The Endangered Magic of Prora
The construction of Prora, the grandiose resort planned by Hitler, was never officially completed; nowadays, a moment before it faces a redevelopment that will completely transform it into a gentrified resort, Liron Milstein visited the site and discovered a magical place one finds hard to believe was created as part of the Nazi vision.
A 20-minute walk parts the desolated railway station of Prora, Germany, from the Baltic Sea. Visitors coming to the station - two tracks, only one of which is active, two benches and nothing more - can’t imagine the wonder that rests behind the rows of trees and the two-lanes road full of vacationers packed cars. Except perhaps the faint scent of sea salt carried in the air, nothing prepares them to the marvelous coastal strip that will soon be revealed.
In this season the sun sets late, so even at 20:00, when we arrived, there was still plenty of daylight. We strolled along on the path leading from the “Center of Documentation of Prora” (Dokumentationszentrum Prora), passing the neglected “reception hall”, easterly adjoining it. Like many parts of the Prora complex, the hall was also never completed: its grandeur is reflected essentially in a pair of tall pseudo-Greek looking columns, covering a ruined vacant hall that is constantly flooded by rain.
Prora's coast stretches over five kilometers, and consists of a sequence of beaches: standard, nudist, one where it is allowed to make a fire (provided you pre-order the wood from the close by town authorities of Binz, for 50 euros) and so on. Apart from a narrow stonewall erected as part of the port that was never built, nothing will stand in your way.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler chose this beautiful coastal strip, bounding the island of Rügen from the east, as a construction site for the world’s largest vacation resort. The eight buildings that were planned - construction of which was completed, but never finished - are still standing just 150 meters from the shoreline; one houses a crowded youth hostel, in another operates the documentation center, and several others have already been occupied by the owners of cloned holiday apartments - part of the redevelopment the site is currently undergoing.
There are still only a few of these apartments, but this is apparently temporary: many visitors arrived at the developer's office on a cloudy Saturday, inquiring and gazing at a model apartment located inside a building currently under construction; the top stories are bedded with smashed walls lying flat on the floor; piles of metal rods and old cable reels rising up in the corners; shattered glass and dislocated toilets are scattered around; and bird feces, as well as lifeless nestlings adorn what remains of Hitler's megalomaniacal project. A setting fitting a horror film more than a resort.
Abundance of stars
I arrived to Prora after an interviewed with Marco Esseling, an historian who works at the Prora documentation center of the NEUE KULTUR Foundation. Last week saw the opening of an exhibition there, titled Angezettelt (instigated, freely translated), featuring anti-semitic propaganda going back to the 19th century, and displayed in small formats: stickers, stamps, love letters, matchboxes. Essling invited me to join him and his colleagues at the opening event and spend a weekend at the documentation center. I accepted the invitation, which allowed me to finally appreciate the place with my own eyes.
About a year ago, when I first reached the Atlantic ocean and bathed in its waters, I thought I was in heaven; while the Baltic Sea is not as beautiful and rich with colors as the ocean - watching it from the beach it’s actually reminiscent of the Mediterranean - everything changes after a brief plunge in its always cool water, which seem to comprise no more than a pinch of saltiness.
Being so remote from even the closest towns, Binz and Sassnitz, as night falls Prora is swathed in virtually complete darkness, so if you tilt your head back and look at the sky, multitudes of stars fill your eyes. The constellation known as the Great Bear I can also see from the balcony of Berlin home, but I have not seen Cassiopeia, the Milky Way and other stars that I don't even know their names, so clearly for years. On the second night, while sitting on the beach, I also noticed a shooting star and even the International Space Station (ISS) hovering hundreds of kilometers above my head.
There’s practically no nightlife in Prora: no bar, no restaurant, not even a kiosk. Although the museum stands next to an old-fashioned discotheque named “Malibu”, this establishment only opens on random Friday and Saturday nights. The nearby restaurant closes at 19:00, and rudimentary food stalls down the road roll down their shutters around the same time. If you want to rub shoulders with civilization when the sun sets, you have to walk or drive five kilometers to one of the nearby towns - where you will find an assortment of tourist traps. Others choose to sit around a campfire on the beach, stare at the abundance of stars, walk along the waterline, or make love under the sheltering darkness.
The apple fell far from the tree
The Second World War has put an end to the construction work of this historically and architecturally significant site. Since then it went through so many transformations there’s no longer any chance it will be restored to what was originally planned. It is very challenging to try and separate Hitler’s vision for Prora from his whole actions, but when trying for a minute to explore this holiday resort from an impartial perspective, one can undeniably see the benefits of this complex that was originally designed to offer some much rewarded relaxation to the hard working people of Germany. This is why it's a little heart aching to consider all this is going to disappear in favor of holiday apartments valued at half a million euros.
In 2004, following over a decade of attempts to sell the whole complex, the German government decided to start selling individual blocks. One of those entrepreneurs who bought the blocks, and the main person responsible for the capitalistic rebirth of Prora is businessman Ulrich Busch, son of Ernst Busch - a well-known communist singer who opposed the Nazi regime, fought against the Nationalists in the Spanish civil war, and a political activist in East Germany.
The renovation of the buildings - which involves demolishing and reconstructing the interior, as well as adding balconies (counter to the conservation rules) - is also complemented by the cutting down of the trees that grew on the dunes separating the complex from the beach. This rare piece of nature, which burgeoned wildly undisturbed for years and carries ecological importance, is not expected to survive for years to come; This is the how the free market works: no one is going to spend over two million ILS in a sea view apartment when the strand is cunningly hiding behind the trees.
So, assuming you still have no plans for the next summer, why don’t you book yourself a night in one of the hotels in the neighboring towns - or better yet: equip yourself with camping gear and visit the nearby forests. It's hard to guess how much the construction will progress by then, but it's quite clear that this corner of paradise, so rich with history, will not remain in its current form for many more years.
Translation: Ronny Shani
Originally published in Hebrew in Mako