorf

In the heart of Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood is Rixdorf, an area that is also known as the Bohemian Village. The settlement originated in the first half of the 18th century, under the auspices of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I., who welcomed Bohemian Protestant refugees into his empire. In the Habsburg Empire, they had been banned from exercising their faith. We recently visited this fascinating area of Berlin and talked to Cordelia Polinna,, the director of the Bohemian Museum, which is devoted to the history of this neighborhood.

Rixdorf,  photo: Bohemian Museum in Rixdorf
Few areas of Berlin are as heavily impacted by immigration as Neukölln, a neighborhood dominated by Turkish fast-food stands and Arabic grocery stores, with residents of this one Berlin district hailing from about 160 different countries. But immigration to this area is not just a recent phenomenon: In fact, it started some 275 years ago, when a group of Bohemian Protestants arrived here. They came to what was then just a small village outside of Berlin because they had been banned from exercising their faith in the Habsburg Empire. Today, the Bohemian Museum in Rixdorf traces the journey of these immigrants, as well as the heyday of the Bohemian Quarter. Its director is Cordelia Polinna, who explains how these religious refugees ended up in Prussia.

“After the 30-years-war, which ended in 1648, it was really important for the kings who were ruling at the time to repopulate the countryside, because it was depopulated, a lot of villages had ceased to exist and there was not a lot of trade, for example.

Rixdorf,  photo: jkb,  CC 3.0 license
“So the kings conceived this idea to invite refugees from all over Europe, for example the Huguenots, the Salzburger, the Pfälzer, and among them also the Bohemians and the Moravians, to come to Berlin and the areas surrounding it in order to found new villages. They were given building materials to construct houses and a set of animals, two horses and two cows, and a set of farming tools, so that they would be able to start working on the soil and establishing a livelihood.”

Of course, the freedom of being able to exercise their Protestant faith was one of the main draws for these refugees to establish residence in Prussia. In addition, they were freed of certain taxes and did not have to serve in the military, an important factor for many devout believers who refused to go to war because of their faith.

Quickly, the Rixdorf area became a prosperous one. The Bohemians, who arrived here in 1737, worked as farmers and weavers. Most of them hailed from a small village in East Bohemia near Ustí nad Orlicí. Soon, the village started to grow and blossom. A church and a cemetery were built, and in 1753, a school opened its gates in the Bohemian quarter. However, the architecture did not resemble that of the refugees’ native region, a fact that puzzles historians to this day.

Rixdorf,  photo: Bohemian Museum in Rixdorf
“That is very strange, we have been trying to research that and have not been able to clear that up. It is definitely not what the villages in Bohemia look like. Because those people who can trace their ancestors back to Bohemia, know the houses there and they are very different from the ones that have been built here in Berlin. The housing structure was quite elaborate and interesting. Nine houses were erected, split into two parts, so that two families could live in each house, side by side. The big walls faced each other to save energy and create courtyards. That was a very interesting and regular building structure, and it looks very much like a planned village.

“So nobody really knows how that came about. It may have been the same architect who was behind the expansion in Südliche Friedrichsstadt, a very Baroque expansion, who drew the plans for the village. We don’t think it was the Bohemians themselves, for that, it was too planned and too constructed. And we also are not sure how exactly this arrival happened. We know that they came here as a big group, around 350 refugees. And they must have camped somewhere in the meantime. Some of them were taken in by other families for some months while these buildings were erected. So the exact process of their arrival is hard to trace.”

Rixdorf Cemetery,  photo: jkb,  CC 3.0 license
Once the Bohemians had established their own village, the role of faith quickly became central to the community. Today, the Bohemian Museum displays a lot of religious costumes and pictures from the early days. Cordelia Pollina showed me around the exhibition room at my recent visit to the museum.

“The Bohemian Village here in Rixdorf back then was a center of Czech people in Prussia. This area really became an area important for book printing, in the Czech language. We have here some old bibles and hymn books, which were printed in Germany, in Czech, for Protestant churches in Bohemia and Moravia, because at that time, it was forbidden for Protestants to print their own bibles. And that is why some of these bibles are very small, they were designed that way so that it was easier to smuggle them back to Moravia and Bohemia. So we have a number of those historic books. Berlin at the time was a center of Czech printing at the time.”

That is fascinating. And I see here in this display case, you have some traditional costumes. Now who would have worn those?

Rixdorf,  photo: Bohemian Museum in Rixdorf
“The Czech people who came to Berlin were heavily influenced by the Moravian Church, the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde, which was founded by Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a nobleman who had been brought up in the traditions of Pietism. And it was also one of the first places where they took a break from their escape and then later on, they moved on to Berlin. This church was a very pietistic one, almost comparable to the Calvinistic tradition. Zinzendorf believed that people should be dressed equal in front of God. That no one should wear fancy hats or clothes during the service. And so he created this traditional dress code.

“Long black dresses for the women, and special aprons or shoulder scarves for more festive occasions. Another special element is the headdress, the so-called Haube, a small kind of hat, that had ribbons in different colors which indicate whether the woman was married, a widow or still to be had.”

So religion was a key factor in this community?

Rixdorf,  photo: jkb,  CC 3.0 license
“Definitely. Religion was very important, the Pietistic tradition was very important. It was forbidden to go to big dance parties, to gamble, to drink alcohol. Although Neukölln at the time was a center of leisure, a place for the working classes to go and enjoy themselves and drink beer, which was brewed in the many nearby breweries. There were a lot of brothels and prostitution but the Bohemian Village really distanced itself from that.”

While in those days, the Bohemian Village was an actual village outside of the big city, Berlin has expanded since, so that to visitors today, the rural-looking cobble streets of Rixdorf, with their expansive houses and barns, look quite odd considering the bustling city streets are just a stone’s throw away. Does the Czech heritage continue to play a role here?

“For some people, especially the descendants of the Bohemians, it is very important to keep the Czech heritage alive and remember it. We as a museum also do try to do that. We have the Comenius Garden next to the museum, a very nice little park that commemorates Jan Comenius, and Ustí nad Orlici is our twin city. So there are a lot of people that keep the tradition alive.

“We also have a Christmas market, and Czechs come here to sell crafts. So I think there is quite an intense exchange and we want to pass that on to the next generation, especially now that the Cold War is over and it is much easier to meet up. So we want to keep the Czech heritage alive even into the younger generations.”

For those interested in learning more about the Bohemian heritage of the German capital, a visit to the Bohemian Museum in Neukölln is highly recommended.