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Memento mori


A walk through a cemetery during Easter week is the perfect combination of place and time. In Berlin there are over 230 graveyards, all with their own distinct character and most of them well worth discovering. I have described a few of my favourites in a previous post, ‘Walking with Angels’ from June 2014. The photo above of Martin Luther’s statue, which stands in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Chaussestraße, was taken last summer.  Berlin poet and novelist, Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), said that for him, great peace came from a memento mori; he only needed a quarter of an hour in the Lichtenberg Cemetery, contemplating mortality, to feel fully at one with the world.


Fontane’s grave in the Französischer Friedhof in Liesenstraße

But there are two Berlin cemeteries in central Berlin where brutal regimes have desecrated the hallowed ground in pursuit of their own crazed political ends. Here the remaining graves have particular poignancy. The first is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, on Große Hamburger Straße, which was in use from 1672 until 1827. The graves included several prominent members of Berlin’s Jewish community, including the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), Veitel Heine Ephraim (1703-1775, Frederick the Great’s court banker), and Jacob Herz Beer (1769-1825), the father of operetta composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

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An undated photo of the Old Jewish Cemetery before its destruction

In 1943, this cemetery was destroyed on the orders of the Gestapo. The Nazis razed the graves and turned the entire grounds into air raid shelters whose walls were reinforced with demolished headstones. The Jewish old people’s home next door to the cemetery became a transit camp for Berlin Jews destined for deportation. More than 55,000 Jews were deported from there to the extermination camps in “the east.”


The memorial to the deported Jews, just outside the cemtery 

In April 1945, the authorities used the grounds as a mass grave for soldiers and civilians killed during Allied air raids. In the 1970s, the East Berlin authorities removed the remaining Jewish gravestones as well as the wooden crosses marking the graves of air raid victims and turned the cemetery into a park. In 1988, the few surviving graves that had been set into the wall of an adjacent building were transferred to the Jewish Weissensee Cemetery. In memory of the tragic events during the war a symbolic grave for Moses Mendelssohn as well as a sarcophagus filled with destroyed gravestones were left at this spot. Finally, in December 2009, after extensive renovation work, the 20 tombstones that had been removed were reinstated. They include the epitaph of Gumpericht Jecheil Aschkenasi who was buried in 1672.


Visiting the Jewish Cemetery today

It wasn’t only the Nazis who destroyed cemeteries in the German capital. The GDR Government had no qualms about building the Berlin Wall through graveyards, including the historic Invalidenfriedhof, the traditional resting place for the Prussian Army. This cemetery was first established in 1748 to provide burial grounds for those veterans wounded in the War of the Austrian Succession and was built on the orders of King Frederick the Great. It was then used to bury German officers who were killed in the First World War and in the Second World War. The latter included Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, former Army commander Werner von Fritsch, Luftwaffe commander Ernst Udet, Munitions Minister Fritz Todt, the notorious ‘Reichsprotector’, Reinhard Heydrich, and General Rudolf Schmundt, who was killed in the July 20, 1944 plot by the bomb intended for Adolf Hitler.


The Invalidenfriedhof in 1925

In 1945, the Allies ordered that all Nazi monuments (including those in cemeteries) should be removed. There is now no trace of the graves of Heydrich and Todt, although their remains were not disinterred. Then, in 1961, the East German Government brought in their bulldozers and destroyed one third of the cemetery’s headstones, some of them over 200 years old. The area which they cleared was replaced with a concrete strip lined with watchtowers and searchlights.


Clearing the cemetery to make way for the Berlin Wall


The same scene today

Over the years that followed, the cemetery continued to fall into disrepair with further tombstones removed so as not to impair the sightlines of the border guards. After German reunification in 1990, the cemetery was placed under the monument protection scheme and restoration work began. Today, a walk through the Invalidenfriedhof is something quite special. Linden trees again line the paths and the cemetery wall bordering the water has been restored to its historic appearance.


The restored Invalidenfriedhof

Despite the years of destruction, the 200 remaining tombs and gravestones give some idea of the cemetery’s original atmosphere. The monument designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the Prussian General and army reformer, Gerhard von Scharnhost, is particularly remarkable; his tomb is crowned with a slumbering lion and decorated with inscriptions and a relief illustrating scenes from Scharnhorst’s life.


The sleeping lion on Scharnhorst’s tomb

But now, military grandeur has been superseded by a more contemplative setting. Some sections of the Berlin Wall have been preserved and there are memorials to people who lost their lives trying to escape across the water into West Berlin. The battle for life and death echoes back across three centuries.


The memorial to Günter Litfin, the second victim at the Berlin Wall

To return to Theodor Fontane (who was of Huguenot descent), it is worth visiting his grave in the ‘Friedhof II der Französisch-Reformierten-Gemeinde’ in Liesenstraße, This cemetery was also partially destroyed by construction for the Berlin Wall, which used to cut through it. Fontane’s gravestone was destroyed in the Second World War, but later restored. During the city’s division his grave in East Berlin was only accessible with a special permit.




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3 Responses

  1. Dear Penny, each cemetery is a historybook. My husband and I liked walking there . Each grave tells abour about artepoc, often about wars or epidemics, and on each graveyard in Berlin are laying wellknown people.
    When we were looking for a flat, we visited the Matthäus-graveyard where are laying the brothers Grimm. My husband talked with the carekeeper.he offered us to take care for a grave and then we can lay down in this grave – so we had the offer of a grave before a flat….

  2. I was very moved to read the history of the Jewish Cemetery and will make a point of visiting it when there in May. The Dorotheenstadt, Invalidenfriedhof, Friedhof II der Französisch-Reformierten-Gemeinde cemeteries, and the memorials to those who perished in their efforts to escape over the wall are all now on my list!

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