Located in Brandenburg province, in the town of Beelitz, former sanatoriums offer an intriguing view into the scary history of medicine. But they mainly attract tourists and photographers because of their spookiness.
Berlin, August 17th, 2020, update January 2nd, 2021 (The Berlin Spectator) — For photographers who are into scary, abandoned places, Pripyat in Ukraine might be the best place to go. Located right next to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant, it was one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear cities, built for NPP workers and their families. When reactor no. 4 blew in 1986, the city was abandoned. Nature is reconquering that place.
Beelitz is Germany’s Pripyat. Luckily, the Brandenburg location is not connected to nuclear energy or radioactivity at all, but nature and decay are taking hold of several of the old sanatoriums there. Along with traces of vandalism, these aspects give those buildings a Pripyat look. Entering those scary locations is dangerous – and forbidden. But there are official tours through the former surgery ward.
What patients went through in this building many decades ago is far more scary than anything tourists will see. In the early days, they underwent surgery without anesthesia. Later, the anesthesia available was unreliable, meaning patients would wake up during surgery, and they would have to be held in place by a bouncer-type muscle guy while they screamed because of the pain they had to endure.
The construction of the first sanatorium for lung patients in Beelitz commenced in 1898. What became one of the largest hospital complexes around Berlin was completed in 1930, three years before the Nazis took power. The history of the Beelitz Sanatoriums is connected to the war and its consequences.
Back then, the genders were separated. This applied to both patients and staffers. There were sanatoriums for female lung patients, for male ones, dormitories for female nurses and doctors, as well as for their male colleagues in different buildings. In 1908, the total number of beds was doubled from 600 to 1,200.
Technically, the hospitals in Beelitz were always top-notch. For instance, the local heat and power station already used the power-heat coupling technology in 1903. Balconies for lung patients were equipped with plugs for headphones.
In both World Wars, the Beelitz Sanatoriums were used as hospitals for wounded soldiers. Private Adolf Hitler was treated here in 1916. When Nazi Germany was defeated, in 1945, the Soviets, and later the Russians, took over the partially destroyed buildings in Beelitz. They set up their own hospital there. It was the largest Soviet military hospital outside the Soviet Union.
The Russians used Beelitz until 1994. Russian signs still show the way to surgery in the ruin. In 1990, the GDR’s former dictator Erich Honecker was treated in Beelitz for liver cancer, before he was flown to Santiago de Chile in 1993, where he met his wife Margot. He died a year later.
Now, step by step, the sanatoriums are being refurbished. But there are enough decaying buildings to look at, from the inside and outside, and even from above. Beelitz is a tourist haven today. Apart from those tours through the former surgery ward, a Treetop Path lets visitors see beautiful Brandenburg forests up and close, along with decaying former hospitals.
For Berliners, getting to Beelitz by car is easy. From the German capital’s Kreuzberg district, it is a 45-minute trip without traffic, and up to twice that time with traffic jams. From the train station in Beelitz, there is a shuttle bus that takes visitors to the Treetop Path, the old surgery ward and the ‘Bare Foot Park’, an excellent location for families with children.
There is one downside: Any visit to Beelitz is a costly affair. In 2020, the tour through the spooky building was 10 Euro (11 U.S. Dollars or 9 Pounds Sterling), and tickets to the Treetop Path 11 Euro (12 Dollars or 10 Pounds) per person. There is no tour through the building without Treetop Path tickets. This rule more than doubles the price for the tour. The cheapest cool beverage is 2.70 Euro (3.04 Dollars or 2.46 Pounds). Still, any Berliner or expat Berliner should see Beelitz at least once.
Lots of motion pictures were shot in Beelitz, including ‘Valkyrie’ with Tom ‘Clear’ Cruise (‘Clear’ is a term used in his Scientology cult) and Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’. A German film entitled ‘Heilstätten’ (‘Sanatoriums’) about this very place in Beelitz was supposed to be shot there too, but the owners did not agree. So the Beelitz flick was not filmed in Beelitz itself.