New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum

New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum

The New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum – The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years from 1961 until 1989. In 2017, 28 years since its fall, hardly any physical traces of it remain. In today’s free and easy German capital, it seems incredible that such a construction could have ever existed or survived so long. In the 1980s, I lived within its confines in West Berlin but, unlike East Berliners, I could escape whenever I wanted to. West Berliners could express their feelings by daubing the Wall with graffiti; on the other side of the Wall was a bleak stretch of no-man’s land, under close surveillance by East German soldiers who had orders to shoot to kill if anyone tried to cross it.

Berlin Wall seen from the wes

Berlin Wall seen from the west

I devoted a whole chapter to the Berlin Wall in my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and described some of the of main historic sites in the city centre where you can see remnants of the Wall and find out more information about it.  The East Side Gallery by the River Spree runs for 1.3 kilometres between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke in the multi-cultural borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. This famous outdoor gallery of ‘wall paintings’ was originally a section of the ‘Hinterlandmauer’ (interior wall) – the actual border between East and West Berlin was the River Spree itself. The East Side Gallery was launched in 1990, on the initiative of two German artists’ associations and consists of 105 paintings by international artists, all on the theme of freedom. Everyone has their favourite wall painting in the East Side Gallery and many of the ‘canvases’ have become world-famous.

The famous 'Kiss'

The famous ‘Kiss’

One of my personal favourites...

One of my personal favourites…

In April 2016, a brand new East Side Wall Museum was opened at the eastern end of the East Side Gallery on the second floor of the Mühlenspeicher, an historic grain storage building, which is also home to the ‘Pirates Berlin’ restaurant. Politicians and international experts such as Michail Gorbatschow and Guido Kane pushed to establish a private museum here on the 25th anniversary of reunification. At first, I was rather sceptical of a museum which advertises itself as ‘a live experience with film, sound and historic sensations’, but I can certainly recommend it as an excellent audio-visual account of the full story of the Berlin Wall, from the reasons for its construction in 1961 to its dramatic fall in 1989.

New East Side Berlin Wall Museum

The New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum by the Spree

Clever virtual construction of the Wall

Clever virtual construction of the Wall at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum

There are 13 rooms of multi-media exhibits at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum, using over 100 screens and projectors to show original footage and documents. Visitors enter the rooms through painted curtains and are launched into large screen-shots on the walls. In the first room you are confronted with the ruins of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and learn how political events led to the building of border between East and West Germany. Then, original film gives a close-up experience the Berlin Wall’s construction and a concrete mixer, barbed wire and original elements of the Wall add to drama of the moving images.

Building the Wall

Building the Wall

One room at the New Eastside Berlin Wall Museum features a faithful reconstruction of an East Berlin living room in the 1960s and another has witness reports on victims of border shootings. The room dedicated to Glienicke Brücke, the ‘Bridge of Spies’, is especially fascinating, but it is a sad experience to stand on the balcony overlooking the Spree and read accounts of children who drowned in its dark waters when a border separated west from east.

Living in East Berlin

Living in East Berlin

There is plenty of gripping newsreel footage of the political situations that developed over the years, including confrontation between the Americans and the Soviets, Willy Brandt’s Neue Ostpolitik and eventually the people’s demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the opening of the border. The museum also links reflections on the Cold War with art: works by Keith Haring, Pink Floyd’s epic music drama “The Wall” and the song “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions are all part of the multimedia concept.

avid Bowie in Berlin, 1987

David Bowie in Berlin, 1987

The Pink Floyd room

The Pink Floyd room

The area which celebrates the opening of the border crossing points, with thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin, catches the jubilant mood brilliantly, with powerful music to add to the euphoria. And in the room dedicated to the political negotiations surrounding reunification, the simulated heartbeat of ‘the master of diplomacy’, West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Friedrich Genscher, who had previously suffered two heart attacks, creates a suitably tense atmosphere.

Genscher in negotiations

Genscher in negotiations

Finally, I found that this museum told me many new stories about the feelings and reactions of individuals. One light-hearted anecdote was that as a teenager, Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed by his German grandmother in 1988 trying to push down the Berlin Wall and after the Wall fell, Margaret Thatcher expressed a sense of unease about a united Germany because of her memories of wartime bombing.  The words of Michail Gorbatschow also captured my attention. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990, he said that we must all help to make the 21st century “a century of a new human renaissance.”

Margaret Thatcher as a teenager

Margaret Thatcher as a teenager

The final curtain

The final curtain

When I emerged  through the final curtain at the end of my journey through this multimedia Berlin Wall experience, I was certainly glad to step into a reunited Berlin and really felt that the 13 rooms had increased my knowledge of Cold War history through watching and listening. The Museum has a useful website at http://www.thewallmuseum.com/welcome.html with further information and admission fees. It is open seven days a week from 10am until 7pm. The staff there are great enthusiasts about this project and the whole enterprise has an edgy Berlin feel about it, ideally located in an old warehouse on the Spree, right next to the Eastside Gallery.

Russian Berlin

Russian Berlin

Russian Berlin – Berlin’s relationship with Russia is unique. There are now an estimated 300,000 Russians living in the German capital, many of them Russian-Germans who arrived after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. One hundred years ago, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, thousands of Russian emigrés fled to the German capital. Many of them made their home in the borough of Charlottenburg, which soon earned the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’. At the Russian su­per­mar­ket, next to Charlottenburg sta­tion, you can still buy Russ­ian dumplings, wine, vodka and the clas­sic Aly­onka chocolate. The shop assistants all wear the same red t-shirt emblazoned proudly with the word ‘Russia’, in blue and white Cyril­lic let­ters.

Russian supermarket

Russian supermarket

There is also a score of good Russian restaurants in Russian Berlin. Top of the list is ‘Pasternak’ in Prenzlauer Berg, which occupies a large and picturesque corner site opposite ‘Dicker Hermann’ (‘Fat Hermann’), Berlin’s oldest water tower. I love the feel of this restaurant, especially in the evening. The dark wood bar and furniture, parquet-flooring, old posters, crystal chandeliers and piano combine to create an intimate and authentic atmosphere.

Pasternak after dark

Pasternak after dark

Pasternak after dark

The building was lovingly restored by its owner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in the 1990s and just around the corner in Rykestrasse is the largest synagogue in Germany, originally built in 1903-1904.

Rykestrasse Synagogue

Rykestrasse Synagogue

I revisited Pasternak for dinner on a Sunday with friends, a couple of weeks ago. Our waitress was Latvian – full of good humour and helpful suggestions. We started off with mixed platters of Russian hors d’oeuvre. They were a sight to behold and everything tasted as good as it looked, especially washed down with the glass of vodka.

We chose red wine from Georgia – one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world – to accompany the main course and each of us selected something different from the wide choice of Russian and Jewish specialities. They were all delicious.

Pasternak for dinner

Pasternak for dinner

Finally, we couldn’t resist finishing off the evening with a portion of blinis served with hot cherries and a serving of Russian ice cream. This was probably a bridge too far, but the retro extravagance of the desserts proved irresistible. Having paid the very reasonable bill, we walked outside into the rain and were further tempted by the bright lights of ‘Bar Gagarin’ on the other side of Rykestrasse. This is most definitely a cosy little corner of Russian Berlin.

Bar Gargarin at night

Bar Gargarin at night

Another very popular Russian haunt in Russian Berlin is the Tadschikische Teestube, this time almost next to the historic Neue Synagoge at 27, Oranienburgerstrasse  in Mitte, an area which has attracted many Russian-Jewish immigrants. The whole place was a gift to the GDR from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan who brought the interior and the design to the Leipzig Trade Fair in the 1970s. In 1976, the Teestube opened on Unter den Linden as a permanent tea parlour and restaurant, complete with carved wooden columns, carpets and hassocks with low tables and kitchenware imported from Tajikistan. It was moved to its current location five years ago.

Authentic interior

Authentic interior

There are over 20 varieties of tea to savour at the Tadschikische Teestube and for a special occasion you can book a Samovar ceremony. The restaurant menu is suitably Russian too and apart from the magical interior, there is a beautiful courtyard outside. If you understand German, Monday evenings are reserved for the telling of Russian fairy-tales.

Courtyard setting

Courtyard setting

But Berliners have not always welcomed the Russians. When the Soviets marched into the city in April 1945, their invasion was characterised by the most terrible bloodshed, rape and pillage. On 20th April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery began shelling Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. According to one source, “the weight of ordnance delivered by Soviet artillery during the battle was greater than the total tonnage dropped by Western Allied bombers”. When the Soviets raised the Red Flag from the top of the Reichstag on 2nd May to signal their victory, Berlin was at its lowest ebb in history.

Iconic painting of the Red Flag

Iconic painting of the Red Flag

Things didn’t improve much during the years of the city’s division when the Soviets took over the eastern sector of Berlin after the war. During the workers’ demonstrations in East Berlin on 17th June1953, Soviet tanks and soldiers were brought in to quell the uprising, and hundreds of East Berlin citizens were killed. The Soviet Union was always proclaimed as the ‘great friend’ of the GDR Government, but many of its citizens would beg to differ.

Russian tanks in East Berlin, 1953

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet military left East Berlin and the American, British and French military left West Berlin. But the Russians have left behind so many more tangible memories than the Western Allies. They lost over 30,000 soldiers in the Battle for Berlin and the huge Soviet War Memorials in Treptower Park and on 17. Juni Strasse, near the Brandenburg Gate, bear witness to the massive price that Russia had to pay. For a detailed account of German-Russian relations, the Deutsch-Russisches Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst is well-worth a visit. It is only a pity that they no longer have the large-scale model of the Battle for Berlin which used to fill a whole room in the 1980s. It was apparently taken back to Moscow after reunification.

Celebrations in Treptower Park, 2015

Celebrations in Treptower Park, 2015

You can actually get a feel for Moscow in the centre of Berlin. Just take a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor and marvel at the chunky Moscow-style apartment blocks erected in the 1950s, when this boulevard was named ‘Stalinallee’. On the right-hand side you will pass Café Moskau, a striking 1960s-era building, originally built as an ‘international restaurant’ and conference rooms. Now it is the upmarket ‘Avenue’ night club and an event venue. Further along Karl-Marx-Allee, just before Franfurter Tor, is the aptly-named ‘Kosmos’, also now a large event venue and once the largest cinema in the GDR.

Moscow-style apartments

Moscow-style apartments

Café Moskau

Café Moskau

The Russians have certainly left their mark on Russian Berlin and continue to shape its culture. It is worth remembering that Angela Merkel speaks excellent Russian, which she learnt as her first language during her GDR education and that Vladimir Putin spent five years living in Dresden, East Germany, when he worked for the KGB.

 

Back in the GDR

Back in the GDR

The Stasi – Berlin is a city with a fearful past. But it doesn’t keep its skeletons in the cupboard; it bares its soul and share its shame. Countless museums and memorials bear witness to its willingness to confront a catalogue of 20th Century crimes. And it’s not just the Nazis who committed them. Life in the capital of the GDR held plenty of horrors as well, now brilliantly documented in the permanent exhibition at the Stasi Museum, ‘State Security in the SED-Dictatorship’. The museum is located in the main building (‘Haus 1’) of the former Stasi Headquarters, which also contains the recently-renovated offices of the notorious Erich Mielke, Minister for State Security from 1957 until 1989.

Walking into the Stasi HQ

Walking into the Stasi HQ

The Stasi was the GDR’s infamous secret police force. Calling itself the ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ (referring to the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany – in German: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), it was from its massive headquarters on Magdalenenstrasse in Lichtenberg that the Stasi conducted a covert war against all perceived enemies of the state – including thousands of its own citizens. The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal declared the Stasi to be “worse than the Gestapo”.  It’s estimated that one in every ten East Germans worked as an ‘unofficial informer’ for the Stasi and the museum reveals many of the extraordinary ways in which the regime spied on its population.

The Stasi

“The Party is the State”

There is nothing quite like a museum which is housed in its authentic surroundings. When I lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, I knew all about the Stasi, but I couldn’t really conceive of its horrifying, all-encompassing power until I first visited its headquarters in the 1990s. This vast complex of grey concrete blocks started life in 1930 as the finance offices of the borough of Lichtenberg and was then enlarged by the Ministry for State Security in the 1970s. The buildings are grouped menacingly close together and included a cinema, canteen and exclusive supermarket. The Stasi headquarters formed a city within a city, totally closed off from the ‘normal’ world. Even now, the buildings exude a grim, inhospitable air.

Aerial view of the vast Stasi HQ

Aerial view of the vast Stasi HQ

When the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi buildings were taken over by an East Berlin citizens’ organisation, called ASTAK (Antistalinistische Aktion), which stills runs the museum in Haus 1, jointly with the Federal Commission for Stasi Records (BStU). Haus 7 contains the Stasi archives and Haus 22 contains an information centre and is used for functions. The remainder of the buildings have been bought by a real estate company but it is proving difficult to redevelop the site as it is under a historic preservation order. At present, one building is being used to house refugees, but in the long run it is difficult to imagine Berliners choosing to live in surroundings with such an eerie past.

Refugees happy to have a temporary home

The Stasi Museum is open every day, from 10am until 6pm on weekends and from 11am until 6pm at weekends and entrance costs 6 euros, with reductions for school pupils, students and pensioners. There are excellent free guided tours in English at 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, but you can also spend a gripping few hours at this museum on your own, as all the information is given in English. This is a museum for genuine history buffs, with fascinating exhibits and excellent display boards giving every possible detail of the Stasi’s activities. No Disneyfication here.

viewing stasi hq

Detailed information in English

When you walk into Haus 1 of the Stasi Headquarters, it is as if you are re-entering the GDR. The interior décor is original, so the colours are murky; a depressing palette of brown, yellow, orange and cream. The large foyer has a model of the whole complex and under the 1970s-style staircase, complete with tacky gold-coloured railings, stands a ‘delivery van’, used by the Stasi to pick up ‘suspects’ for interrogation. On the ground floor, it is also worth visiting the café where time has stood still for almost 30 years – as have the prices.

Entrance hall

Authentic café

The first and third floors of the museum contain the permanent exhibition. This includes an excellent general history of the Stasi and their propaganda methods. For example, they tried to brainwash all GDR children not only at school, but by making them join the ‘Junge Pioniere’, a state-run communist organisation which fed them political propaganda as well as organising activities and camps. There is also an interesting section devoted to the Stasi’s technique of ‘Zersetzung’ (‘undermining’) which involved disrupting the lives of problematic political dissidents, by ruining their marriages or constantly deflating the tyres of their bicycles.

stasi information

Anti-capitalist propaganda

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the displays remains the exhibits which are examples of the ingenious ways in which the Stasi used to spy on its citizens. There are wrist watches with wire taps  for running up the inside of sleeves, microphones hidden in hymn books and handbags, cameras in nesting boxes and tree trunks. The list is endless and some of the unlikely hiding places for cameras and microphones have to be seen to be believed. These days, we might view the Stasi’s surveillance methods as bizarre or even amusing, but for ordinary people living under their control they must have been totally unsettling.

Hidden devices

If you have seen the award-winning 1986 film ‘The Lives of Others’, you will remember one of the methods that the Stasi used to track their suspects. First, they would bring in the person for interrogation and leave a cotton square under their seat cushion. This piece of material would then be placed in an airtight jar and later used by sniffer dogs.

‘Scented’ rags

The second floor of the Stasi Museum is devoted to Erich Mielke, as this was entirely his domain. Everything is wood-panelled and emanates a suffocating stuffiness. His luxury office features his desk complete with chair , telephone and shredding machine. There are a series of meeting rooms with original maps on the walls, long conference tables, bright blue chairs and a secretary’s desk complete with a 1970s telephone switchboard. Mielke also had a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen on this floor, suggesting that he spent much of his time in the building, controlling his empire of 92,000 spies and 170,000 ‘unofficial informers’, rather than returning home to his wife and children.

Mielke’s office and meeting room

On November 9th 1989, when the GDR effectively collapsed, the Stasi started destroying all their files as East Berliners stormed the buildings in their headquarters. Mielke left his post three weeks later and in 1993, aged 85, he was sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of two policemen back in 1931. Mielke was released after four years for medical reasons and died in 2000, living in a small apartment in Hohenschönhausen, East Berlin, not far from the notorious Stasi prison. For further reading about the Stasi and its methods, I have listed a couple of interesting links below.  The Stasi Museum is only a five-minute walk from Magdalenenstrasse Underground Station.

Mielke facing trial

http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/koehler-stasi.html

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/east-german-domestic-surveillance-went-far-beyond-the-stasi-a-1042883.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pulse of Europe in Berlin

Pulse of Europe in Berlin

Last Sunday, I joined some Berlin friends at the Pulse of Europe demonstration on Bebelplatz, on Unter den Linden. This square, which was called ‘Opernplatz’ before the war, has a dark history. It was where the Nazi ‘Burning of the Books’ took place on May 10th 1933 – exactly 84 years ago as I write this post. But in 2017, a large friendly crowd was standing in the sunshine, waving European flags. French flags were in evidence too, on the day of the French Presidential Election.

The Pulse of Europe demonatration

 Bebelplatz in the May sunshine

Demonstrations are an intrinsic part of Berlin’s street life. It’s a city where people feel passionately about issues and at the weekend you can almost guarantee that there will some kind of public march or rally. On May Day, protests by political extremists often descend into violence and riots, although this year the multi-cultural ‘Myfest’ in Kreuzberg went ahead in relative calm.

Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017

Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017

Various speakers addressed the crowd from the stage. Some had planned their words, others were more spontaneous. Each person who spoke then received a small bunch of lily of the valley (in German: Maiglöckchen – ‘little May bells’) for their contribution. Their personal stories all held the same message: European unity is the only way forward. Especially memorable were the words of a Jewish Berliner who told us that the EU is “the answer to the Holocaust”. Another speaker described the EU as “the most precious gift of the 20th Century”. Many of them referred to the ideals of French political economist and diplomat, Jean Monnet, considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union in the 1950s.

The stage complete with piano

The stage complete with piano

The organisers of the Pulse of Europe demonstration had distributed sheets printed with the German words of ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the speeches, we all sang along to this European anthem, accompanied by live piano playing on the stage. Finally, we joined hands and danced around the square. It was hard to imagine that this square had once witnessed such hatred and violence.

Dancing round the square

On one side of Bebelplatz, is the beautiful Law Faculty building of Berlin’s Humboldt University (see first photo). This used to be the University Library, from whose windows Nazi students threw books that they considered ‘unGerman’ on to the bonfire below. A hundred years earlier, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had written the prophetic lines: “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” Set into the ground on Bebelplatz is a memorial to the burning of the books. It consists simply of empty bookshelves and beside it a bronze inscription with Heine’s warning.

Book Burning Memorial

When the Pulse of Europe demonstration broke up, we walked back across Unter den Linden between the Neue Wache and the Gorki Theatre and paused by the statue of Heine, sitting smiling and relaxed among the chestnut trees. Heine’s later verse and prose are full of satirical wit and irony and his radical views led to him being banned in his own country. He spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris.

Heinrich Heine statue

 

A Poignant Wilderness

A Poignant Wilderness

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.

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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.

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The Holocaust Memorial at Weissensee

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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.

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A memorial to a father and his sister who both died in Ausschwitz

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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.

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Photo taken in 1907

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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GDR children playing games along the tops of graves in the 1970s

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Some current low-key clearing and renovation taking place

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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