Queen’s Gambit Orphanage is German Jewish-Built Castle that was Seized by Nazis
The hidden, tragic story of Schloss Schulzendorf, built by a Berlin department store owner, confiscated by Third Reich, obscured by the Soviets, restituted, abandoned, rediscovered
In the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” budding chess prodigy Beth Harmon is sent to an orphanage located in 1960s Kentucky. The filming locale for Methuen Orphanage, however, was actually an abandoned, Jewish-built castle outside Berlin called Schloss Schulzendorf.
Since “The Queen’s Gambit” dropped last fall, a stream of “on-location” pilgrims have visited the castle. At least one of them — photographer Felipe Tofani — said he regrets not having learned about the castle’s past before visiting, in part because there is no signage on-site about the structure’s remarkable history.
“At first, my only goal was to visit the Schloss because it was a location on the show,” said Tofani, who usually photographs abandoned Soviet bases and other World War II ruins.
“But the castle’s past was way more interesting to me. Reading about the history afterwards made the trip to Schulzendorf even more worthwhile,” Tofani told The Times of Israel.
Built in neo-Renaissance style, the castle has an imposing central tower and glass-roofed greenhouse, or winter garden. For “The Queen’s Gambit,” digital editing helped the medieval-looking tower perfectly match the historic building façade. The crumbling roof received dozens of new, CGI-generated shingles, among other alterations.
Behind the imposing walls of Schloss Schulzendorf today, the past is similarly hidden — even though the castle’s history is a microcosm for twentieth-century Jewish life in Germany.
Located in the heart of its namesake village near the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, the current Schloss Schulzendorf structure was built by Moritz Israel in 1889.
The Israel family owned Berlin’s oldest and largest department store, Kaufhaus Nathan Israel. After Moritz decided to sell his shares of the business to his brother, he built the castle on grounds that once hosted a knight’s estate.
After the castle’s construction, the home was gifted by Moritz Israel to his son, Richard, a World War I veteran, and his new wife, Bianca Cohn. For three decades, the couple generously funded developments in town, from providing access to clean drinking water to building schools. They also paid for the town to have electrical lines installed.
During the early years of Nazi rule, the couple helped their children and grandchildren flee Germany. In 1939, Richard Israel was dispossessed of Schloss Schulzendorf. The couple was transported to Theresienstadt, a hybrid ghetto-concentration camp where Richard died in 1943. Bianca survived the war and lived for another 20 years in Hanover.
After 1945, the couple’s beloved Schloss Schulzendorf found itself in Soviet-controlled East Germany, where the castle’s history under National Socialism was suppressed. During those years, the property — including a chapel and several outhouses — was used as a “resettlement home” and for mechanical workshops.
In 1993, four years after the Berlin Wall fell, Schloss Schulzendorf was returned to descendants of the Israel family. For whatever reasons, the family has not maintained the site, although activists and bloggers have called for “a restoration that honors the Israel family’s fate and legacy.”
Called a “sleeping beauty” by some visitors, the castle is currently abandoned and in a state of decay, except for the occasional film shoot. Several blogger-photographers have written about trespassing, including one adventurer who exited after discovering a balcony was “moist and slippery,” according to his blog.
Although photographer Tofani did not attempt to enter the building, he said he was unprepared for the experience last November.
“I just wish I knew about its history before going there so I could have seen it with a different perspective,” said photographer Tofani. “This was the first time I explored a place that had such a distinguished and tragic past,” he said.
Since visiting the castle with his cameras and drone, Tofani has been contacted by several admirers of his photos and website, called Fotostrasse. According to the photographer, the history of Schloss Schulzendorf is what keeps people interested in learning about the property, just as much as scenes from “The Queen’s Gambit.”
“I believe most people that got in touch with me felt the same as I did,” said Tofani. “They were curious about the location from the series but, once they knew the historical aspect, everything changed and the Schloss became more than a movie location.”