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Weissensee Cemetery Photo: AFP
Weissensee Cemetery Photo: AFP
 
 

Europe's biggest Jewish cemetery fights for survival

Berlin authorities and Jewish leaders join forces to win a place for the cemetery on UNESCO's World Heritage List

AFP
Published: 01.25.07, 20:07 / Israel Jewish Scene

In a quiet corner of East Berlin lies Europe's biggest Jewish cemetery, a sprawling but dilapidated testament to a once thriving community and the gaping hole left by its decimation in the Holocaust.

 

Berlin authorities and Jewish leaders have now joined forces to win a place for Weissensee Cemetery on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

 

Though considered a long shot, campaigners say it is a last hope to raise funds to shore up a century-old site where crumbling headstones sit among mausolea by famed Bauhaus architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

 

"The unique importance of Weissensee is not only its remarkable artistic treasures but also its inextricable link with the history of Berlin's Jews," Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum foundation for Jewish history and culture, told AFP.

 

"It is really a mirror image of the history of Berlin's Jews in all its turbulence. And it shows the intertwined histories of Berlin and its Jews."

 

Silent witness to unspeakable tragedy

The cemetery holds 115,600 graves that stretch over a swathe of property equivalent to 86 football pitches, now littered with rusting iron, potholed paths and an ancient drainage system.

 

Some headstones bear silent witness to unspeakable tragedy, like those of Regina and Fritz Weiss, who, trapped in Nazi-era Berlin as the genocidal campaign gathered pace, killed themselves and their three daughters Ruth, 11, Doris, 4, and baby Ursula on March 5, 1943.

 

"Here my beloved sister found peace after horrible persecution by the Nazis," reads the epitaph of Gertrud Setzkorn who died in Berlin on January 27, 1944, one year to the day before the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

 

"Here rests with God the woman I loved above everything, my devoted wife, my heroic comrade in the hardest of times," reads another, for Irmgard Loewenberg, who died on September 6, 1950, five years after World War II.

 

Modest grave markers mix with more elaborate memorials to the pillars of early 20th-century Berlin society - merchants, professors, doctors, resistance fighters and rabbis.

 

"When I walk through the cemetery I am reminded I am part of a long history that might have ended but instead endured," said Simon, who said he represents the 12th generation of his Jewish family in Berlin.

 

The Weissensee graveyard opened in 1880 as the Jewish community in Berlin outgrew smaller cemeteries that were closer to the city center.

 

It boasts a neo-Italian Renaissance entry hall and came to include outstanding gravestones and mausolea, many in the delicate Art Nouveau style of the late 19th and early 20th century.

 

UNESCO funds

The cemetery's inspector, Ron Kohls, said there were now about 40 burials per year, the fees for which only begin to cover Weissensee's costs.

 

He rests one of his large hands on a Greek-style urn atop a gravestone and demonstrates how it wobbles at the slightest touch.

 

"There are fewer and fewer descendants of the people buried here and the interest of the younger generation is fading," Kohls said, referring to the relatives of Berlin Jews who fled Nazi Germany and settled abroad.

 

"At some point they are no longer interested in taking care of great-grandmother's grave in a country they've never visited when they are living in America, Israel or wherever."

 

Simon and Kohls said although they knew UNESCO would not provide funds to preserve the cemetery and a decision on its acceptance to the heritage list would not be made before 2016, the initiative could help it attract donations and boost its chances for more public support.

 

"This cemetery is part of German heritage. If the Jewish community as it was had survived or the Germans had taken better care of it, it would not be in this condition. But now there is still a chance," Kohls said.

 

"I see the cemetery as a sleeping beauty waiting to be kissed awake."

 

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