Sun, Jan 28, 2007 - Page 6 News List

A dilapidated testament to a once-thriving community


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 annihilation 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," said Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum foundation for Jewish history and culture.

"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," he said.

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

A stroll through the site offers moving and often chilling reminders of the past.

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 Jan. 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 Sept. 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. In the 1920s there were even plans to expand the enormous cemetery for fear it would soon be full.

Because the Jewish faith has a tradition of maintaining graves for an eternity, it normally falls to the next generations to ensure their preservation. But as the population vanished and Jewish institutions were destroyed, the site fell into disrepair.

During the Nazi period, some Jews learned gardening there to prepare for a new life in exile in "Palestine." Later, some hid in the grounds from the Gestapo.

In the 1930s as the Nazis opened the first concentration camps on German soil, the cremated remains of dead prisoners were returned to family members, who could collect them in exchange for a fee. About 400 of those urns can be seen at Weissensee.

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