Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.
Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum
The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.
View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today
There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.
Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel
During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.
The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel
In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.
The reconstructed Nikolaikirche
The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Inside the Nikolaikirche
In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.
The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal
The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.
The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now
But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.
The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant
Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.
The monastery ruins
Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight.
The palms of Babylon
The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee is one of the largest and most beautiful Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Earlier this month, I was strolling along its many sun-dappled paths together with Berlin friends. Stopping to read the inscriptions on the headstones, we reflected on over a century of European history. We all felt fortunate to be alive in a united Germany that welcomed people of all races and nationalities, and a Europe trying to work together for peace and stability in the global community. It seemed as if we had come such a long way along the road of cooperation and enlightenment since the terrible events of the 20th Century. And now, in late June 2016, Great Britain has decided to distance itself from the European Union. It hardly seems credible.
At the entrance of the cemetery is a Holocaust memorial. Translated into English, the inscription on the central headstone reads, ‘Always remember what happened to us. Dedicated to the memory of our brothers and sisters 1933-45 and to the living who are to fulfil the legacy of the dead.’ This headstone is surrounded by further stones, each with the names of concentration camps. Next to it is a memorial, dedicated in 1927, to 12,000 Berlin Jews who lost their lives during the First World War, and also a commemorative plaque to those who resisted the Nazis.
The Holocaust Memorial at Weissensee
In 1995 the Bundeswehr paid tribute to the 400 Jewish soldiers buried in Weissensee, who fought and died for Germany in the First World War
The graves of Berliners who died in the Holocaust cannot, of course, be found in Weissensee but there are many individual memorials to them scattered amongst the actual graves and their names have sometimes been added to the headstones of family members.
A memorial to a father and his sister who both died in Ausschwitz
A 1971 headstone with a dedication to a mother murdered in Riga in 1941
On the map, the Weissensee cemetery looks like a Renaissance garden; a geometric pattern of rectangles, trapeziums and triangles. The avenues criss-cross each other in circles and squares. But when you enter the grounds, you feel you have stepped into a place of enchantment. Among the high trees and thickets there are columns, stones, mausoleums, ivy and lilac. And it is all so peaceful. Few people are aware that the cemetery grounds are classified as a historical monument.
Photo taken in 1907
‘Section 1, Field B’ photo taken in June 2016
The significance of the cemetery lies not only in its extraordinary graves, whose variety and splendour today seem almost incredible, but also its fate, which is so closely entwined with that of Berlin. When you explore the cemetery on foot, it is like walking through a history book. The list of famous artists, philosophers, lawyers, architects, doctors, religious teachers and publishers who are buried here is endless. The Berlin department store founders Adolf Janert (KaDeWe) and Herman Tietz (Hertie) are among them, the artist Lesser Ury, whose works were banned by the Nazis, the publisher Samuel Fischer (S. Fischer Verlag), Berthold Kempinski, who gave his name to the famous luxury hotel chain and Rudolf Mosse, who once owned the largest publishing house in Europe.
Grave of Lesser Ury (1861-1931) painter of Berlin landscapes
The Weissensee Cemetery opened in 1880. The old Jewish cemetery in Große Hamburger Straße, opened in 1672, had reached its full capacity in 1827 and the second cemetery in Schönhauser Allee, opened in the same year, reached its capacity in the 1880s.The very first person to be buried in Weissensee on 22nd September 1880 was not a celebrity, but Louis Gruenbaum, the former director of an old peoples’ home. On the side of his gravestone is a large number ‘1’. The fact that it is still standing is because a Jewish cemetery is created for eternity. The graves are not levelled and there are no expiry dates, as in other German cemeteries. On every gravestone in Weissensee there is a sequential number.There are also many gravestones where the date of death is given according the Jewish calendar which starts on the day Adam and Eve were created.
The Landecker brothers died in the years 5,661 and 5,678 …
Over 115,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Simple headstones stand alongside splendid mausoleums from the art nouveau or art deco eras. Some graves were designed by Bauhaus architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some of them seem fanciful, others impress with their monumental style. Yet, although the money available to spend on the creation of each grave must have varied greatly at the time, today they are similar; mostly crumbling, overgrown, forgotten. In places, hardly a ray of light can pierce the massive treetops to reach down on to the graves. The Holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions but also destroyed the memory of them. In the 1930s there were 170,000 Jews living in Berlin, at the end of the war only 5,000 remained.
One of the larger mausoleum-style family graves
Yet Weissensee cemetery was never closed during the war years. Jewish children played there when it became too dangerous for them on the streets of Berlin. Martin Riesenburger, who later became rabbi of East Berlin’s Jewish community, survived the Holocaust with his wife by hiding in the cemetery. Between 1943 and 1944, he not only buried the Jewish dead there, but conducted religious services in the grounds. He was also able to rescue religious ritual objects, including numerous Torah Scrolls and silver ornaments, by hiding them in the cemetery. Many other Jews were able to save themselves by hiding within the vast grounds, including inside the burial vault of opera singer Joseph Schwarz. Details surrounding the Gestapo’s discovery of this hiding place came to light through a report written by Christoph Hein. He described the Gestapo’s gruesome torture of those whose hiding places were discovered.
These happy photos were taken in 1942 in the Jewish Cemetery. The boys survived the war, but the girls were deported and murdered.
As Weissensee Cemetery is situated on the outskirts of the former capital of the GDR, after the war it fell into further oblivion. It wasn’t possible for the tiny Jewish community of East Berlin to control the spreading wilderness. In their helplessness, the administration decided to leave the main part of the cemetery to nature and just have a few representative plots near the entrance where burials could still take place. Since reunification, the cemetery staff are trying to restore the individual graves one by one.
GDR children playing games along the tops of graves in the 1970s
Some current low-key clearing and renovation taking place
The beautifully-restored Hall of Mourning
With an estimated 40,000 members, the Jewish community in Berlin today is the largest in Germany. This is partly due to the number of Jews who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. The customs and traditions these families have brought from their old homeland are the latest and most exciting chapter in the Weissensee history because funerals are still taking place in these historic grounds. On our walk, we saw several family members tending recent graves where the headstones were mostly in Russian or Hebrew.
Newer graves with Hebrew and Russian inscriptions
Weissensee is now a thriving suburb of north-east Berlin, just beyond trendy Prenzlauer Berg. When the Jewish Cemetery opened there, it was a small village. There are still those who jokingly say that the cemetery is ‘just outside Poland’, although in 1880 family members thought nothing of making the journey by horse-drawn tram from Alexanderplatz. Today the M4 tram whisks you out to Weissensee in no time. The cemetery is only a 5 minute walk from stop 14 at Albertinenstrasse.
One of the prettiest graves, with metalwork freshly re-painted
In 2011, a wonderful film was made about the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee: ‘Im Himmel und unter Erde’ (In Heaven and under the Earth). Follow this link to see the trailer – the narration is in German, but you get a real feel for the atmosphere of the cemetery and its historic significance. There is also a captivating book about the cemetery, ‘The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery – Moments in History’, published by be.bra verlag. The photographs are truly beautiful (I have used a few for this blog) and the text is in both German and English.
Cover photo for the book
Finally, you can read more information about the cemetery – including contact details and opening times – on the website of the Berlin Jewish Community. It was here I discovered that the famous writer and former GDR legislator Stefan Heym, who died in Israel on 16th December 2001, was buried in Weissensee five days after his death. In November 1994, Heym said, “People expect us to deal with and establish acceptable, socially just conditions… a coalition of reason… This, however, requires a coalition of reasonable people…” (“Die Menschen erwarten, dass wir uns als Wichtigstes mit der Herstellung akzeptabler sozial gerechter … Verhältnisse beschäftigen … eine Koalition der Vernunft, die eine Koalition der Vernünftigen voraussetzt”). How these words resonate today.
Among all the wonderful Berlin museums and galleries, the Martin-Gropius-Bau (aka MGB) has a special place in my heart. Originally built in 1881 and designed by architect Martin Gropius, it is a visual treasure and lends its renaissance-style grandeur to every exhibition that passes through its doors. Golden images around the top of the building glitter in the sunshine and inside, the soaring atrium features mosaics with allegories from different ages and coats of arms of various German cities.
Walking towards the Martin-Gropius-Bau from the Topographie des Terrors
The Martin-Gropius-Bau started life as an arts and crafts museum and after the First World War it became the Museum of Ethnology. It was badly damaged by bombing in 1945 and lay in ruins until 1965 when Walter Gropius (Martin’s great-nephew and co-founder of the Bauhaus) campaigned to have it placed under a historical preservation order. Reconstruction started in 1978 and the museum was reopened in 1981 with an exhibition on Schinkel, Berlin’s renowned classic-style architect. This was followed by an exhibition on Prussia and in 1987 the ‘Berlin, Berlin’ exhibition was staged to mark the 750th Anniversary of the city.
The Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Berlin Wall in 1972
I often visited the Martin-Gropius-Bau during the 1980s and it was quite unnerving to find a building of such palatial grandeur standing just a couple of metres from the bizarre and cruel vision of the Berlin Wall. In those days the entrance to the museum was through a side door and there was an Alt Berlin café on the ground floor that opened out on to a rough area of grass. On warm days you could sit outside and contemplate the absurdity of the world. On the wasteland on the other side of the building, excavations had begun to reveal the underground cells of the Gestapo Headquarters, demolished after the war.
In summer 1982 Photo by Chris Dewitt
After the fall of the Wall and German Reunification, the Martin-Gropius-Bau was closed for further renovations and has now been meticulously restored to its former glory. The impressive entrance is once again located on Niederkirchnerstraße opposite the Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin House of Representatives and formerly the Prussian Parliament) and alongside the MGB, on the site of Gestapo Headquarters, is now the Topographie des Terrors which documents the Nazi terror regime in Europe.
The grand entrance
For the past 25 years the Berliner Festspiele has managed operations at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. About 10 major exhibitions are staged each year in the fields of art, archaeology, photography and cultural history. Famous names including Frida Kahlo, Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei and David Bowie have drawn large crowds as well as large-scale exhibits such as treasures from Ancient Egypt and Buddha sculptures from Pakistan. Currently (until May 16th) there is a fantastic exhibition on ‘The Art of Prehistoric Times’, featuring the ‘Rock Paintings’ from the Frobenius collections. These amazing canvasses, painstakingly copied from prehistoric art in Africa, Oceania, Europe and Australia, were produced over a period of many years between 1912 and the 1960s. They have provided inspiration for modern art and are, in many cases, the only surviving evidence of such rock art as the original sites have been destroyed.
Rock Art from ZImbabwe
Forthcoming attractions at the Martin-Gropius-Bau include ‘Lee Miller- Photographs’ (19 March – 12 June 2016) and ‘The Luther Effect. Protestantism – 500 years in the World’ (12 April- 5 November 2017). But there are plenty of other exhibitions to choose from as well; a full list can be found at the Berliner Festspiele website. The MGB is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am until 7pm and entrance prices vary according to the exhibition. It is an easy walk from either Potsdamer Platz or Checkpoint Charlie or bus M29 stops nearby. You will find an excellent and elegant café at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and a very good bookshop too. They are both on the ground floor off the atrium and can be accessed without entering the exhibitions.
Browsing in the MGB bookshop
One of the most famous quotes about Berlin is that it’s ‘a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being‘. And this summer is no exception. There are cranes hovering over the entire length of Unter den Linden and Karl-Liebknecht Straße between the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm. The traffic weaves in and out of roadworks and under the blue or pink pipes that carry the water away from the swampy soil of the construction sites. Tourists have to use their imagination rather than their cameras – it will take a few years for the historic centre of Berlin to be picture perfect again. But there is so much to look forward to, despite the complaints among Berliners about how much everything is costing.