Friday, 14 September 2012

The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee

Entrance to the Jüdischer Friedhof Berlin-Weißensee
Holocaust Memorial
The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee was consecrated in 1880. It covers 42 acres, making it the largest remaining Jewish cemetery by area in Europe, and has 115,000 grave sites. It is a bit hard to find the entrance - there is only one, on Herbert-Baum-Straße - and once in a bit hard to find your way out. Note for goyim male visitors by the way - you should cover your head when visiting the cemetery; a cap or hat will do, but you can borrow a kippah from Reception beside the entrance if you forget to bring anything. And otherwise dress and behave respectfully of course: I don't need to tell you not to wander around in loud Hawaiian shirts or bikinis, smoking and drinking beer do I?

The cemetery resembles Highgate Cemetery in North London, in that it has avenues of crumbling mausolea in mock-ancient architectural styles, overgrown with ivy, and draped with cobwebs. By comparison Highgate is slightly smaller at 37 acres, and has 53,000 grave-plots. And unlike Highgate the Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee has to my knowledge never had a vampire problem. Though it remains similarly Romantically Gothik, helped by the family name of the first set of tombs near the entrance:

Familie Frankenstein
Also near the entrance, and a slap on the wrists to me for being flippant just then, is the grave of Herbert Baum. It is after him that the street on which the cemetery entrance is located, and he was a fearless anti-fascist resistance fighter and agitator during Berlin's National Socialist years. He ended his life aged just thirty by being tortured to death at Moabit prison in 1942 (the foundation remains of Moabit prison can still be seen, though discretely hidden away, opposite the entrance to Berlin Hauptbahnhof).

Herbert Baum was a member of various left-wing Jewish youth movements and together with his wife, Marianne Baum, founded a group of friends vehemently opposed to Nazism. They agitated by openly distributing leaflets, and on 18 May 1942 launched a fire-bombing of an anti-communist and anti-Semitic display, orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels, in the Berliner Lustgarten. Herbert Baum, Marianne, and his group were quickly rounded up and sentenced to execution at Plotzensee Prison. Herbert died under torture on June 11 1942, and his wife Marianne was hung to death at Plotzensee on 18th August. All in all 500 Jewish men and women were rounded up by the Nazis in revenge for the arson incident, half of them shot or hung soon after, half sent to concentration camps. Of the Baum group, the names of some of them together with their young age are recorded on the reverse of Baum's gravestone:

As an aside, there is a memorial stone to the Baum group's ill-fated arson attack, in the Lustgarten on Museuminsel where the incident took place. I bet not one person in a thousand of the tourists who notice it knows why it is there.

It is very moving to wander around the rows of gravestones, tombs, and mausolea. I wonder how many have similar stories to Baum's behind them, though the most impressive family crypts belong to rich and successful Jews of the late Nineteenth century who couldn't have imagined how events would have turned out for their descendants. Here are a sample of photographs to help give you a feeling of the cemetery:

I don't think any Jews today bear the name Adolph

Occasionally you will see gravestones pock-marked with gunshot holes.
As elsewhere in Berlin, the last days of the Battle for Berlin involved one-on-one street-fighting that extended even into the cemeteries. Indeed, many Jews hid in the cemetery during the final days of the war.

Memorial park to over 12,000 dead Jewish soldiers who fought for Germany in World War I.
In total, over 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought in that war, many as volunteers.
Monumental altar designed by Alexander Beer,
dedicated in 1927 to the  Jewish soldiers of the First World War buried here.

Some of the mausolea have blue glass skylights which add an interesting effect.

I like the two gravestones here of Sara and Jsaak Rosenthal, man and wife, leaning together in death.
Jews from across Europe who came to liberal Berlin in the late nineteenth century are buried here, including French Jews.

Note the stones laid on the top of the gravestone on the right, a Jewish symbol of respect.

What you notice in contrast to Victorian cemeteries such as Highgate, apart from the Hebrew writing and lack of crosses of course, are that Jewish tradition doesn't include statues of weeping angels or indeed any figurative statuary.

One symbol you do see frequently is that of hands giving the priest's blessing:

This usually indicates a priestly lineage, and here it is on the gravestone of the family Lewin, the Polish form of Levi, the tribe to whom Moses and his brother Aaron ('The Priest') belonged.

Also you often see the Lion of Judah (centre gravestone):

And of course, the Star of David is everywhere. Here it has the letters 'Peh' and 'Nun' either side, which you also see frequently at the head of Jewish gravestones, and is shorthand for 'here lies buried':

Another symbol on gravestones is the menorah, or seven-branched lamp-stand. A bit of google research indicates these are usually on the tombs of women, but that doesn't seem to apply here (either that or Jacob and David have some explaining to do):

I think there is probably a rich vein of symbolism that could be followed here, but that would require a good deal more scholarship than I have now. Which reminds me, another popular symbol in the Weißensee cemetery is of a stone book on a tree plinth. Note here the memorial front centre to Saly Levi, who was a rabbi (Rabbiner) and therefore a scholar:

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed visiting your blog. My maternal grandfather, Dr. med. Ernst Moser is buried at Weissensee, and my family had the opportunity to visit his grave in 2001. He managed to survive the war living underground in Berlin, but of his five other brothers, four were murdered by the Nazis


I would be delighted if you wish to leave a comment!
Comments are moderated so there might be a delay before they appear on my blog.