Friday, May 04, 2007

Einstein's Garden

"Is this some kind of slum, or what are these little shacks at the outskirts of Frankfurt? Are people living there?"

That's what an American postdoc asked Stefan last week when discussing the best way to ride from downtown Frankfurt to the physics institute by bicycle. Along this route one passes many of these colonies.

During summertime some people may actually live there, but these huts and gardens are definitely not slums. They are allotment gardens, also Kleingärten (small gardens), or Schrebergärten, as they are called in German, after physician and social reformer Daniel Schreber.

The institution of these gardens goes back to the time of industrialisation. They were meant to improve the health of the working class in the expanding cities, and to allow them to grow their own food. The small gardens are now very typical for German cities, especially in crowded areas where many people live in apartment buildings, and where there is too little space for growing the own Marijuana potato supply.

Also Einstein had one when he lived in Berlin: It was in the "Kolonie Boxfelde" in Berlin-Spandau. He spent the summer of 1922 with his sons in the hut in the garden, which he called his "Spandau Castle". (It seems he was quite happy that his wife Else didn't like too much to stay there.)

But there is a caveat to the idyll of the garden... Most of these garden's colonies are subject to some kind of, well, group think. You know, they form their own sub-community and want everything to be clean and nice and pretty looking (Germans call that "Vereinsmeierei").

If one disturbs the good German cleanliness, say, by forgetting to water the plants while being busy with explaining the universe, or is just too lazy to remove the weeds while throwing dices with God, one will get in touch with the authorities soon. That's was happened to Einstein on September 12, 1922:

Note of the Bezirksamt Spandau to "Herrn Professor Einstein": Sie haben die Parzelle 2 am Burgunderweg in Boxfelde in Pacht. Dieselbe ist seit langer Zeit nicht bewirtschaftet, das Unkraut hat sich auf der ganzen Parzelle verbreitet und ist in die Höhe geschossen. Der Zaun is z.T. nicht in Ordnung, und die ganze Parzelle macht einen unschönen Eindruck. Wir müssen annehmen, daß Sie an der Pachtung dieser Parzelle kein Interesse mehr haben und werden dieselbe vom 1.Oktober 22 ab anderweitig verpachten, wenn uns bis zum 25.ds.Mts. ein anderweiser Bescheid nicht zugeht und bis zu diesem Zeitpunkt die Parzelle ausserdem nicht in Ordnung gebracht worden ist. Wir bitten Sie, für Beseitigung des gegenwärtigen Zustandes Sorge zu tragen und uns weitere Mitteilung zu machen. (Source: Einstein Archives, via Wochenendsiedlung und Wassersportvereinigung Bocksfelde e.V.)

Bezirksamt Spandau to "Herr Professor Einstein": You are presently leasing allotment 2 at the Burgunderweg in Boxfelde. Said allotment has not been managed since a long time, weeds have spread all over the whole parcel and have soared. The fence is not in order, and the whole allotment makes an unesthetic impression. We have to assume that you are no longer interested in leasing the parcel, and we will give it away to someone else, unless you object prior to the 25th of this month, and the allotment is put in order until that date. Please take care of the removal of this nuisance, and give us further notice.

This letter is even more typical German than the gardens themselves.

By the way, Einstein kept the deadline, but the Spandau Castle was never mentioned after this.

The story of Einstein's Spandau Castle can be found in Albrecht Fölsing's Albert Einstein: A Biography, page 554/555.



  1. Thanks for digging out that letter :-) I still have to grin about it. I could imagine exactly the same wording is used today. I once got a very similar letter about my storage room in the basement, telling me I should take care of it immediately. That was quite remarkable because my storage room was actually completely empty. (It turned out it was a mixup with my neighbor who had a fondness for collecting broken electronical devices.)

  2. and where there is a little space (plot of land) for growing their own Marjoram, Marijane or potato supply.

    lol Stefan, well getting the best yield from a small plot (space) is a science too.

  3. Uncle Al has three unused 20 gram seeds of Entada rheedii - "300 foot botanical boa constrictor twining through forest canopies with main stems more than a foot in diameter" Great flowers!

    If anybody lives where there is no winter (or has a big greenhouse)... Two seeds are sprouted and aimed at the local Homeowner's Association nostrils. The other three lack a good home. organiker (usual email symbol) lycos (it's a com).

  4. :) I think even if neatness wasn't an issue, the spread of weeds from a unattended lot would be a problem.

  5. As I was reading this post-

    My first thoughts were sentimental remembrances of the small community German gardens and my thinking, 4 years ago when I moved to Rome, that I hoped that the same kinds of gardens existed in Italy. I never found any though.

    By the end of your post, I realized that no, this type of a small community garden could never exist in Italy, and now I understand more of the reasons for that. :-)

  6. Hi All,

    After living 5 yrs in Vorpommern I have had my share of German bureaucracy.

    reliable, eficient and fair.
    The wording of the letter to Albert is very common, and i guess, the style havent changed a bit over a century.

    Bwt. having a German official face to face you can discover that they can actually be friendly and easygoing, their writing is much different though...

    Beamten sind auch nur Menschen..



  7. What a lovely concept! There are allotment gardens here in Victoria as well, but not nearly enough---there is a long waiting list-- finally an activity our species does that is not
    violent or disgusting ;)

  8. Hi Gordon,

    indeed :-) One of my friend's family applied for one of these garden's (in a suburb of Frankfurt) in the early 90ies. Back then, it took about 10 years to get to the top of the waiting list. I believe by now it's probably even longer. Most of the people who eventually get one are about retirement age. Best,


  9. Many thanks for the post on Einsteins' Garden. I am doing a little research into Shrebergartens in Breslau, Silesia ( Wroclaw, Poland now) from late 1920's onwards. Does anyone know if there were any in the then Breslau and/or anything about them? Having read "Einstein's Garden", it seems that it was the midddle-classes of the time who were actually able to take advanatge of these garden, and not the poor working classes - does anyone know if this true?
    Any info would be of great help.
    Many thanks,


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