Kosmos Wiepersdorf


Petra Heymach: Bettina Encke von Arnim


Petra Heymach: Bettina Encke von Arnim

“On a beautiful Sunday morning, on April 22, 1945, the Russians suddenly occupied the peaceful old Wiepersdorf manor house.” This is how my grandmother, Bettina Encke von Arnim, described the events at Wiepersdorf Castle, where she had lived for several years with her mother, Agnes von Arnim, and her sisters. Through stories that were told about it, I was familiar with the old Wiepersdorf house as a small paradise, an enchanted world, since infancy. I knew that my mother and her sister had experienced a carefree childhood there during the darkest chapter of German history.

My grandparents, Bettina Encke von Arnim and her husband, Walther Encke, who lived in Berlin at the time, had parted with their children with a heavy heart and sent them to Wiepersdorf when they had been bugged and slandered in Berlin and my grandfather was taken into so-called “protective custody.” After the castle was occupied by the Russians in April 1945, the family, which locally consisted only of women, was forced to leave the grounds.

Because Bettina Encke von Arnim and her husband, who died in 1941, had verifiably embraced an anti-fascist stance, she managed, with the support of her friend Iwan Katz, to become involved in the distribution of land of the Wiepersdorf estate. She received five hectares of land to settle on. What at first seemed like a privilege soon turned out to be the prelude to a life of privation and draining exertion. It led to an unprecedented struggle for a house that she wished very much to see preserved as a culturally and historically significant site of Romanticism.

To this end, my grandmother made countless trips to Berlin: “In ice and snow, on the step or roof of the train, on milk cans,” as she wrote. And all this “in order to save the remaining property for the benefit of poets.” She was met with kindness and friendliness by the officials in Berlin and was even offered a position as caretaker of the castle. In Wiepersdorf, however, the mood among the settlers who were personally affected was very different. At a meeting, in keeping with the slogan “squires’ land in farmers’ hands,” they wanted to have Wiepersdorf Castle with its associated nursery and park divided up also.

My grandmother was the only one who voted against dividing up the leftover property and later reported: “I very much wanted to preserve the castle and the old cultural monuments ... The director launched into a diatribe against “country squires” and then said to my mother: “Frau von Arnim, you must leave today.” Some settlers, in fear of not getting the land that had been promised because of my grandmother’s vote, denounced her to the Russians. She was consequently arrested and taken to the prison in Luckenwalde. Highly alarmed, friends and Nazi opponents interceded on her behalf. Among them were Hulda Pankok, Iwan Katz, and Fritz Kuhr. Probably mainly due to the efforts of Iwan Katz, she was released after fourteen days and returned to Wiepersdorf.

My grandmother and her family sometimes received care packages and donations for their everyday needs from friends who had emigrated to the United States. She asked for hairpins and soap for her mother Agnes, but for herself she desired brushes and paint. As a trained artist, she sorely missed being able to paint, a feeling that she couldn’t burden the family with. In the evening, after the unaccustomed work in the fields, they sat in the dark because of a light curfew. So, in the time she could have painted, she had no light to do it in. My grandmother envied her painter friends, who had long since been able to resume working in Berlin and organize exhibitions. Meanwhile, her own paintings that had been rescued were being gnawed at by rats.

The yield of the modest piece of land on which she settled was meager, and even on this a tax was levied in the form of crops. So the women did not have enough to eat and became ill.

But despite their commitment and the hard struggle for survival, life in Wiepersdorf finally came to an end for my grandmother, Bettina Encke von Arnim, and her mother and sisters. An insolent note, an order from the District Office for Agriculture and Forestry dated September 20, 1947, stated that the members of the von Arnim family had to leave the district within three days. However, a year earlier, my grandmother was able to witness the founding of a German writers’ foundation there. From her new home in West Germany, she continued to follow with great interest the developments in the former family residence and its transformation into the Bettina von Arnim Artists’ Residency Center (in the GDR). There she could still enjoy a good number of years in which she was able to devote herself entirely to painting—in her words—her “true destiny.”

Petra Heymach was born in Biedenkopf/Hesse in 1951. After studying special needs education and psychology, she worked as a teacher with a special focus on language at a school in Berlin/Kreuzberg. Her interest in Bettina von Arnim and her family began at the age of 18. Initially, she approached the subject with staged readings such as Goethes leidige Bremse, Szenen einer Ehe (Literaturhaus Berlin) and various lectures such as Bettina, eine Revolutionärin? From 1989 onwards, she devoted herself specifically to family research and conducted research in the archives of the (former) GDR. In 1992, she mounted her first exhibition, Vom Familiensitz zum DDR-Künstlerheim Bettina von Arnim at Schloss Homburg (North Rhine-Westphalia). In 2000, intensive research began on the painter Achim von Arnim-Bärwalde for a conference at Schloss Wiepersdorf in 2001 with the contribution Ein Cravaller mit großen Feusten. This was followed by training as an exhibition curator at the UdK in 2014 and various further training courses on the subject in 2016. From May to July 2015, she curated the second exhibition at Schloss Wiepersdorf on the life and work of the painter Bettina Encke von Arnim with the accompanying book Die Malerei ist mein ganzes Glück.