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Community battles to save Jewish graves

Berlin city officials and residents begin campaign to help Weissensee Cemetery achieve World Heritage Site status.

Those buried at Weissensee include the founder of the Kempinski hotel chain.
Those buried at Weissensee include the founder of the Kempinski hotel chain.

BERLIN // Europe's largest Jewish cemetery, located in east Berlin, is a vast jungle of overgrown headstones and crumbling monuments decaying so fast that the city has mounted a campaign to rescue it.

Weissensee Cemetery's grand tombs date to the heyday of Jewish life in Berlin in the early 20th century, but they have been left untended and fallen into disrepair because the sons and daughters of the 115,000 people buried here were killed in the Holocaust. The site also stands as a reminder that Germany's Jewish community is unlikely ever to regain the size and significance it had before the Nazis came to power.

"Very little was done to maintain the site in communist times, and we don't know where the money is supposed to come from to restore it," said Maya Zehden, a spokeswoman for Berlin's 12,000 strong Jewish community. "We are preparing an application to get the cemetery recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site." That would place Weissensee in the same league as the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt and the rock-carved city of Petra in Jordan.

Today, a blanket of ivy covers much of the 42-hectare cemetery, giving it a romantic, forlorn look. Crooked headstones jutting out of the vegetation in the gloomy shadow of trees add a haunting feel. One mausoleum built for real estate magnate Sigmund Aschrott, who died in 1915, is the size of a house. Many of the tombs are propped up by wooden poles or have collapsed altogether, their carved stones lying abandoned in the ivy.

Berlin says it is too strapped for cash to finance a complete overhaul, but is backing the application for world heritage status that would guarantee long-term funding from the federal government. A report by the city made public this month said it would cost ?159.8 million (Dh834m) just to repair the outer wall, improve the paths and prevent the tombs from deteriorating further. Restoring the cemetery to its original glory would cost ?245.6m the report said, adding that Berlin would now explore the possibility of getting federal and European Union funding.

The musicians, scientists, poets and businessmen buried in Weissensee show how integrated Jews were in German society before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The gravestones form a Who's Who of the late 19th and early 20th century. Berthold Kempinski, founder of the Kempinski hotel chain, is buried here, as is painter Lesser Ury and Samuel Fischer, who founded one of Germany's biggest publishing houses.

The cemetery, created in 1880, includes the grave of the father of the Hollywood director Billy Wilder, who fled Berlin after the Nazis took power. It also contains a memorial to the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany in the First World War. The presence of ornate headstones, wrought iron decorations and large mausoleums contrasts with the Jewish tradition of plain stones, and shows how bourgeois Jews tried to assimilate with gentile society.

"It's a mirror of the emancipation of the Jewish community in Germany," said historian Julius Schoeps of the Moses Mendelssohn Centre for European Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam. "They gained influence and wealth so they built their last resting places accordingly. "This cemetery is a piece of German and European cultural history. The Jewish community itself can no longer maintain it so it should be the responsibility of the city of Berlin to restore it. Too little is being done about it."

But Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said Weissensee was "in competition" with other Jewish cemeteries around Europe and cast doubt on whether it could attain world heritage status in its own right. "In the next two years the application will have to be prepared with the aim of including Jewish cemeteries in other European countries in an overall concept," Mr Wowereit says in the report prepared for the Berlin state assembly.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Berlin had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the whole of Europe. About 200,000 Jews lived in the city, among them Albert Einstein, who lived here from 1914 until 1932. By 1945, only 1,400 of Germany's 600,000 strong Jewish community had managed to hide long enough to escape deportation to the concentration and extermination camps. Some had hidden themselves in Weissensee's grand mausoleums. Burials still took place there in the early years of the war. It was pure luck that the Nazis never got around to rasing it, historians said. After the war, headstones were put up to commemorate families killed in the Holocaust. The inscription "Died at Auschwitz" is common.

About 105,000 practicing Jews live in Germany today, many of them ethnic Germans who emigrated from Poland and Russia in the 1990s. German politicians are keen to point to the construction of new synagogues and cultural centres in recent years as a sign that Jewish life is reviving in Germany. But the community remains a shadow of its former self and appears isolated from mainstream society, with many still preferring to conceal their faith in public. The first rabbi to be ordained in Germany since the Holocaust, German-born Daniel Alter who was ordained in 2006, said he is so worried about being identified as a Jew that he often wears a baseball hat over his skull cap.

Many Jewish sites are under round-the-clock police protection, and neo-Nazi attacks on them are common, especially in eastern Germany. Weissensee Cemetery was vandalised in April when unknown attackers overturned dozens of headstones. Few expect the community ever to thrive again in the way it did in the decades after Weissensee was established. Maria Bering of Berlin's cultural department said Weissensee's historical significance gave it an "eternal character" unlike other cemeteries where leases on graves expire after a few decades.

"Very many former Berliners of the Jewish faith who visit this city like to visit this cemetery, and I think it's not just because their own relatives are buried there but because they can see a great Jewish legacy in incredible dimensions," Ms Bering said. The city is sponsoring a research project with Berlin's Technical University to survey the cemetery and set up a database of the people buried there to prepare for the world heritage application.

The work is difficult because so many of the headstones are hidden under ivy, have faded inscriptions or are cracked. But the decades of neglect are not the only problem. Police say much of the cemetery is in such a bad state that it is impossible to tell whether there have been more far-right attacks. However, parts of the cemetery are maintained well, aided by government funding that last year totalled about ?700,000, and burials still take place.

But city officials are warning that it could take 20 years before the cemetery is actually awarded world heritage status. By that time, historians say, many of the tombs will have been lost forever. dcrossland@thenational.ae