Beloved Berlin Currywurst Stand Delivers a Bite of History


BERLIN — The night the Berlin Wall fell, 30 years ago this month, Waltraud Ziervogel’s husband, Kurt, came home with the news and urged his wife to join him in the joyous celebrations and a stroll through West Berlin, suddenly accessible to them for the first time in nearly three decades.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and I went to bed because I had the early shift,” said Ms. Ziervogel.

It may have been lost on her just then, but the world changed that night. When she pulled up the metal blinds of her sausage snack business at 4:30 a.m., the usually busy corner — just 400 yards from the wall — was even busier.

“It was like a big party. Everyone was up and happy and partying, and many wanted to buy a sausage — but I wasn’t allowed to take West money,” she said.

Three decades, tens of thousands of pork sausages and boatloads of curry-flavored ketchup later, Konnopke’s, the sausage stand under a subway overpass in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg that started its life in 1930 is still there, a monument to a working-class Berlin that has been all but priced out of existence — the all-night bars replaced by banks, upscale kitchen stores and vegan restaurants.

Like many other citizens of East Germany who found themselves facing the challenges of a capitalist system with little preparation, Ms. Ziervogel, who was 53 when the wall fell, was forced to adapt. But unlike most, she was already a successful businesswoman responsible for more than a dozen employees when the wall fell.

Still, the transition was hard. Her supply chain collapsed overnight, there were new taxes and new city regulations, and the changing tastes of her clientele. When the city rebuilt the subway viaduct that towers over the stand in 2010, officials tried to get her to change locations permanently. She resisted.

“I like to call it the golden West,” Ms. Ziervogel said sarcastically during an interview in her garden, where in the early years she grew tomatoes for ketchup that was unavailable in the communist state.

After a long fight with city officials, she managed to get permission to rebuild her stand completely in 2010 and reopened it early the next year. In the entire neighborhood, only a handful of retail businesses have survived the last three decades.

As the international lineup of hungry customers on most days (Konnopke’s is closed on Sunday) can attest, Ms. Ziervogel has not only survived but thrived.

Although it is hard to tell now, Prenzlauer Berg was a working-class district home to communists even before World War II. In the 1970s and ’80s, as the often war-damaged housing stock became increasingly decrepit and people moved away, the neighborhood became virtually the only place in East Germany where bohemian, gay and party scenes could take hold. Many leaders of the 1989 peaceful revolution lived there.

“Even East Berlin, which was such an overly controlled, horrible space, did allow these little pockets of tolerance,” said Alexandra Richie, an Oxford-trained historian who has written a history of Berlin.

Konnopke’s, which sits on a 50-foot median at the intersection of three major roads, remains the heart of the neighborhood. Celebrities, politicians and tourists regularly make the pilgrimage there. On its round birthdays (next year it will be its 90th), the company throws big street parties that are attended by local dignitaries, neighbors and longtime customers.

Before the wall fell, the stand’s 4:30 a.m. opening was timed to catch not early risers, but late-night revelers coming from the Schoppenstube, the iconic East Berlin gay bar.

“It was an exception — most of the rest of East Berlin had a curfew,” said Harald Hauswald, a street photographer who lived close to Konnopke’s in the 1980s and knew the neighborhood well.

But the staff had to work quickly. Before long, another bar, the Lolott, whose clientele was prone to fighting, would close, and they had to make sure the two very different crowds would not meet.

“We didn’t want anyone to get attacked,” said Heike Bucholz, 52, who has been working at Konnopke’s since 1984.

“When I hear someone call me Waltraud, I know its one of my old night customers,” said Ms. Ziervogel.

When Max Konnopke, Ms. Ziervogel’s father, started the business in 1930, he struggled at first. But one day he decided to load up his mobile kitchen into a trailer and haul it behind his motorcycle nearly 300 miles to Nuremberg, where he heard that the Nazi party was holding a big meeting.

As described in an official history published by Ms. Ziervogel and her daughter, Dagmar Konnopke (who took her mother’s maiden name after a divorce), her father was mistrustful of the Nazis, but the Nuremberg rally proved a boon for his business, giving him the means to expand.

Ms. Ziervogel married her husband, Kurt, who is now deceased, in 1957. They had two children: Dagmar, now 53, and Mario, now 56.

Ms. Ziervogel formally took over in Prenzlauer Berg in 1976 (a second outlet in Weissensee was given to her brother and later sold), when her father retired. He died at 84, three years before the wall fell.

But the biggest challenge came in 1990 with the reunification of East and West Germany. Not just because of a new set of suppliers, taxes and rules, but because a new universe of customers expected a different set of offerings.

Konnopke’s started selling French fries. The currywurst, which used to be served with a bun and a hot mug of broth, is now cut up and served on a paper plate. (A tiny plastic fork is provided.)

Wedding parties can now reserve tables in a roofed-over pavilion, which was opened in 2011, after the last major renovation, and seats 35. “I put out tablecloths and little bouquets,” said Ms. Ziervogel.

And there are now vegan currywursts.

“Frau Ziervogel fought like a bull to keep this place,” said Dieter Kohl, a regular customer from before the fall of the wall, who on a recent autumn day shared a currywurst meal with his wife. Mr. Kohl left the neighborhood years ago but still makes the occasional trek to Konnopke’s.

He’s not the only longtime Berliner who keeps coming back.

On the outside wall of the gold-colored-metal shop hangs a black-and-white postcard picture featuring a much smaller stand in the 1960s (before two rebuilds, in 1983 and 2010). In the shot, a young boy looks up at the store in front of him as his mother faces away from the camera.

“At least once a week, we have someone telling us: ‘I’m that little boy,’” Ms. Konnopke said.

Even now, Ms. Ziervogel is not done fighting. Starting this month, the city of Berlin decreed that she would have to remove four picnic tables because they were occupying space on a public walkway.

“Where will my customers sit?” said Ms. Ziervogel, who is certain that once the good weather comes around Konnopke’s will suffer a drop in revenue because of the missing seating.

Ms. Ziervogel predicted that the city tabloids would raise a storm about the missing benches, pressuring the city bureaucracy into reversing itself.

It would not be the first time. In 2012, the tabloids went wild over a fight between Ms. Ziervogel and her son, Mario, over naming rights for a currywurst business he opened just half a mile from the original site. The tabloids titled the affair the “Currywurst War.”

After six decades on her feet, Ms. Ziervogel prefers worrying about the books and the laws, leaving the day-to-day grind of running the business to her daughter.

“We have the fire brigade down the street, so we get those big fire truck sirens blasting by us at least eight times a day,” Ms. Konnopke said. “And then the subways right overhead, the trams, the traffic and the heat. It is physically exhausting.”


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