The moving, upsetting, and surprising stories of Zoo Berlin

Armbruster Fellows explore the history of Germany’s oldest zoo

The room in Zoo Berlin’s administration building where Hilla Lavie and Tuvia Singer meet with Zoo Director Dr Andreas Knieriem is not your standard meeting room. It is located right next to the elephant habitat, so while they talk they can see elephant bull Victor plodding placidly about his business. Victor was born in Ramat Gan zoo in Israel in 1993 – and, as it happens, Hilla and Tuvia are also from Israel. They are two of four Armbruster Fellows currently performing research at Freie Universität Berlin.

A zoo of knowledge

As well as promoting education and species conservation, modern zoological institutions have a duty to foster academic research. That is why Zoo Berlin offers the Ludwig Armbruster Fellowship, which enables doctoral candidates studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to spend three to twelve months at Freie Universität Berlin (FU). The Fellowship is open to doctoral candidates in the fields of veterinary medicine, biology, ethics and history, and naturally includes a thorough tour of the Zoo.

Ludwig Armbruster

The Fellowship was established in 2015, the year that marked 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. It is named for German biologist and bee researcher Ludwig Armbruster (1886-1973), who taught at Friedrich Wilhelms Universität in Berlin until he was sacked in 1934 for refusing to cooperate with the governing Nazi party. Armbruster had important contacts with Jewish scientists in Germany and in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. He was finally rehabilitated in 2007. Nine doctoral candidates have come to the FU on the Fellowship since it was initiated three years ago.

Addressing the past

The Fellowship enables doctoral candidates at the Hebrew University to conduct research here in Berlin and to establish contacts with scholars at the FU. But Zoo Berlin doesn’t only offer the Fellowship to further the pursuit of knowledge, it is also a way for it to shoulder its social responsibility. The Zoo has always been at the centre of Berlin society – in good times and in bad. During the Third Reich, Zoo executives unquestioningly accepted the new Nazi regime, excluding Jewish supervisory board members from the Zoo AG board and in some cases profiting from the forced sale of shares belonging to Jewish shareholders.

So much to discover

Hilla and Tuvia hadn’t expected Zoo Berlin to be as equally fascinating for historians as it is for zoologists and biologists, and were keen to explore the historical dimensions of this Berlin institution. After the visit, Tuvia reported that he now had a much clearer idea of Zoo Berlin’s significance for the city, past and present.

German-Israeli post-war relations

Hilla and Tuvia are both historians and will each spend a year at the FU. Hilla is interested in perceptions of Israel in West German cinema of the post-war period. Specifically, her doctoral thesis will address post-war relations between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany as manifested in representations of Israel in West German films of the 1950s to 1970s. During her stay in Berlin, she will explore the archives of the Deutsche Kinemathek and the film department of the German Federal Archives. She has already found several films that have until now been largely or entirely neglected by scholars.

“Otherness” in German myths and fairy tales

Tuvia, meanwhile, is exploring projections and historical concepts of otherness in 19th century myths and fairy tales, including those collected by the Brothers Grimm, Ludwig Bechstein, and Heinrich Pröhle. Tuvia has come to Berlin with his wife and two children, as he tells bird curator and species conservation officer Dr Tobias Rahde on their tour of the Zoo.

Of course, another important aspect of the Zoo’s history is how much attitudes and approaches towards the keeping of animals have changed over the almost 175 years since the Zoo opened. Hilla and Tuvia are interested to hear all that Tobias has to say.

Exhibition – new perspectives on the Zoo’s history

The Fellows’ visit to the Zoo ends with a tour of the “Berliner Zoogeschichte|n” exhibition in the Antelope House. The exhibition is curated by historian Dr Clemens Maier-Wolthausen, who joins them on their tour. As the oldest zoological garden in Germany and the ninth oldest in the world, Zoo Berlin has a long and eventful past. The exhibition vividly relates the fascinating story of how King Frederick William III’s menagerie on “Peacock Island” grew into the zoological garden we know today, home to more different species than any other zoo in the world – thanks partly to a high level of civic commitment. Hilla is particularly interested to find out about the active role that Berlin Jews played for many decades, until persecution began under the Nazis in the 1930s. The Fellows welcome the fact that the Zoo is hosting this carefully and thoroughly researched exhibition. An external advisory board was tasked with ensuring the accuracy of the exhibition, particularly with regard to the topics of National Socialism and anti-Semitism.

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