I’ve ventured through a few treehouses in my time, but I’ve never seen one like this before. Upon first glance, this rustic curiosity, perched on a bed of graffiti and ingrown foliage looks like an abandoned shack. Perhaps inhabitants have frequented the place on occasion, needing temporary refuge from the streets. However, being in Berlin, and encountering this place during a free alternative walking tour, it was obvious that this building has a story.
This whimsical house was once occupied by Osman Kalin, a construction worker who immigrated from Turkey, and saw the perfect opportunity to grow his own garden. The newly-constructed Berlin Wall ran alongside it, and the garden itself was situated on a small plot of ‘no man’s land’ due to a construction oversight of the wall. Over time, Kalin faced constant surveillance from the East Berlin guards and threats of eviction by West Berlin police, but he firmly stood his ground. He continued to flourish this garden by growing onions, garlic, peaches and apples for his family and the community. Over time, Kalin became a well-respected man throughout Kreuzberg*, even amongst the anarchist punks in the 1980s, who always had his back amidst eviction threats.
When I stopped to look at this house, I saw tufts of smoke coming from the front yard from his family having a barbeque outside. An ingrown tree was poking outside the front, in which Kalin once tried to remove, but only to recognize and accept its stubbornness like his own*. I reconstructed in my mind what it would have looked like 30-40 years ago : trees and vines hugging a giant, cement wall, Kalin sending up loads of garlic and onions to a watchful East Berlin guard, punks with spiked hair and makeup hanging around, perhaps antagonizing the authorities who tried to demolish this beloved garden.
Kalin passed away April of this year at the age of 96. My tour guide told us that he used to wave to them from his flat every day as she told his story to curious alternative folk like myself. The loss was felt not only by his family, but by people from across Berlin. I was sad that I missed an opportunity to see Kalin in person. However, knowing his family was together, keeping the place and his legacy alive, revived his spirit even though I never met him myself.
This story is fitting for many meaningful reasons – it’s a story of resistance and creating beauty amidst surveillance and political animosities. It is a reminder to a world becoming increasingly hostile to minorities, immigrants and refugees – people who have a story many refuse to hear. People like Kalin arrived in Berlin to not only find a better life, but to bring life to Berlin itself. I want more people to learn and know about Kalin, and hope this would open their minds.
The entire story can be told by Kalin’s granddaughter, Funda here. I felt it was fitting to allow someone with a closer bond to him and knew him well to tell us about his life and legacy.
*According to Kalin’s granddaughter, Funda
*Kreuzberg is the neighbourhood of former West Berlin where Kalin lived.