The Treehouse on the Berlin Wall: A Symbol of Resilience and Hope

Baumhaus an der Mauer (Treehouse on the Wall): Bethaniendamm 23, 10997 Berlin
Image credit: secretcitytravel.com
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Amidst the imposing concrete structure of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of division and oppression, stood an unlikely oasis of defiance and hope – the Baumhaus an der Mauer, or the Treehouse on the Wall. Erected by a Turkish migrant worker in the 1980s, this unique structure became a poignant reminder of the human spirit’s ability to thrive even in the face of adversity.

Osman Kalin, the man behind the Treehouse, was a Turkish worker who had come to Berlin in search of a better life. Undeterred by the restrictions and tensions of the divided city, he found solace in a small triangular traffic island nestled between the East and West Berlin border walls. This neglected patch of land had been used as a rubbish dump by local residents and it now became his canvas. In the 1980s, he began transforming it into a personal sanctuary, piece by piece, using discarded materials and found objects.

“When I was 17, my high school art teacher showed us famous buildings, explaining their historical significance,” Osman Kalin’s granddaughter, Funda told the BBC.

“They showed us the Eiffel Tower one week, and the next week they showed my grandfather’s tree house.

“The boys in the class made fun of it because it looks a bit funny and misshapen – and being a teenager, I was completely mortified. My friend was about to reveal that it was MY grandfather who built it, when I shot her a look to shut her up.”

Kalin’s creation, a two-story wooden structure built around two trees, was a whimsical blend of functionality and artistry. It served as his home, his workshop, and his refuge from the harsh realities of the Cold War. He planted onion, garlic, as well as fruit trees there. As the years went by, the Treehouse became a local landmark, attracting curious onlookers and symbolizing the resilience of those who lived in the shadow of the Wall.

“In order to understand what motivated him, you mustn’t forget where he came from: He brought with him the rules and culture of the village where he grew up. He couldn’t understand why no one would want to fix up a neglected place or try to turn it into a welcoming place for everyone. He didn’t care about the Wall or the guards,” said Funda Kalin, Osman’s granddaughter who still lives in Berlin told France 24.

“Of course it caused problems in the beginning. The East German guards quickly came over to make sure that he wasn’t digging a tunnel under the garden to help East Berliners get to the West,” she said to France 24. “But when they understood that it was simply a vegetable garden, they left him alone.”

The West German police officers also requested that he leave, but he refused. Since the garden was officially under East Germany’s jurisdiction, the West Berlin authorities were unable to intervene.

According to the BBC, he shouted: “God gave me this land! I’m not scared of you – you’ll have to kill me before you can have my garden.”

The GDR police officers, who noticed that their Western counterparts were irritated by this obstinate Turk, enjoyed giving him free use of the land. In fact, they even wrote him Christmas cards and once gave him a bottle of wine.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Treehouse took on even greater significance. It became a beacon of hope, a testament to the power of human spirit to overcome division and embrace unity. Despite its modest appearance, the Treehouse stood as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit, a reminder that even in the darkest of times, hope and creativity can flourish.

When the Mitte council tried to evict him, people rallied around Kalin, including the church of St Thomas next door.

“The priests helped us write letters to the council,” Funda told the BBC. “The church provided a document from the 1780s: an old map to show that the garden was on church land, which gave them the right to say that Kalin was allowed to use their land.”

The council eventually relented when faced with the force of people’s support and even officially redrew the border along where the Berlin wall stood so that the garden was moved back into the district of Kreuzberg (its original geographical home).

Kalin died in April 2018 and his son took over looking after the treehouse and the garden.

Today, the Baumhaus an der Mauer remains a cherished landmark in Berlin, a reminder of the city’s tumultuous past and its unwavering spirit of resilience. It stands as a testament to the power of individual action and the transformative potential of creativity. As visitors from around the world marvel at its quirky charm, they are reminded of the enduring power of hope and the ability of the human spirit to transcend even the most formidable barriers.

There has been talk of turning the baumhaus into an official monument attached to the Berlin Wall Memorial.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.