Oranienburg: The Radioactive Day Trip Destination
Finding a good day trip destination around Berlin is easy. Those who want to see the only place on Earth at which they used to produce radioactive toothpaste should head towards Oranienburg. By the way: They have a nice ‘Palace Park’ up there too.
Berlin, June 8th, 2020, updated November 21st, 2020 (The Berlin Spectator) — The German version of Oranienburg’s official tourist website does convey the message in words anyone will understand: “The Palace Park is nice in spring, summer, fall and winter. In the Palace Park, there are many flowers and very old and large trees.” A third-grader would have gotten a B+ for that kind of essay.
But they are right. The park is one of Oranienburg’s highlights. It offers quietude and things to see for visitors who like frogs, flowers and forests, as well as a giant playground for children of all ages. They can run, climb or play with a blue whale that features a spout. There even is a wooden fairy tale house.
While the little ones play, parents and grandparents can sit in the Castle Garden Café to have a strawberry cake or a chilled lemonade and ask themselves what exactly Oranienburg has to do with radioactivity. The 4 Euro for a ticket (2 Euro during the cool seasons) are definitely worth it.
But let’s start from the beginning. Some 900 years ago, a Slavic settlement was set up where Oranienburg is located today. At some point, a town which developed right there at the Havel river was known as Bötzow. In 1650, Frederick William, the Elector of Brandenburg, felt like giving his wife, Countess Luise Henriette von Oranien, a nice present. Bötzow was his choice.
‘Palace Port’ Yachts
Two years later, the couple had a palace erected which they called ‘Oranienburg’. The rest is history. We are bypassing a few hundred years of history here, hoping nobody will notice. Theodor Fontane, one of Germany’s most important novelists and poets, would have noticed, since he wrote about the history of this place in his book “Walks through the March of Brandenburg” in the late 19th century, when there was no radioactivity yet.
Today, Oranienburg Palace features art from the 17th century and an exhibition about the county it is located in, namely Oberhavel. It is the oldest Baroque palace in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. And it is radioactive, like everything in Oranienburg.
Before Corona turned the world into a giant mess, 1.9 million visitors hit Oranienburg per year. They came by ‘S-Bahn’ city train from Berlin, by regional trains, by car, bicycle and yacht. Well, Oranienburg may not be Monaco, but quite a few very elegant boats are parked at the nice Schlosshafen (‘Palace Port’).
The Best Scene
On a cloudy Sunday in early June of 2020, motorhome owners from the neighboring ‘motor caravan parking lot’ are watching the best scene of the morning: The owner of one of those impressive yachts deals with a hose that connects his boat to a sucking machine. The latter empties the yacht’s wastewater tanks and causes a smell one could have lived without, right at this posh spot.
At several locations in Oranienburg, along the Havel river and the Oder Havel Canal, little ports for yachts can be found. By the way: There are houseboat rentals in the region, for those who do not have the change they need for a yacht. In Oranienburg, its all about water. And radioactivity. The canal was built from 1906 until 1912, and it did have a positive effect on Oranienburg’s economy.
The Lehnitzsee, a big lake on the town’s eastern end, is connected to the river. Here, a rowing boat with 14 people who are propelling their means of transport with paddles, and one lady setting the rhythm with a drum as if she was on a Roman galley, is moving from the Havel to the lake. At the same moment, a slow houseboat which looks like a floating shoe box is heading in the other direction. On the opposite lakeshore, people can cool down at a small bathing beach. At least they could in pre-Corona times.
Before we get to the radioactivity, there is another dark chapter. The Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen is located on Oranienburg’s turf. From 1936 to 1945, tens of thousands of inmates were murdered here, among them Jews, POWs, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehova’s Witnesses.
The site is a memorial and museum today. “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work brings freedom”) it says on the gate, just like in Auschwitz. In April, the 75th anniversary of Sachsenhausen’s liberation by the Red Army was being observed online. The Corona pandemic prevented an event on site.
We finally made it to the part about radioactivity. Oranienburg is actually the most radioactive place in all of Germany. The company ‘Auergesellschaft’ had a factory here when the Nazis seized power in Berlin, 33 kilometers (20 miles) away. Two Jewish shareholders were kicked out of the company. In the early 1940s, it actually produced a product called ‘Doramad’, a radioactive toothpaste which was supposed to make consumers feel “natural freshness” in their mouths, according to ads. This is not a joke.
Secret Bomb Project
It gets worse: Dictator Adolf Hitler had a secret bomb project which involved uranium, and therefore radioactivity. They worked on it at the ‘Auerwerke’ factory in Oranienburg. Once the Allies got wind of it, they stopped his plans. On March 15th, 1945, hundreds of American planes dropped countless bombs with a combined weight of more than 1,500 tons.
Not only did they completely flatten the ‘Auerwerke’ factory in Oranienburg and other areas in town, but they also spread the radioactive material the Nazis were using. For that reason, the town is more radioactive than any other location in Germany, even today.
Because of the bombings, the center of Oranienburg, a town of 44,500 inhabitants, looks the way it looks. No medieval or particularly old buildings are left. This aspect and the GDR’s usual approach did affect the beauty of Oranienburg, and not exactly in a positive way.
Oranienburg may be the most radioactive day trip destination for Berliners. but it is still a good one. Grab the kids, hop on a train and go there on a nice spring or summer day. The little ones will love the park with its giant playground. By the way: Wastewater pumped out of yachts does smell, but radioactivity does not.