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Berlin’s Jewish Cemeteries Revealing Clues to Varied Role Race Played in German Story

The old Berlin Jewish cemetery lies in the midst of the city of Berlin, in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, and from outside you cannot tell what it is. The big building of the Home for the Aged maintained by the Jewish community is situated in this street, and you have to go through the gate of this building to find yourself in a courtyard which adjoins this tiny, ancient Jewish cemetery. It is surrounded by big tenement houses, whose walls constitute the walls of the cemetery.

MOSES MENDELSSOHN’S GRAVE

The Jews of Berlin buried their dead in this cemetery from 1672 till 1827. It was laid out in the days when the community was in its infancy. It is remarkable that very few people know of the existence of this important volume of Jewish history. Of all the once noted folk who lie buried here, only one, Moses Mendelssohn, is still generally known. He was the first German Jew to play a great part in the life of the world outside and he was at the same time a leader of Jewish emancipation.

When this old cemetery was closed, the community, which had meanwhile grown in numbers and wealth, opened a new big cemetery, which is also full now, but occasionally there is still a burial there. When it was opened, this cemetery lay right outside the town, but the town has grown, and now it is situated in the very centre of Berlin, in the Schoenhauser Allee. In the oldest section there are gravestones going back to the end of the 17th century, but speaking generally, this cemetery belongs to the 19th century. There are monuments here to the founders of Liberal Judaism, Abraham Geiger and Leopold Zunz. In the same row lies the great surgeon James Israel. And in this cemetery lies also Abraham Geiger’s son, Ludwig Geiger, Professor of the History of Literature at the Berlin University. Eduard Lasker and Ludwig Bamberger, the leaders of German democracy in Bismarck’s time, lie in a common grave, and the inscription on the tombstone reads: “Here they lie in death united whose lives were linked for Germany’s unity and liberty.”

INSCRIPTIONS IN GERMAN

It is of historical interest and significant of the spirit of the 19th century, that many of the gravestones here carry long inscriptions in verse and prose in German. It was a time of prosperity, when people sought to preserve the memory of their dead.

Most Berlin Jews of our day only know the big cemetery in the suburb of Weissensee, which happens to be the largest cemetery in Berlin. There are 80,000 or 90,000 people buried here. It looks like a great park, with streets and avenues, an impression that grows on you particularly in the Spring and Summer, when the streets and the flower beds are in bloom. Here death lies in the midst of th life of our own time, in the midst of our own Jewish fate. Only the oldest section has retained the character of the old Jewish cemetery; the newer section is much more like the general cemetery.

GRAVES OF THE WAR DEAD

The so-called Heroes Cemetery, where Jewish dead of the great war are buried, is here a cemetery within a cemetery. The rows of graves are arranged with military precision, all alike, a touching answer to the anti-Semitic charges levelled against us in this present period of German life. These dead Jewish soldiers are only a small fraction of the many thousands of German Jews who gave their lives for Germany on the battlefields. The living Jews are vilified, but of these dead Jews no word is said. The field of honor in Weissensee is a monument only for us Jews. The rest refuse to hear of it.

Three Jewish cemeteries, in the same city, of the same community, and they show how history has changed the life of this community —the beginning, the sturdy period of growth and prosperity, and now the decline. And there is the tie that binds us all to this old community, and there are the tombstones from which the dead speak to us more powerfully than those who are still alive.

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