Hope blooms for refugee in Berkeleys community garden

Karl Linn grew up on the Immenhof — a 15-acre fruit-tree farm in Germany that, when in bloom, was “just like a fairyland.”

It also turned into a refuge, for once Hitler came to power, 10-year-old Karl, the only Jewish child in the area, became a frequent target of anti-Semitic harassment.

The feeling of comfort he received from the fruit trees has never left Linn, who now lives in Berkeley. In fact, it has turned into a lifelong passion.

In the 1990s, he spearheaded the building of a community garden in North Berkeley, and that effort is followed in a documentary “A Lot in Common,” which will air on KQED Channel 9 this Sunday.

But Linn has done a lot in his 80 years that is not included in the one-hour documentary.

In 1933, only two months after Hitler came to power, the Nazis ransacked his house and almost killed his father, who consequently left for what was then Palestine. Karl and his mother followed a year later. They established a farm in a cooperative agricultural settlement, Kfar Bialik, near Haifa.

As a teenager, Linn joined an underground paramilitary organization, proud to defend his new homeland and fight against the British. “Being able to fight back was an empowering experience to me at that time,” he wrote in a brief memoir called “Shattered Dreams in the Contested Holy Land,” discussing the paradox of being a pacifist who believes in nonviolence and feeling compelled to defend pre-state Israel.

In 1941, Linn graduated from the Kadoorie Agricultural School and joined the kibbutz movement. After training on Kibbutz Dagania, he helped co-found a new kibbutz, Maagan Michael.

Linn left the Middle East in 1946 for Switzerland to study psychoanalysis. From there, he immigrated to New York, where he became both a psychotherapist and a landscape architect. One of his best-known projects was the interior of The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. But even though that venue has much more prestige than his other projects, he’d rather talk about his community gardens.

After working as a professor at several universities on the East Coast, Linn retired to Berkeley in 1987.

“I felt much more at home here; the East Coast didn’t do my rheumatism any good,” he said, in his thick German accent. “I also found the landscape absolutely exhilarating; it’s reminiscent of the Carmel in Haifa. It’s an extraordinary piece of the earth and I’m so fortunate to live here.”

Once here, he got involved in the anti-nuclear movement. He co-founded an organization called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility as well as Berkeley EcoHouse and Community Garden Collaborative.

Over the years, he developed an interest in developing common public spaces, such as gardens, in urban areas — particularly in the inner city.

As several experts in “A Lot in Common” say, in most urban areas, there is little, if no sense of community. No matter the economic class of the neighborhood, residents naturally feel safer when they know their neighbors.

Linn ascribes to that notion, and he bases it on his own experience living on a kibbutz.

As a Jew, Linn says he feels safest living in a multicultural society.

“Jewish people are not secure unless other people feel secure,” he said. “If you want to create security for Jews, you have to create conditions where people get to know one another and are responsible for each other and build a sense of community.”

And that’s what he set out to do with the Peralta Community Garden, located on the corner of Peralta and Hopkins in North Berkeley.

While working on another garden, which was eventually named after him, Linn noticed an abandoned lot across the street. Not only was it enclosed by barbed wire but it had the unique distinction of having BART trains run underneath.

Linn learned that the land was owned by BART, and with the help of Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio, he set out to lease it in order to turn it into a community garden.

The process took about seven years, from start to finish, and each step of the way is followed by “A Lot in Common” producer and director Rick Bacigalupi.

Bacigalupi was first introduced to Linn when he was filming a segment on Carl Anthony, an African American co-founder of Urban Habitat, who considers Linn his mentor. Bacigalupi was struck by Linn right away.

“Here’s a guy who had terrible experiences in his childhood but has taken those experiences of hatred and transformed them into love in a public way,” he said.

Following the project from start to finish “was the hardest part, keeping your eyes on the finished project and sticking with it no matter what,” said Bacigalupi.

The film focuses not only on the garden — where both flowers and vegetables are grown — but on the relationships built around it.

There is the psychic who blesses the garden with her powers. There is the African American man and his grandson. There is the single mother who is stricken with breast cancer. And then there is the lesson that doing something in community can often be difficult, as everyone is not always apt to agree.

And Linn’s floppy-hatted presence is shown throughout. When Linn talks about the garden, one really gets the sense that while indeed it is a community effort, it is also his baby, as he boasts about it like a proud father.

“It’s multidimensional, as it has individual plots and communal plots,” he said, which “provides us a forum for nurturing neighborhood community.”

Furthermore, while there have been tensions between people with differing visions, Linn has also seen the garden bring out the best in people — it seems to have a magical effect. Several artists have donated their work, or have charged less than usual. The garden has many pieces of art, such as the colorful mosaic benches and the ornate metal gate adorned with dragonflies, ladybugs and other creatures.

Local businesses have also donated to the garden.

Two years ago, when Linn had a ceremony to dedicate it as a peace garden, he wanted to plant a wooden pole that would have “peace with justice” written in four languages: English, German, Hebrew and Arabic.

“I found a wood carver, and when I told him what I wanted, he wanted to charge me $350. But once I took him to the garden, he said he would do it for nothing,” said Linn.

Linn has been active for five years with the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group.

“I got involved in dialogue and really became much more intimate and familiar with the plight of the Palestinians,” he said. “I know how it feels to be Jewish, and have been persecuted, constantly fearing for my life, and the lesson I learned from the Holocaust is that it’s important for people to know one another in depth.”

The dialogue group recently held its fourth annual potluck lunch in the garden.

And now, from the summer solstice to the fall equinox, on every fourth Sunday of the month, from 2 to 5 p.m., different events will take place in the garden, from poetry to jazz.

“The garden touches a core of humanness,” Linn concluded. “Because of all the war and terrorist activities and means of mass destruction, people think human nature at its core is warring. But there is a lot of evidence that human beings are really wonderfully put-together cosmic creatures. When I see all this volunteerism it gives me confidence that a peaceful society is possible.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."