The winter days in Berlin are short so darkness descends early. It was necessary not to wait too long into the day to take a 45 minute trip to Weissensee Cemetery. As bleak as the weather was, it seemed most appropriate for our journey to the oldest and largest existing Jewish cemetery in Europe, inaugurated in 1880.
After meeting up with Jewish historian, Dr. Martin von Ostrowski, we took a bus to Alexander Platz, once the symbol of east Berlin. Although consumerism has settled in with a passion in the once communist are , the grey concrete socialist high buildings are reminder symbols of the old GDR. From there, we waited for streetcar which took us as close as possible to Martin Baume Strasse.
The uniqueness about Weissensee Cemetery is that it wasn’t destroyed during WW II. During out 20 minute walk from the tram stop to Herbert Baume Strasse, I asked Dr. von Ostrowski, a non Jew, why this unprecedented gesture by the Nazis. The answer was quick and concise. It was just too far from the centre of Berlin to be of interest to them. A good thing too, since many Berlin Jews were able to hide and survive the war in this 40 acre space. Records show that approximately 5,000 Jews survived in Berlin.
The street on which Weissensee Cemetery is located, Martin Baume Strasse, is named after a leader of the secret Jewish resistance movement in Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich and who also was a Socialist.
Although Dr. von Ostrowski, a non Jew, hadn’t visited Weissensee Cemetery for 5 years, the raise in Jewish heritage travel has increased therefore there’s been a major interest in this cemetery where over 115,000 Jews have been buried.
Orthodox Jews were separated with their own field and adhered to strict rules such as no cremations.
From the corner of Martin Baume Strasse, a cul de sac, looking to the end of the quiet street of grey concrete block residential apartments, is a large yellow brick building fronted by a huge black wrought iron fence. Given that many concentration camps had similar entrances, I hadn’t expected this and had a sudden sense of horror. However, as we approached, I could see a well manicured garden, the building is for administration. It’s a finely designed almost non descript edifice with no indication of what it is used for. However, inside are important historical documentation, an archive, of many Berliners who perished, how, where, when.. The German meticulousness with keeping documentation of deportees and victims have ironically been a great help.
There are paths leading to sections of the cemetery are divided in into triangles, squares and trapezoids. Instead of seeing unkempt sites, the several maintenance men were busily raking the sandy borders beside the cleanly swept stone walkway. Some crumbling, rotted head stones or ancient nameless stones still are upright. These may have been desecrated or just blurred by the natural elements of age which have destroyed the facing. Dr von Ostrowski admits at times there has been vandalism. He vividly recalls the 103 graves which were destroyed in 1999. There’s no sign of it here now.
Vines look as though they have been carefully placed to adorn old graves. Higher headstones on a whole, are legible. Size and height are a choice but the more affluent families of the past have huge mausoleums noted with their names. Kohn, Jacobsthal, Marcus, Rothenstein, Nathans, etc. These are an indication of the wealth and position of the Jews in pre-war Germany.
New burials are pristine and placed in a new area near the administration office. Instead of Hebrew lettering, many of these are in Russian script owing to the fact that about 8,000 Russian Jews have emigrated from the former USSR.
One of the newest and most attractive headstones is a tall sculptural light coloured limestone irregularly shaped column with his own signature, Stefen Heym, an historian, noted novelist and activist.
The winter cold and darkness gave us reason to leave, For any tourist wanting to see history and the remnants of the war, perhaps even find the name of a relative, Weissensee Cemetery should be high on the list of ‘what to do’ while in Berlin.
Getting to Weissensee Cemetery. Take a #200 bus to Alexander Platz, walk to the subway where there are three tram lines and take either #2,#3, #4 to Antone Platz . From there walk to Martin Baume Strasse.
I flew with Air Canada Airlines and stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel.