Five Houses - Dora Schemme and Barbara Rosenberg

Jagowstrasse 12 Feb 1981

Profiles of five squatted houses in West Berlin in the early 1980s, including quotes from the female occupants.

Interviews by Dora Schemme and Barbara Rosenberg. Originally published in German feminist magazine Courage (#4 April 1981): "Frauen Besetzer Hausen"

Hexenhaus (Witch House) Leignitzer Strasse

Hexenhaus was squatted on January 5 by 12 women from the autonomous women's and Lesbian movement.

“Squatting is our answer to our own housing needs and to the inhuman housing policies of the Senate and housing companies. After the so-called 'riots' in December we decided to stop sitting passively on the sidelines. Up until then we had limited ourselves to legal means of finding a place in which to live differently, which meant ending up alone or with one other person in a cold, dark, one-roomed ground floor apartment with a luxurious outside toilet. Women don't get nice big apartments.

“This house belongs to BETA which is typical of the kind of housing company which makes profits with public money. No apartments here have been rented out since 1977, and many of the tenants left because they were given confusing information about what was. going to happen to the house. When a house is empty the company can apply for grants to renovate it or even demolish it. The law says that tenants have a right to participate in decisions of this kind, which is the reason why the companies are trying to empty the houses.

“We we supported by women's projects. They hold meetings here and help with the night watches. Other women help with renovation or give donations towards it. Women architects have advised us and woman photographers are documenting the present condition of the house and the changes we are making. The Feminist Women's Health Centre want to move into the shop on the ground floor. The other empty apartments are being shared out among the tenants who are still here, ourselves and with women from the women's refuge.

“The side wing is going to be used communally and have a communal kitchen, with the dark ground floor apartments being turned into workshops. No men are allowed in the side wing - that's the wish of the Lesbians.

“We are permanently confronted with the problem of to what extent women and leftists, Lesbians and leftists, can work together. On the one hand we don't simply want to react to an agenda set by the Left, but on the other hand we have to do just that because we are as much concerned and affected by the same things that affect the Left. We want to develop something of our own, but don't have much time for that. At the moment a Woman's Strategy Group is meeting regularly. Maybe this will develop into a Besetzerinnenrat (women's squatter council).”

Naunystrasse 58

“We are a fairly varied collection of ten women - all living here permanently. Despite differences in age, experiences, sexual orientations, political ideals and ideas of how we want to live, we know that we want to live with other women.

“The house belongs to APH. They want to modernise it and increase the rents. We want to stop this kind of modernisation. Last September, the Internationale Bauausstellung (International Building Exhibition) refused them a grant to modernise the house on the grounds that it was in too good a condition. This year the Bezirksamt (local council) has no more money available. But despite this the APH started emptying the house at lightning speed last November. There are only three tenants left now and they intend to move out soon.

"That it was necessary to take control of the house is shown clearly by the fact that in February, two days before we squatted the place, building workers were sent to smash up the heating ovens, the toilets and the windows in the empty apartments. To repair all this, especially the ovens, we need donations of money, materials, tools and help.

“Here are some extracts from our house diary:

  • 'We'd like to celebrate our first week here with lots of bottles of Sekt. But we probably won't because we have no time. Time is [the] central problem for most of us.
  • 'Hardly slept. This morning M and I were shit scared for the first time A lorry drove by and we thought it might be building workers. We were lying cuddling on the sofa, contemplating our unbarricaded windows, too lazy to get up. What is going to happen to us here? Something must be done about the windows. . . Read a disgusting article in the newspaper - the police used their batons to stop people squatting a house - one person injured, two arrested. Why can't they leave us in peace, leave us live the way we want? Shit!
  • 'Prison as a deterrence and threat has become a lot closer since the open confrontation with the police began in December.'

"One thing is clear to us: we are not going to keep quiet when we know that people with whom we share common ideas are being arrested again and again, and being held in inhuman conditions. We are lot more conscious now of the limits of legality than we were earlier.”

Winterfeldstrasse 37

On Saturday March 5, at eleven o'clock as the bells of the church on the square began to ring, the first banner was hung from the windows of Winterfeldstrasse 37. It read:

SANFTMUT TUT NICHT LANGE GUT
NEHMT EUCH IN 8 VOR FRAUENWUT!

(We are fed up of being nice, beware of women's anger! An approximate translation!) Only on this particular morning there wasn't much trace of women's anger. The atmosphere was more one of joy - joy at the successful squatting of the house and at the prospect of living in a house in which mainly women lived.

The five apartments squatted had been empty for more than six months. They were ready to move into - all they needed reedy was a coat of paint. There were even baths. The owners had no plans for them and a few days later told the tenants that they had no intention of doing the necessary repairs on the side wing. It was obvious that they intended to demolish the place.

Some of the women who have lived on the house for years want to campaign, with the squatters, to save it and eventually turn it into a meeting place for the area.

Jagowstrasse 12

“The wornen's cafe group has been in existence for a year. We are all either students or are going [to] school, and between 23 and 25 years of age. As more and more houses began to be squatted we joined a mixed squatting group, because we didn't want to live In isolation from others and our main aim was to open up a women's cafe here in Moabit. We had lots of resrvations. . . about whether we would find enough women to work with us. . . about renovating the place. And typcally, we underestimated ourselves once again.

“We want to work in the cafe in our free time. We want it in be a space for activities with an atmosphere that will attract women. The cafe will also be a place where woman will be able to exhibit their paintings. Some of us also write, so we want to have readings - not by famous people but by ourselves and other woman. We also want to show films here, make pottery and have a darkroom, and to install a lathe in the cellar.

"We moved in at the beginning of February. The police came immediately and wanted to evict us. But in the middle of their brutal action they suddenly stopped, so we moved bask in.

"Marringer & Co own the place. The have applied for permission to knock the place down, but because the building is structurally sound they didn't get it. Now they are appealing against this and at the same time slowly emptying the place of tenants. There are still four tenants in the front house and a few in the back house as well. They have removed the guttering from the back house and so the facade is slowly deteriorating, and the side of the house is getting damp. They have torn out some of the installations and refuse to repair a broken water main. Lots of the ovens and windows are also broken.

"There's a law which says that it is illegal to leave an apartment empty for more than three months, but upstairs there is one apartment which had its electricity meter last read in 1966. Other apartments have been empty for up to two years.

"In our opinion, what the majority of squatters are saying is that the owners of the house have forfeited their right to make profits from them because they have left the houses to rot and tried to demolish them. For that reason we are demanding that the grants to rennovate and do up the houses go directly to the communities in the houses. We do not want rent contracts of the old kind under any circumstances - we want a licence with a rent that covers costs and not a penny more.

“It's a scandal that we should be prosecuted and not the speculators. Discussion with the men in the house goes something like this: they say that if only women are allowed at the cafe they feel excluded, and ask why can't everyone in the house use the cafe, that it would be possible to do publicity work through it. . . in principal, they don't accept the project politically.

"'The question of how much do we allow ourselves to differ and to what extent do we exercise solidarity with each other is unbelievably difficult. On some points it is very clear, and on these points we will not allow ourselves to give way. Sometimes I feel as if I'm between two lines of men, between the men of the police on one side and with the men of the movement on the other. The confrontations arid discussions all take place on a male level.

"Lots of women have difficulties with the militancy and have problems feeling good in the houses.

"I don't want to throw stones, put on a helmet and fight the Bullen (cops), but to run around like a little dove of peace, going on about peace, peace, peace. . . I'd feel a fool if I did that.

"If there's to be an eviction it's important that lots of women come here and defend themselves as spectacularly as possible. But it's crazy to try and defeat the police - if they wanted they could drive a tank into the yard here. In a house it's like being in a mouse trap. Lots of people must come, but not with the same weapons the police have - batons and guns. You'd be condemning yourself to death if you did that - that's the politics of suicide. Such is the reality of our reltive strengths.

“We have overcome some of our fears, at least the fear of being prosecuted for Hausfriedensbruch (criminal trespass). But the fear of an eviction, of the Bullen smashing down our barricades and what comes after that is still there.

“Before they tried to evict us. . . the time we squatted the house - I was much more afraid. We were all sitting on the stairs. It was an unnerving moment when they smashed down the door. You hear the wood breaking and you don't know what's going to happen next. I would have ran if there hadn't been so many other people there. But in a way the police were also helpless. The commander tried several times to get us to stand up. Until eventually the second in-commend gave the order to move us and they started dragging us out. They didn't carry us, they held our arms behind our backs in such as way that if you left yourself hang passively it would be dislocated. If you defended yourself in any way at all you were immediately arrested. But I learnt a lot from the experience.

Kottbusser Strasse 8

After one unsuccessful attempt this house was eventually successfully squatted by seven Turkish women, a German woman and five children on February 18. As they were moving in, a confrontation between them and German building workers who were working on the house broke out

"We were inside and were trying to put up barricades. . . but they had already broken down the door and had begun swearing at us . . . they were being sexist, racist and fascistic all at once. The fact that we were women and on top of that Turkish was to much of a provocation for them. One friend of ours was half strangled by a guy who also started beating her with a trowel. Another's hair was pulled so much that she started bleeding. It was really dramatic. The police arived twenty minutes later. That was an immediate relief." But it didn't stop them arresting two of the squatters, both of whom are still in jail. Later, after difficult negotiations, an executive of GSW, the public company which owns the house, arrived and gave the women the house keys.

The idea to squat the place originated at the Information Centre for Turkish women, an advice centre in Kreuzberg which often has to deal with single women to whom they can offer very little help. Most of these women have certificates entitling them to housing, often to emergency housing. but this can mean a wait of up to four years. And they are often allocated an apartment which a German family has also been allocated and who nearly always get the place. So lots of families with children are forced to live in damp one-room apartments.

The women of the Information Centre work with the two women's refuges, where over ten Turkish women are looking for apartments, some of them for more than a year.

“We have demanded that the Bezirksamt provide more facilities, such as a house where single German and Turkish women can live. More and more Turkish families are breaking up and the women are being left on their own with lots of children and being constantly harassed and threatened by their ex-husbands. If they could live with other women and not be scattered and isolated over the whole area. they would be unbelievably more secure."

Particularly telling of the attitude of the Senate to the 'social service' provided by the squatters is the fact that two days after they were given the keys, the Housing Office sent two pregnant women around to them. Both had been looking for apartments, six hours a day, for the last half year. "They were told that there might be a place free here. This house is relatively secure. There is a long list of Turkish women who would like to move in. Some of them are often in tears. . . the Senate is so cynical, the way it sends women to us in order to get out of its obligation to pregnant women, old people, foreigners and handicapped people. Squatting has given us the courage to face such things."