This safe door used to secure the safe-deposit boxes in the basement of the Wertheim department store. Following the demolition of the war-damaged building located near the inner German border, the room behind the door remained unused for decades. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the building became the venue for the legendary techno club Tresor.
The safe door bears witness to the changes Berlin underwent over the course of a century. It was situated at a location which was paradigmatic for the city’s eventful history. From 1927 onwards the door protected the safe-deposit boxes in the basement of the Wertheim department store at Leipziger Straße 126a. The department store was not just the biggest of its kind but also one of the most magnificent in Europe.
After the National Socialists seized power, they put gradual pressure on the Jewish family who owned the store, who were ultimately forced to withdraw from the business. Georg Wertheim noted in his diary for 1 January 1937: “Withdrawal from the business. Company is pronounced German.” In order to prevent the firm from being confiscated, the head of Wertheim transferred his shares to his non-Jewish wife. The Wertheim company received an “Aryanized” name and was henceforth called AWAG: Allgemeine Warenhandels-Gesellschaft. The members of the Wertheim family went into exile, but not all of them survived: three family members were killed in Auschwitz.
The building complex was partially destroyed during Allied bombing raids in late January 1944, and in 1955 the ruins were finally demolished. What remained was the basement with its steel chamber. It lay unused for decades on the East Berlin side of the unoccupied border zone.
The next chapter in the history of this site took place after German reunification. In the “vacuum of responsibility” which existed at the time among public authorities, cultural professionals from West Berlin discovered the site. They awoke it from its long sleep and opened the city’s first techno club, called Tresor (which literally means a “safe”). The club was vital to the embryonic development of Berlin as a party capital with a lively underground techno scene, and it served as a second home for Detroit techno DJs and innovators of the genre such as Jeff Mills and Juan Atkins. In the years that followed, millions of young techno enthusiasts passed through this door in order to dive into another world.
The club was characterized by a very special atmosphere. Everything was dark, the smoke machine was in continual operation, the strobe lights pulsated. The music in Tresor shifted the boundaries of what anybody had hitherto known. In an interview, a clubber of the time reported: “In terms of its radicalism the techno that was played there was two degrees harder than punk. [...] It was about a feeling of ecstasy, the experience of letting everything go.” This music without lyrics brought together people with very different backgrounds. In the opinion of Dimitri Hegemann, the founder of Tresor, “Reunification actually took place on the dance floor”. He added, “For many people it was like a therapy without them actually knowing it. It was simply about coming to yourself, being with yourself and not being looked at stupidly.”
At the same time, the club with the safe door as its trademark also symbolized how free space was being used in a city that was in the midst of transformation, and how this led to the emergence of a vibrant cultural scene. The city was like a large playground which encouraged experimentation. Tresor was located as a club venue at the site until 2005, when it moved, along with its characteristic door and other fittings, to a new location in Köpenicker Straße (which is also in the central Mitte district).
The owner of Tresor, Dimitri Hegemann, has loaned the door to Stadtmuseum Berlin for the Berlin Exhibition in the Humboldt Forum. It can be seen there along with a number of the original safe-deposit boxes from the vault, situated between the rooms devoted to Free Space and Boundaries.
In future to be seen in the Berlin Exhibition on the first floor of the Humboldt Forum.
International experts, eye witnesses and representatives from the Humboldt Forum will be adressing questions in various conversations. They will weave exciting stories and histories from different cultures and epochs, current research results and personal experiences to create surprising and sometimes astounding narratives.
Doors – Locks – Safes
May 9, 2019, 7.30pm
The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights will be presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin.