Decayed tombstones and impressive mausoleums stand in a green sea of ivy, fern and young trees. In summer the sunrays hardly penetrate the thick foliage of high trees, creating a mystic mood on the dusky cemetery. The sudden view on the Berlin TV tower, reaching into the sky a few miles away forms a sharp contrast with the faireytale like environment. In the middle of the agglomeration of the German capital, this vast Jewish cemetery Weissensee with its 115.600 grave sites is a world all its own which testifies to a rich Jewish history but also to the downfall of the Berlin Jews in the period of Nazi rule.Prosperity
1869 was a joyous year for the Jews in Prussia and other states of the North-German Federation (1866-1871). From that year onwards they were made equal to Christians by law. The period of the blossoming Jewish community in Berlin, with 170.000 individuals the largest Jewis community in Germany, had started. Helped by their new freedom, many Jews climbed the social ladder with great speed and made names for themselves in science, culture and the world of trade. It was for instance the Jewish trademan Adolf Jandorf who opened the KaDeWe in Berlin in 1907, still the best known department store in Germany today. No less prominent was the Jewish wine merchant and gastronomer Berthold Kempinski whose name lives on in the international chain of hotels he founded.
Prior to 1880, the Jewish community already had two cemeteries at its disposal but due to a shortage of space, a third one was opened in the village of Weissensee, just outside Berlin (today a suhurb in the Pankow district). The former village took its name from the lake at some 0.62 miles from the cemetery. Its designer was the renowned German architect Hugo Licht, himself not of Jewish descent. He divided the area, measuring some 103.78 acres (about 80 football pits) into dozens of triangular and square plots bordered by footpaths. Although all plots had their unique letter and number, making them easier to locate, the lay out strongly resembles a labyrinth, the impression made stronger by the dense undergrowth.
The Jews of Berlin were prosperous, as still can be seen at the cemetery. Thriving Jewish families seemed to compete for possession of the largest and most expensive grave. For instance, the mausoleum, built of polished granite of the banker and entrepeneur Sigmund Aschrott (Ü 1915), had cost 500.000 Reichsmark. Even today, the bombastic mausoleum is still the largest in Berlin. Apart from the entrepeneurs mentioned earlier, Jandorff (Ü 1932) and Kempinski (Ü 1910), other prominent Jews also found their last resting place at Weissensee; among them for instance the philosopher Hermann Cohen (Ü 1918), one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. The cigarette manufacturer and sponsor of sports, Josef GarbŠty, publisher Samuel Fisher and Albert Einsteinís aunt and uncle were buried here as well.From integration to exclusion
Apart from the grandeur and beauty displayed by many graves, something else is conspicuous: the inscriptions on many tombstones are in German and not in Hebrew and sometimes praise the Germany nationality of the deceased. The inscription: "A genuine German Jew of most noble descent" can be read on one of the tombstones. Knowing the crimes that were committed against the Jewish population on behalf of the German nation, it is a bizarre text but under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm (1888-1918) many Jews were so well integrated that they felt more German than Jewish. An example of this integration are some 120.000 Jewish soldiers who served in the Imperial army during the First World War. Of the approximately 12.000 Jews who died in German military service, 400 of them were buried in a field of honor at Weissensee. In 1927 a monument was erected near the military graves by the Reichsbund Deutscher Frontsoldaten (association of German front soldiers) which held a memorial service there every year up to 1936.
After the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, the position of the Jews in German society deteriorated dramatically. The equal treatment, granted to them in 1869 was no longer valid and exclusion became their fate. Just like the Jews, the Jewish cemetery Weissensee would slide down to a marginal existence. Some time earlier, the end had come for the era of expensive mausoleums, a result of the Great Depression that had also hit the Jews in Berlin. The outward appearance of many existing graves also changed as metal parts, especially fences were being removed in order to be melted down for use in the war industry. This was also done with the metal in Christian cemeteries. Metal or bronze characters on tombstones were exempted.
Although cremation is not permitted in Jewish religion, since 1926 urns were also admitted to the cemetery. Prior to the deportation of the Berlin Jews in 1941, approximately 300 urns containing the ashes of Jewish inmates arrived from various concentration camps. In order to save money and as a final humiliation of the deceased, these urns were made from paper machť. The urns were entombed at the cemetery where a number of them would be washed away as a result of flooding. Today, the names of the deceased Jewish inmates, who found their last resting place at Weissensee, are displayed on a commemoration wall in the cemetery.