Auf Wiedersehen to Germany’s beloved Paternoster elevators

The Schoeneberg town hall, which has been a mostly quiet administrative place since John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner” from a platform out front, was mobbed a couple weeks back.

The crowds weren’t there to register new addresses or apply for passports, the normal sort of task that brings Berliners to a city building. Instead, they were there to ride the elevators.

Or, rather, to ride the “Personenumlaufaufzug,” literally the cyclic personal elevator, an almost 150-year-old British-invented conveyance for moving from floor to floor that became a German fixture and is now endangered by a new safety law.

The contraptions don’t stop to pick up or discharge passengers – hence their nickname, the “Paternoster,” or “Our Father,” reflecting that in operation they resemble rosary beads passing through a hand.

Effective June 1, the non-stopping lifts became off limits to anyone who hasn’t taken a class in how to use one and been issued a certificate to that effect.

That means visitors to places such as the Schoeneberg town hall aren’t allowed to use them, though, as officials note, they are impossibly tempting, especially to novices. The result has been that public buildings equipped with the elevators either have had to post guards on every floor or turn the elevators off.

Turning them off was the much cheaper alternative. So on their last day of operation, Berliners packed themselves onto the few remaining public ones.

The Paternoster is a piece of European history. First used in London in the mid-19th century, though reports of the precise date differ, it’s a remnant of Old World charm. Only one has been installed in Germany since 1973, when a court ruled against construction of new ones.

The Paternoster consists of smallish, often wooden, boxes on cables that come in side-by-side pairs – one up, one down – and are in constant motion. They move in an elongated loop. Without pushing a call or floor button, riders step into one of the boxes to travel to another floor. If a rider stays on for the full circuit, he’ll move up to a top floor, then head sideways, and then ride down to the basement, where the car will travel sideways again, before moving back up.

In his 1995 novel “Too Far Afield,” Nobel Prize-winning German author Guenter Grass described the Paternoster at the privatization agency for East Germany, the “restlessly obedient escalator,” as a symbol for the “mechanics of the transformation process.”

“So much grandeur. So much descent. So much beginning and end.”

A 1993 article by the Associated Press called them “a chair-less Ferris Wheel that never stops.” In addition to the lack of chairs, there are no doors. Users merely hop on and hop off. Though “merely” is a relative concept.

When officials at the Schoeneberg city building turned one on last week for a McClatchy reporter, an American tourist noted, “It’s kind of scary.”

And scary is the reason behind the new riding limitations, part of a nationwide industrial safety law.

Still, German workers love the things. There is never any waiting for an elevator, and while only one to three people can fit into a car at a time, it saves time and effort for those who have to go up and down stairs all day long.

Daniel Krueger, a city councilman representing Schoeneberg, says that past attempts to shut down the beloved people movers have failed, and he hopes this one will as well.

Danger is everywhere in life, he notes.

“You can break a leg walking down the stairs,” he said. “Should we close all the staircases?”

Are Paternoster injuries common?

“Not at all, very uncommon,” he explained, then paused. “There have been a few lethal incidents.”

The most recent of those was here, he notes. According to official German governmental insurance reports, the case involved a workman who in 2002 went against Paternoster policy and tried to wheel a hand-truck on with him. The hand-truck got caught and, well, Krueger explains, “cut off his head.”

So, basically safe, but there are going to be some decapitations?

“No, no, we fixed that,” he explained. “We added light sensors that shut them down if anything is wrong, or outside the frame of the box.”

As an example of their safety, he noted that during the mob scene on May 29, the machines were misused so often that building officials eventually turned off the warning sirens. Still, while novices tripped sensors, no one was injured.

Tripping while stepping into or off the moving floor isn’t uncommon. But most injuries tend to involve either unfamiliarity or alcohol. Or both.

A recent Der Spiegel magazine article noted that Paternosters, on average, have one accident for every 250 years of operation. German insurance reports actually note more people are killed by traditional elevators than by Paternosters (there are, however, a lot more elevators).

But Germans, and there are more Paternosters in operation in Germany today than in any other country, believe the Paternoster is also a lot more fun than a normal elevator. As evidence, they note that Hollywood stars from George Clooney to Tom Hanks have insisted that a highlight of a Berlin visit was riding the Paternosters at the Axel Springer publishing offices.

A Hamburg office party famously included a final stunt of 14 people cramming into one car (meant for a maximum of three), a record that “sadly will stand until eternity now,” an article in der Tagesspiegel noted.

“I used them every day at the office here,” Krueger noted. “And I admit, when you get in, smell the wood, listen to the muted clanking, there was always a sense of coming home to them. Even after years and years, hopping on and hopping off is a bit of a thrill in the workday.”