What 2020 taught the Tour Guides

what 2020 taught Berlin tour guides

At the end of a challenging year, BBS members reflect on what 2020 taught them about the city they know so well.

It’s no secret that Berlin has seen its share of upheaval over the years.

For millions of visitors annually, this fascinating history is one of the German capital’s biggest draws. Guests from all across the globe have flocked to Berlin, determined to unlock, explore and understand its complex past. Those  lucky enough to experience the Hauptstadt with a skilled guide invariably leave for home having learned valuable lessons – not just about this city, but from it.

2020 was itself a historic year.

Beyond putting the brakes (quite rightly) on tourism, the global pandemic encouraged us to think differently about- well, almost everything. As tour guides, covid restrictions changed the way we engage with Berlin –  professionally, of course, but on a personal level too.

Ten tour guides tell us what they learned.


What did 2020 teach you about Berlin?

That I really don’t have to venture far from home to appreciate most things Berlin has to offer. My block is like a microcosm of the city and from my apartment, you can witness the effects of hard-hitting history, appreciate world-class street art, enjoy dozens of international cuisines and experience wildlife of all varieties.
Georgia Riungu

To appreciate the little things in life and take quiet time for reflection.
Jeremy Minsberg

That the more slowly you walk around, the better you realise how full of ginkgo bilobas this city is. There are so many of them! The female trees’ fruits do stink a little bit, but both female and male trees are so beautiful in Autumn. It’s really something you should not miss out on!
Alazne Artetxe

To appreciate the fantastic historic city I live in (and the free entrance at the German History Museum).
Susan Grouchy

2020 has taught me that Berlin can handle actually going to sleep once in a while.
Chris Moniz

That there are still so many places I need to visit!
Wouter Bernhardt

How special it was that I spent 15 years working as a guide. I know the city in a way that people with “regular jobs” cannot know, because I’m always out and about, whether it’s seeing the sites in Mitte or travelling to pick clients up. I’ll never know another place as intimately as Berlin. These last 12 months I’ve missed all that exploring.
Heather Mae Ellis

I enjoyed even more the fact that Berlin is a green city. What a delight to walk through all these beautiful parks with lakes! And the open-minded/freedom spirit – we are actually allowed to enjoy them, not like in France or other countries where you really have to stay home.
Stéphanie Kieffer

It’s not a bad place to be during a pandemic.
Jo Eckardt

Berlin is great in crisis. Who first comes to Berlin is puzzled by the rough Berliner ways.
But when the going gets tough you’ll always find a helping hand.
Yan Katz

“I’m overwhelmed by the response.’ | BBS Guide’s Remembrance Tour in the Press

BBS Member Ben Fisher’s first virtual tour was recently featured in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

On 8th November 2020, Ben’s remembrance event went ahead as scheduled. In previous years, he’s seen around 300 people sign up for the walking tour, which commemorates one of the most severe attacks on Jewish life Germany has ever seen.

Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions and a little innovation, last November’s tour was unlike any he’d done before. Over 6,000 people from all across the globe have now taken part in the Facebook-hosted experience!

What follows is an English translation of the article, written by Steffi Hentschke and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday 26th December. Read the original article in full (and in German) here.


BBS Member Ben Fisher's virtual tour featured in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Just get us out of here!

Immediate proximity despite great distances: Tour guides lead us through the world online

“When the lockdown forces improvisation: travel guides and tour operators are moving their business online. Not everything can be sold online – but some things that seemed far away before are now within reach.

Ben Fisher is standing on the deserted Kurfürstendamm, leaves are gathering on the footpath. It is 8 November. The sun is shining on this cold Sunday, one day before the anniversary of the Reich Pogrom Night 83 years ago. During the most severe attack on Jewish life in Germany since the Middle Ages, an estimated 1500 Jews were killed and thousands of synagogues burned down. To commemorate the event, Fisher, a 37-year-old Israeli who has lived in Berlin for five years, is offering this special city tour. “I will start directly with the days before the pogroms, and as we walk, I will tell you more about the history of the Jews in Germany,” he says in English, walking off in the direction of the former synagogue on Fasanenstraße. About two hundred people watch him, they are not there, but they are there live.

At the moment, the world can only be discovered from the sofa, and what sounds like a dreary new reality sometimes reveals unexpected possibilities. Interest in Berlin city guide Ben Fisher’s memorial tour has always been high, with up to three hundred participants signing up for it in recent years. But the video of his first virtual tour has meanwhile been seen by almost 6,000 people from the United States, Israel and Brandenburg. The tour does what historians have been calling for for years – a digital form of remembrance culture. Those who follow Fisher on his one-hour tour get to know Berlin from a Jewish perspective and are surprised to discover that even if the virtual trip does not provide any sensory impressions, the knowledge gained arrives on the sofa.

Before Ben Fisher came to Berlin, Germany was the forbidden country for him, as he writes about himself on the website of the Berlin Guides Association. “Today I think the city is the most exciting place ever,” he says in a conversation via Video Call, a few days after the tour. Like his colleagues, he has had to make do without an income for months. But offering city tours online was not an option for him until recently. Only the second lockdown forced him to improvise, and a memorial tour was already planned. “I’m overwhelmed by the response and have to process that first,” says Fisher, thinking about what he can learn from his first attempt. “Maybe it takes the connection with education to get people excited about it. Classic sightseeing, on the other hand, doesn’t work online.””


If you missed it, you can still access the full tour on Facebook by clicking above.

Visit Ben’s profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

“How can I bring Berlin to people?” | BBS Guide’s Virtual Tours Make Headlines

BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg’s virtual tours of Berlin have made the news – not once, but twice!

Jeremy has given private tours in Berlin for decades and decided to pivot to digital tourism in March 2020. Since then, he has “become an event” and now offers a range of customisable tours on a variety of topics – from classic sights, to Third Reich to LGBTQ history.

BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg giving a virtual tour at the Brandenburg Gate
BBS Member Jeremy Minsberg giving a virtual tour at the Brandenburg Gate

“I thought I might try something completely different, and think outside the box. The technology exists to make it possible, so why not tour virtually?”

On 15th December 2020, The Local published ‘A new way to travel’: How one guide is showing off Berlin through virtual tours. In the piece, Berlin-based Tamsin Paternoster wrote about her experience joining a tour of “monuments just twenty minutes away from [her] front door.” The journalist was one of twenty international guests who tuned in for a tour of sights including the Victory Column, Tiergarten and Schloss Bellvue – all via Zoom. Read the full article here.

“I help people stay close together.”

On 24th December 2020 – as the second wave of the coronavirus led to increased restrictions across Europe for the holiday period – Euro News picked up the story. Titled ‘Meet the tour guide who is bringing Berlin to locked down travellers’, Kate Brady’s piece includes clips from one of Jeremy’s popular virtual Berlin city tours – as well as an interview, in which he shares his motivation for going digital. Click here to watch the news clip.

Jeremy Minsberg

Visit Jeremy’s profile to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

The New National Gallery is reopening | Friends of BBS

One of the many things to look forward to in 2021 is the reopening of Berlin’s New National Gallery, which has been closed since 2015.

George Grosz is one of the featured artists in the New National Gallery's collection
“Stützen der Gesellschaft”, George Grosz (1926)

Dedicated to 20th century art, the museum’s collection is international in scope, but gives you a particular sense of the vibrancy of Germany’s (and Berlin’s) art scene after World War I, and its renaissance after World War II.

Berlin became a hotbed of Expressionism in the 1910s and 1920s. The group of artists (including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) known as the Brücke (Bridge) moved from Dresden to Berlin in the years before World War I. In their own ways, artists like George Grosz and Christian Schad depicted the strangeness of Weimar-era Berlin, characterized as it was by both right-wing political violence and social liberalism.

And while they may not be household names, post-war German artists in both East and West became incredibly influential. The most famous, Gerhard Richter, was up until recently the top-selling artist alive.

Neue Nationalgalerie / New National Gallery
Neue Nationalgalerie / New National Gallery

The museum itself is an icon, designed by the famed Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Although he was not averse to taking commissions under National Socialism, the Nazis wouldn’t have him – and so he emigrated to the US, where he made great contributions to the skylines of both Chicago and New York.

The National Gallery, which opened in 1968, was the only building of his to be constructed in Germany after his emigration, and the only museum he ever built.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is one of our valued partners.

Click here to discover more Friends of BBS.

OTD in Berlin History | 27 Dec 1935 : Regina Jonas becomes first female rabbi

27 December 1935: On this day in Berlin history, Regina Jonas became the world’s first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi

Colourised image of Regina JonasBorn in 1902 and raised in the poor and mostly Jewish Scheunenviertel (barn quarter) to the North of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, Regina Jonas showed a remarkable aptitude for Jewish history and Hebrew throughout her schooling. Her fellow students remembered her speaking often of becoming a Rabbi.

In 1924 she brought this passion to the Academy for the Science of Judaism, and wrote her final thesis on the question “May a woman hold rabbinical office?” Her paper, a copy of which is still held in Berlin, did not seek to abandon Halaknah (the body of Jewish laws and ordinances derived from the Torah) but rather embedded her case for female ordination in the details of talmudic texts. She argued that “almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

Although some supported her ambitions, appreciating her evident knowledge and flair for interpreting the Talmud, other supervisors feared a scandal and a rift in the Jewish Community. It was not until 1935 that she finally was ordained by liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann.

By this stage, the Nazis had been in power for over 2 years, and life would become increasingly desperate for Berlin and Germany’s Jewish communities. This meant Jonas’ role as an educator, spiritual leader, and provider of pastoral care became increasingly vital. Even after her deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, she continued her rabbinical work, teaching and holding sermons.

In October 1944, however, she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered.
She was 42 years old.

“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938.

Sam WiszniewskiThis edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Sam Wiszniewski.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this December. See what else made the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 19 Dec 2016: Christmas Market Attack

16 December 2016: On this day in Berlin history, 12 people were killed and up to 100 injured in a devastating attack on the Christmas Market near Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

Tributes paid to the victims of the Christmas Market attack
Tributes paid to the victims

After a hijacked truck was deliberately driven into the crowd, an intense hunt ensued for the prime suspect, a 23-year old Tunisian named Anis Amri. The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant had issued Amri with instructions, and released a video of him pledging allegiance to ISIL’s then leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The trail led through the Netherlands and France, before police in Milan confronted a “very suspicious man” walking through the streets. When asked to provide identification documents, Amri drew his firearm and began shooting. One policeman was injured in the firefight, and Amri was shot dead.

Some voices on the right-wing of German politics blamed Angela Merkel’s asylum policy, which had seen large numbers of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria settle in Germany, for the apparent increase in the threat of Islamist terror attacks.

However, refugees and minorities in Germany remain far more likely to be the victims of, rather than perpetrators of terrorism. Between 2012 and 2016, extreme right-wing terrorist attacks against refugee homes in Germany increased more than 6,000% from 24 in 2012 to over 1,500 in 2015 and 2016.*

Since 2016, with heightened security and fortifications at Christmas markets in place, there have been no similar incidents in Germany.

*Source: Recent Trends in German Right-Wing Violence and Terrorism: What are the Contextual Factors behind ‘Hive Terrorism’? Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 12, No. 6 (December 2018), p. 79.

Sam WiszniewskiThis edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Sam Wiszniewski.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this December. See what else made the cut on our blog.

OTD in Berlin History | 11 December 1941: Hitler declares war on the United States

11 December 1941: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States.

Hitler declares war on the United States
Hitler declares war on the United States. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-507 / unbekannt / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

Four days previously, the Japanese Empire had launched a surprise aerial attack on the US naval and army base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, resulting in a retaliatory declaration of war from Washington on Tokyo.

Franklin Roosevelt signs a declaration of war against Germany
Franklin Roosevelt signs a declaration of war against Germany. (Source: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information)

The regime in Berlin had not been informed in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack plans and, under the terms of the alliance between Germany and Japan, Germany was only obliged to declare war if Japan were attacked by a third country – not if Japan were the aggressor.

Nonetheless, following a meeting between Hitler and members of his inner circle in Berlin, he decided to declare war.

Historians have debated whether there was any logic to Hitler’s decision.

The German High Command perhaps saw the the United States entrance into the war as an inevitability, and hence sought to seize the initiative before the Americans were adequately prepared to defend themselves.

However, the move effectively guaranteed the industrial and military muscle of the United States being directed into the European theatre, meaning Germany would need to fight a war on two fronts that ultimately proved to be unwinnable.

Thus the historiographical consensus is that this decision lay somewhere on the spectrum between desperation – and lunacy.

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Sam Wiszniewski.

It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

OTD in Berlin History | 2 December 1990: First All-German Elections since the Nazis

2nd December 1990: On this day in Berlin history, the first all-German elections were held in reunified Germany. It had been almost 60 years since the last one.

A German woman votes in the first all-German election since 1933
A German woman votes in the first all-German election since 1933. (Source: Bundesregierung/Harald Kirschner)

Since the end of the Second World War, the country had been divided between East and West – carved up along the geographical and ideological fault lines of the Cold War. In 1961, the historic capital Berlin had also been physically sundered by the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall.

But in the revolutionary Autumn of 1989 the gates of the wall finally opened.

Election Results: By Erinthecute – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

From that point a tumultuous few months ensued as West Germans celebrated a victory in the FIFA World Cup, East Germans effectively voted their socialist state out of existence – and the nation was finally made whole again on 3 October 1990.

The enthusiasm for reunification contributed to a resounding electoral victory for the coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and CDU leader Helmut Kohl – seen as the chief advocate and architect of reunification – was named Chancellor.

Helmut Kohl in Dresden, September 1990. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild)

This election was the first free and fair multi-party election to be conducted across the whole of Germany since the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Sam Wiszniewski.

It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this December. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

OTD | First Sunday of Advent: Origins of the advent calendar

Today, 29th November 2020, marks the first Sunday of Advent. Did you know that – like many aspects of modern Christmas traditions – the Advent Calendar is of German origin?

Two girls try to open a massive advent calendar at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin
Two girls try to open a massive advent calendar at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin

The simple tradition – started by Protestants after Martin Luther – began by drawing 24 chalk lines on a door and erasing one each day. Variations included 24 paper chains, lighting candles, and even receiving a piece of gingerbread. Additionally, families could hang a devotional image every day and this ultimately led to the creation of the first known handmade wooden Advent calendar in 1851.

Sometime in the early twentieth century (1902 or 1908, depending who you believe), the first printed Advent calendars appeared. These were followed in the 1920s by Gerhard Lang’s innovation of adding small doors to the calendars. Behind each door would be a picture or a bible verse, one for each day. During the Nazi regime, fairy-tale figures or Germanic gods replaced the original Christian symbols.

Today, Advent calendars are a tradition around the world. Some cities even create larger-than-life Advent calendars, where a real window is opened every day. The world’s largest Advent calendar can be seen in Gengenbach, Germany. Here, in the picturesque black forest, the Rathaus (Town Hall) is transformed into a calendar every year.

This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Susan Grouchy.

It’s one of four noteworthy events she’s chosen to remember this November. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

Ephraim-Palais | Friends of BBS

One of Berlin’s more attractive exhibition spaces belongs to the City Museum: the Ephraim-Palais.

Ephraim-Palais, 1830

Veitel Heine Ephraim was Frederick the Great’s court jeweller and – as Münzmeister (Director of Mints) – he helped finance the Seven Years’ War that established Prussia as a European power. In the 1760s, he commissioned a lavish residence in the Rococo style.

Ephraim-Palais, 1936


Because the street in front was to be widened, the Ephraim-Palais was torn down in 1936. The façade was put into storage in what – after the War – was to become West Berlin. Although the palace had originally stood in what was now East Berlin, plans were developed for its reconstruction and use as a Jewish museum at a new location in the West.



Ephraim-Palais today

Those plans could not be realised, however – it would have been expensive and the palace blueprints were still in the East. In the 1980s, when the East German government came up with plans to develop the quarter around the historic St. Nicholas Church to evoke the destroyed old town – the Nikolaiviertel project – West Berlin’s mayor (and later West German president) Richard von Weizsäcker ensured that the façade be given to the East as part of an exchange. The Ephraim-Palais was reconstructed in the Nikolaiviertel twelve meters from its original location.


A Rococo residence reconstructed a short distance from where it once stood – and boasting the original façade?

In Berlin that qualifies as pretty damn authentic.

The Ephraim-Palais is one of our valued partners.

Click here to discover more Friends of BBS.