Just a few kilometers outside of Oranienburg – in the middle of the forest lie the ruins of what used to be one of Germanys most modern Lung clinics, the Lungenheilstätte Grabowsee, most commonly referred to as the Heilstätte Grabowsee. Having survived both the first and second world war and Soviet Occupation, 124 years later it is only a shadow of its former self.

Tuberculosis and the worlds first Lungenheilstätte

Tuberculosis was ravaging the population of Europe in the 19th century. By 1880, every second death in Germany (in the age group between 15 and 40) was caused by tuberculosis. Often touted as a disease of the poor, as it rapidly spread through densely populated areas, those afflicted with the disease had little they could do against it.

By the mid 19th century, the theory that prolonged exposure to fresh clean air could help cure the disease was all the rage – and prompted the establishment of the world’s first Lungenheilstätte (literally Lung Sanatorium) to be opened in the village of Göbersdorf in lower Silesia in 1855 (Göbersdorf, like the rest of Silesia was ceded to Poland after 1945 and is known as Sokołowsko today).

Luftkurort Görbersdorf in 1880
Luftkurort Görbersdorf in 1880

The Tuberculosis-Sanatorium in Görbersdorf was so successful that it attracted guests from all over Europe, and it proved to be especially popular amongst guests from Russia. Villas and even a Russian Orthodox Church sprung up in the hills around the Clinic by 1901. The clinic expanded to such an extent that it could accommodate 1100 guests, while the village of Görbersdorf only had roughly 1000 inhabitants.

It was accepted knowledge at the time that climactic treatment in combination with ultraviolet therapy were essential to treating tuberculosis – so Heilstätten (Sanatoriums) sprung up predominantly in secluded alpine regions and forest regions. These Heilstätten, in their idyllic settings, gave off a romanticized picture of what life in the clinics could be like, though the reality was quite different as roughly 70% of tuberculosis patients actually ended up dying due to the disease.

Lungenheilstätte Grabowsee – a medical experiment

With Tuberculosis Sanatoriums generally having been built in higher altitudes, the question came up if it was possible to treat patients in the flat lowlands of northern Germany – rather than having to send patients off to the Mediterranean or the alps of Switzerland. The Red Cross decided to put this medical question to the test and leased 20 hectares (for 50 years) of secluded woodland next to Grabowsee (Lake Grabow) on the outskirts of Oranienburg in 1896.

postkarte heilstaette Grabowsee postcard sanatorium 1914 oranienburg
Heilstätte Grabowsee around 1914

The General Secretary of the Red Cross, Pr. Dr. Pannwitz was an energetic supporter of the Heilstätte Grabowsee project, and thanks to the help of quite a few generous citizens and the German industry (makes sense as a dead employee can’t work), an Engineers Corp set up 27 Military hospital barracks by the spring of 1896. After the initial results proved successful, the Red Cross decided to open up the Heilstätte Grabowsee for the masses.

Under the guidance of Otto von Bismarck, Germany introduced the Health Insurance Act on the 15th of June 1883. This law enshrined compulsory public health insurance for all workers (who earned less than 2000 marks a year), a pension and disability insurance as well as accident insurance. This development made medical access affordable and accessible for large parts of the population, and thus the demand for Sanatoriums and other medical facilities increased.

volksheilstaetten fuer tuberkuloese und verwandte anstalten im deutschen reiche 1904 map of tuberculosis sanatoriums in the german reich 1904
A map of all Tuberculosis and health related Sanatoriums in the German Reich in 1904

This prompted Health Insurance Companies to build their own Heilstätten to stem the demand (and probably take a slice of the money that was to be made) – the most Prominent example outside of Berlin being the Beelitzer Heilstätten and the Sanatorium E. There was a reason the industry decided to pitch in on the effort to build these Sanatoriums, as a stint in a Tuberculosis clinic would last months rather than weeks, causing hefty economic footprint. A worker who would get healthy quick, would also be back at work sooner.

As patients were spending so much time at the Heilstätte Grabowsee, the site was continuously expanded and modernized, and at its peak the area consisted of:

  • Thee two-story buildings with, with 59 and 54 beds
  • A single story barrack with 29 beds
  • a service building with a kitchen, mess hall, and offices
  • a machine house with an apartment for the machinist
  • a washhouse with a disinfection facility and apartments
  • a gas facility
  • a church
  • a chief doctors building
  • ten sleeping halls
  • a green house
  • a Barn with apartments for the coachmen and gardeners.

With this infrastructure in place, the Heilstätte Grabowsee could comfortably accommodate 200 patients. A stay at the Heilstätte Grabowsee initially cost 3 Mark per day (the equivalent of €11 or $12 in today’s money), and was later increased to 3,75 Mark per day. This cost, thanks to the Health Insurance Act introduced by Bismarck, was taken over by the Landesversicherungsanstalt (the statutory pension insurance, which was responsible for the insurance of the employed workers) and the Health Insurance Companies. Funnily enough, if you stay in a Hospital in Germany today – you have to pay €10 a day, while the rest is covered by your health insurance.

Heilstätte Grabowsee during the First and Second World War

During the First World War, the Heilstätte Grabowsee was opened up and uses as a military hospital, and was used to house numerous prisoners of War. The area around Berlin was a highly militarized one, and numerous prisoners of war camps were erected until 1918. Some traces can still be seen today, such as the White Maria – a now forgotten memorial erected in 1917 on prisoner of war cemetery.

The defeat during the first world war, and the ensuing economic crisis in Germany, forced the Red Cross to sell off the Heilstätte Grabowsee to the Landesversicherungsanstalt Brandenburg in June 1920. They invested and continued to expand the Lung Sanatorium, so that by 1929 its bed capacity had increased to 321, and by the end of its construction phase to in the mid 1930s, to 420. Around 1923, the Heilstätte Grabowsee briefly closed its doors for 1 1/2 years due hyperinflation.

The Heilstätte Grabowsee was never connected to the local sewage network, or the electricity network as it was (at the time) too far out. An underground network of sewage pipes was built, which essentially let the waste seep away deep underground – though this only worked out for a year or so as the pipes tended to clog up and create a waste swamp. The construction of a steam-sewage treatment plant solved the issue.

As for the electricity, petroleum lamps were initially used, which were later replaced by acetylene gas lamps (otherwise known as carbide lamps). A local acetylene gas storage and generator provided the buildings with the needed gas and electricity.

Grabowsee had some very unique and advanced features such as a coffin elevator at the back of one of the treatment buildings, which allowed the staff to discretely bring the dead to the nearby chapel without having to wheel them out in front of all the patients.

Another interesting feature was the underground electric “meal train”. While the meals were cooked and prepared in the main administrative building, an underground electric train shuttled the food into the “southern building” which then distributed the food via internal food lifts. The facility also included phones which connected to each room via internal lines, electric clocks as well as radio speakers.

By the 1930s, Oranienburg had developed into a military strategically important city – with it being one of the main research centers of the German atomic bomb, harboring the test center for the first “stealth fighter”, housing two concentration camps (KZ Oranienburg and KZ Sachsenhausen) as well as a host of other smaller military and research installations. The Nazis used slave Labour from the nearby KZ Sachsenhausen to work in the Klinkerwerk – a giant stone quarry that was meant to deliver raw materials for the newly envisions Reichshauptstadt Germania.

Albert Speer had planned to expand the Klinkerwerk to the north in early 1940, with an additional stone processing plant and stone storage area. The slave laborer’s in the unit “Kommando Speer” would have processed granite here, but pricing disagreements for the land as well as protests by the Lungenheilstätte Grabowsee delayed they expansion until mid 1940. The Heilstätte Grabowsee had complained that the ensuing dust from the granite works would disturb the recovery of the patients.

By the early 1940s, the Heilstätte Grabowsee was turned into a Reservelazarett (reserve hospital) of the Wehrmacht (the earliest death note I could find was dated to the 26th of February 1941). Another source mentioned that the Heilstätte was turned into a Hauptverbandsplatz (essentially a giant field hospital that’s set up when a large-scale confrontation is expected to happen) during the end phase of the War, though I couldn’t find any other source corroborate this.

The Soviets arrive at Grabowsee

Tuberculosis treatment changed drastically over the year, and by 1945, only seriously ill patients were sent to Sanatoriums. What also greatly helped the treatment of Tuberculosis was the development of the antibiotic streptomycin in 1943 which made active treatment possible in addition to being able to prevent the disease as well.

By 1945, the Heilstätte Grabowsee wasn’t primarily used to treat tuberculosis patients anymore – not that it mattered that as the Red Army rolled into Oranienburg much to the annoyance of the American Allies. The Americans, knowing that the Nazis had valuable technology in Oranienburg didn’t want the Soviets to get a hold of it, and deployed an intense bombing campaign over the area – destroying amongst other things the Auerwerke which had been enriching Uranium oxide for the Nazis. The effect was that Oranienburg still is the most radioactive area in Germany to this day (more on that in a different post).

The Red Army took over the Heilstätte Grabowsee and turned it into a military hospital, much like they did with Beelitz Heilstätten to the south of Berlin. The Soviets undertook some slight modifications, such as turning the morgue in the cellar into Sauna, and bricking up certain parts of the long connecting corridors. Not much else is really known about the goings on of the Soviets at Grabowsee – and it seems like no one can really seem to agree when the Russians even left.

While some sources claim that the Soviets left in 1991 (a date much to early), others claim the Russians left in 1995 (a bit late in my opinion). What we do know is that the Russian troops left Oranienburg in 1994 – so it’s safe to assume that one of these dates fits the bill.

Heilstätte Grabowsee until the early 2000’s

The Heilstätte Grabowsee was put under monument protection in 1994, but that didn’t really mean much – as the Sanatorium was left abandoned in the forest. While the Soviets had run the place down, it was still fully functional and habitable. That all changed over the next years.

soviet piano stage sanatorium tuberkulose heilstaette grabowsee sanatorium hospital oranienburg lost places abandoned urbex brandenburg germany deutschland

Copper and metal thieves stripped almost everything valuable from the buildings, while the elements added their fair share of damage. The entrance doors of the main administrative building were once decorated with an ornate leaf gold coated iron construction – (created by Prof. Siegfried Prütz) they once depicted the healing elements of Water, Air and Sunshine. Sadly, they’ve been stolen long ago, along with the lead coated windows of the radiotherapy room.

The usual vandals and idiots left their marks, burning down buildings (such as the Chapel in 2007) and chopping off the heads of the ornamental statues – both Hippocrates and a doctor statute in one of the hallways shared the same fate.

Despite the vandalism (and natures reclaiming of the area), small details have survived over the years. The entrance of the administrative building is still covered in beautiful tiles created by the sculptor Hans Lehmann-Borges depicting birds and squirrels – and the interior of the entrance hall still gives a glimpse of the grandeur the Heilstätte once had.

Multiple business ventures sprung up over the years, but non had been successful. In 2005, an organisation called Kids Globe leased the property with the aim to convert it into an international academy. Their mission statement can be found here: Kids Globe. In the meantime, two films have been filmed at the Heilstätte Grabowsee – a mediocre german horror film called “Heilstätten (which ironically is set in Beelitz) and the international blockbuster “The Monuments Men”.

Heilstätte Grabowsee today (2020)

While the organization has done a considerable amount to slow collapse of the buildings, the majority of the property is in terrible shape. After being abandoned for 20 years, the sanatorium on the outskirts of Oranienburg has almost entered a point of no return. Lessons one could have learned from the Beelitz Heilstätten were ignored (i.e. the property could have been used and repurposed if the State/owners would have stepped in earlier), and many of the buildings have been collapsing and slowly rotting away.

Almost all of the smaller outer buildings are completely rotten through and one would need a death wish to enter some of them, while the upper floors of the larger buildings are also showing signs of age. Beautiful details can still be found, but the overall experience is one of emptiness. For those interested in street art, there’s an abundance to be found here.

Heilstätte Grabowsee can be legally visited, simply e-mail or call the number on the Kids Globe website, and the friendly Mr. Hanke – who lives on the property with his Dog will set up an appointment with you. In general, its best to call 2 hours before you intend to show up. Visits aren’t free, the current rate is €30, while commercial photography etc. will set you back a bit more. Drones are explicitly prohibited.

I cannot stress this enough for those that intend to visit, don’t try and hop the fence illegally. Mr. Hanke is a friendly man, and the money goes to a good cause. (let alone the fact that you are illegally trespassing on someone’s home).

Here’s to hoping that the Heilstätte Grabowsee will see a revival (not of the Tuberculosis kind) in the next years.

Heilstätte Grabowsee Map | Heilstätte Grabowsee Lagepplan

heilstaette grabowsee lageplan map

Heilstätte Grabowsee Contact Information

[EN] Can you legally visit the Heilstätte Grabowsee?

Yes you can. You need to call the owner roughly 2 hours in advance, and he will let you onto the property

[DE] Ist die Heilstätte Grabowsee frei zugänglich?

Man kann legalen zutritt zur Heilstätte Grabowsee bekommen, wenn man sich 2 Stunden vorher beim Eigentümer meldet.

[EN] Heilstätte Grabowsee phone number

You can use the following phone number from the Kids Globe e.V to get in touch with the owners to get a tour of the Heilstätte Grabowsee: +49 17 52 42 52 75

[DE] Heilstätte Grabowsee Telefonnummer

Um die derzeitigen Eigentümer der Heilstätte Grabowsee zu erreichen kann man folgende Telefonnummer der Kids Globe e.V benutzen: +49 17 52 42 52 75

[EN] How much does it cost to visit the Heilstätte Grabowsee?

It will cost you €30 to visit the Heilstätte Grabowsee, but you will be allowed to take photos. There is a reduced price if you just want to wander around the area for a nice walk without taking photos. Drones are not allowed.

[DE] Was kostet der Eintritt zur Heilstätte Grabowsee?

Zurzeit kostet der Eintritt zur Heilstätte Grabowsee €30 (stand Mai, 2020), beinhaltet aber auch die Erlaubnis zur nichtkomerziellen Fotografie. Es gibt einen reduzierten Preis, wenn man sich das Sanatorium nur anschauen möchte ohne zu fotografieren. Drohnen sind verboten.

Heilstätte Grabowsee Address

Malzer Weg 19
16515 Oranienburg (Schmachtenhagen)

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