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:






Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Sächsischen Schweiz - The Saxon 'Switzerland'

Die Bastei
I am always a little wary of regions that compare themselves to Switzerland. It's usually the sign of a fevered imagination by people who have never actually been there.

In the English Peak District for instance, the spa town of Matlock Bath was given the epitaph 'Little Switzerland' by upper-class tourists who couldn't go on the Grand Tour because of the blockade of Britain by Napoleon. Pleasant though Matlock Bath is, its limestone cliffs could not easily be mistaken as part of the Alps. Not unless Davos is inundated every weekend with a tide of motorbikers like Matlock Bath is.

Marketing folk in the regional German Tourist Boards seem not to be immune to the delusional Swissification bug either. The state of Brandenburg for example has its Märkische Schweiz Nature Park. Again, nice spa towns in a pleasant region to visit, but could only be imagined as coming close to a Swiss landscape in comparison with the rest of Brandenburg, where any hill over 50m is noteworthy.

So, my expectations were not pitched all that high when we set out for a day-trip to the Sächsischen Schweiz, or the 'Switzerland' of Saxony.

Our entry-point into the Sächsischen Schweiz was the health resort of Kurort Rathen. We reached there using an EC train to Dresden, then a regional S-Bahn from Dresden to Rathen, a journey of around three hours.

Alternatively, you could catch a paddle-steamer down the Elbe from Dresden.

Paddleboat 'PD Kurort Rathen', built 1896

Rathen is a village of some 500 inhabitants straddling the river Elbe. Towering over its northern edge are sheer limestone cliffs with interesting rock formations including one called 'die Bastei' or 'the bastion', named because its finger-like pinnacles formed part of the defenses of  Felsenburg Neurathen (rock castle Neurathen). Further information about Rathen can be found (in a kind of English) here.

That's where we are heading for - the top of those cliffs.
To cross the river from the Bahnhof to the start of the pathway up to die Bastei you must take a short ferry-trip at a cost of 1,50€ per person for a round-trip. The ferry itself is a protected monument, and ingeniously uses the flow of the river against a fixed cable to propel visitors across.

Rathen Fähre
Rathen is a pretty village of half-timbered houses that actually do have an Alpine feel about them. It is evident that the  Kurort is geared up for visitors, whether weekend Wanderinnen & Wanderer, or taking the Luftkur.



Matlock Tor
Sorry, I mean die Bastei above Rathen. 
Rathen: beginning of the trail up to die Bastei.
Last chance to get a postcard! 

For comparison with our old stomping grounds, die Bastei are 194 metres high above the Elbe, whereas the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath (Derbyshire's Little Switzerland) rise to 169 metres above the river Derwent. The Heights of Abraham have the advantage of a cable car taking you to the top of them. However the staired path up to the Bastei is an enjoyable climb through an enchanting forest with occasional glimpses of the serpentine Elbe getting more and more distant below. Half-way up a busker filled a dell with his crystal-toned voice as he sang one of Schumann's Lieder. Now you definitely wouldn't get that serendipitous attraction in Matlock, even if you could hear him above the roar of motorbikes.


Looking down on Rathen on the Elbe

At the top of die Bastei you can pay to have a look around the ruins of  the mediaeval Felsenburg Neurathen. Though it has an interesting history - mentioned first in 1239 when it was owned by Czech nobles until being taken by battle by the Saxon Electors in 1469 - it was constructed in wood and only the stone foundations, some rooms carved into rocks and a cistern survive.

Felsenburg Neurathen
(from the Basteibrücke)
We didn't explore the rock castle, instead being enticed by an awesome bridge between the spires of die Bastei.

die Basteibrücke



The Basteibrücke we see today was built in sandstone in 1851 to replace a wooden bridge. Its impressive seven arches span a 40m deep gorge called the Mardertelle (ein Marder is a pine marten, but we didn't see any), and it was built to accommodate a tourism boom that began in the mid-nineteenth century. The tourism continues today, and it was a bit of a squeeze getting past everybody who wanted to capture their loved ones with the view behind on their mobile phones. And the views are truly spectacular. It is astounding just to imagine what forces of tectonics, glaciation, wind, rain, and time created this landscape of eroded Jurassic limestone towers and calcareous sandstone mountains.







It looks like the steamboat from Fitzcarraldo down there!



The Lilienstein table-top mountain rises in the distance
It was a bit puzzling that so many people were around who you wouldn't have thought could have climbed the path up through the woods, either because of foot-wear, estimated physical fitness, or miniature dogs in tow. But when we reached the plateau just beyond the hotel we found out why: there is actually a hotel built on the top, with a service road for cars and the inevitable Bockwurst and Bier hut. Not that we were complaining, as we got a refreshing cup of tea there. The hotel was built on the grounds of an inn that had been erected here in 1826, and at one point there had been plans c.1900 to build a steam railway up to it from the Elbe.

This is Germany! Of course there will be Bier and Wurst to be had at the top of a mountain!
Once you have conquered die Bastei, that's not the end of the visitor's enjoyment. Oh no! There are many paths and trails to follow through the forests, with sudden breath-taking glimpses of ravines and sheer cliffs.

We descended back to Rathen on part of the Malerweg or Painter's Trail. Before the steps up from Rathen were created or the road up to the Inn was laid down, this was the way to die Bastei taken by Romatic artists in search of the awesome and the sublime. One oil-painter attracted to the region's unique landscape was my favourite 19th C. German artists, Caspar David Friedrich, e.g. Felsenslucht. Coincidently, my favourite 19th C. English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was similarly attracted to Matlock Tor.

The weather was starting to get a bit changeable, and at times the views we were seeing were straight out of a dark Gothik novel.


The route down took us on slippery steps and through narrow wooded ravines. It was like we were picking our way through the Misty Mountains and would come across an entrance to Khazad-dûm at any moment.



At the bottom of one of those limestone columns, looking up




Near the base of the cliffs we came across a guesthouse with running waterfall included.


In fact, for 30cent they would turn it on to full gush for you for thirty seconds!

Der Amselfall


You think I'm joking? Oh no I'm not!


Soon we came to the end of the trail, and the picturesque Amselsee where you could hire a boat and row beneath the shadow of the Elbsandsteingebirge.


And so, back to the railway station, and the long journey home, when we could reflect on our taste of Switzerland, Saxon-style.

So what if there weren't any ski-lifts, cuckoo clocks or Toblerone? This was a very enjoyable day out, and somewhere we will have to return to and explore further. We only explored a small part of the Sächsischen Schweiz National Park, but from the spectacular views from die Bastei it looked like there were plenty more hills to climb, even if they weren't quite as high as those mountains Maria von Trapp climbed.

Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!