Finding the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee wasn’t easy. The graveyard being tucked away behind the composers’s neighbourhood of South Weißensee, it took a map guided walk through calm and neat streets with lovely names such as Puccinistraße, Mahlerstraße and the like. A big luxuriant gate sat on the end of the street and announced the dignity and grandeur of Jewish burial culture that the humble visitor was about to experience.
I had a sketchy idea about what this would look like: The Jewish Cemetery Weißensee was recently put on a list of future applicants for the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Given it’s size of 115.000 graves on an area of 42 hectare, it’s Europe’s biggest Jewish graveyard. The oldest tombs date back to 1880, when the cemetery was founded as Berlin’s heavily growing Jewish community needed more space for their parishioners. Over the decades, many families buried their dead here – most in ordinary, but still dignified graves and quite a few in splendid family mausolea. Many of them were still visible, making a walk through the rows of graves a walk through history.
I have a somewhat peculiar interest in historical graveyards, especially during late spring and autumn, when old and beautiful cemeteries such as Bethlehemskirchof at Kreuberg’s Blücherstraße turn into tranquil places full of history and culture, where the birds chirp in the birches and few visitors come to see the magnificent graves and mausolea.
The Jewish Cemetery Weißensee was said to exceed other historical graveyards not only in size, but also in splendour. Being more of a forest cemetery, it would surely proof to be one-of-a-kind place. I had to see it.
To Jews, cemeteries are holy grounds. The community requires every male visitor to put on headdress and kindly offers kippah’s to those how forgot to bring a hat. I put on one of those and ever since than struggled with the wind blowing through the trees and, much to my embarrassment, my kippah away. I set off to immerse into cottonwood forest and then, there it was: this usual notion of being isolated from the frantic city, the silent and grave atmosphere of century old cemeteries such as this particular and quite special one.
There was more green than I expected: Many of the crooked gravestones, that bore Hebrew epigraphs, were overgrown with big ferns and dense layers of ivy. Trees would rise from nearly everywhere, the graves and narrow path notwithstanding. Some tombstones were broken and I wondered if these were the wretched remnants of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism. Unlike Christian cemeteries, no flowers adorned the graves; visitors put pebbles on the tombstones here and there, a fashion quite common for Jewish mourning culture. Later on, I read that Jewish graves wait for Judgement Day – that explained why the graves were in such shape.
However, there were also the promised mausolea – not only few, there were quite many. Big ones, exceeding everything I knew from typical Christian cemeteries. Marble, sandstone and granite, delicate pillars with lavish capitals, sprawling entablatures and sometimes even domes contributed to pompous sepulchral structures.
I wondered how this place rich of Jewish culture could survive anti-Semitic and Holocaust times both before and during the Third Reich. I learned that many graves date back to the Nazi era, most of them for community members who committed suicide. Almost two thousand of the here buried people took their own lifes during the Nazi reign, in sheer fear of pursuit and deportation. Another eight hundred graves mourn those whose ashes were brought from concentration camps. The figures for the murdered victims, who weren’t buried here because their bodies or ashes were never retrieved, but received a grave anyway so their families received a place to grieve for them, are said to be much higher. Uncounted other Jews were illegally and undocumentedly buried here during the last months of the Nazi reign. The war did it’s damages, too, leaving the bigger buildings in ruins.
After the Liberation, the fate of the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee did not brighten up. The district fell under Soviet, then East German rule which ignored the cemetery, supposedly because Jewish life was wiped out then. Few but unswerving people strived for the preservation and reconstruction of the graveyard, until more then twenty years after the Nazi era ended the site was put a “preservation order of cultural history” on. But the Jewish cemetery was at stake once again in the mid-eighties when an important highway was planned to span over the graveyard. It was planned to go over a strip of land that was conceived as a passage from the beginning but never saw any traffic. During the turmoil of war, many anonymous Jews were buried here, rendering it holy ground to stay untouched. It was due to the effort of the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, that State Council chairman Erich Honecker dropped the plan, thus saving the cemetery.
Today, the empty public coffers don’t allow the preservation and maintenance for the heritage-protected Jewish Cemetery. Costing about forty million Euros, both the Jewish community and the city cannot afford the restoration and maintenance of the graveyard. They proposed to apply for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in order to obtain the funds needed. Let’s hope they succeed and the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee can retain its silent and grave atmosphere and become a centre of Jewish life again.