Saturday, December 3, 2016

Germany: Berlin's Old Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str., A Good Example of How to Protect and Present a Despoiled Urban Cemetery

Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016)
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. with memorial sculpture installed in 1987.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Preserved gravestones and historical signage in German, English and Hebrew in side entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).

Germany: Berlin's Old Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str., A Good Example of How to Protect and Present a Despoiled Urban Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber

Even as many Jewish institutions flourish today, Berlin is a city steeped in Jewish memory. So much of the city's Jewish history and culture was truncated, and tens of thousands of the city's Jews were forced into exile or to death under the Nazi regime, that it is hard to conceive how the Jewish present can ever again eclipse the Jewish past. Through of the city there are scores of memorial plaques and stones, museums, and commemorative sites; and there are cemeteries. The largest of these is the last opened, the 43-hectare Weissensee Cemetery. But the oldest is the small and extremely poignant Old Jewish Cemetery  on Grosse Hamburger Str. in the dense urban are of Mitte, once an neighborhood also filled with living Jews and vibrant institutions. Today it is a peaceful and respected urban oasis, but it took decades to reach this solution.

The collective memorial also commemorates the destroyed Jewish community, its institutions, and 55,000 Berlin Jews deported to their deaths at the ghetto of Terezin, the Auschwitz Death Camp and elsewhere. Affixed to the wall of the cemetery facing Grosse Hamburger Str. is a plaque the states (my translation):

This was the first home of the Jewish Community of Berlin. In 1942, the Gestapo turned it into a collection point for Jewish residents. 55,000 Berlin Jews, from infant to the elderly, were dragged to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps and bestially murdered. Do not forget. Resist war. Embrace peace.
Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Memorial plaque for Berlin's deported Jews. Note the commemorative stones set on a sill within the concrete wall.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

The cemetery was founded by the  so-called “Schutzjuden" (Jews with special protection from the state) who had come from Vienna in 1671 and been allowed to settle in the Spandauer Tor area, not far from the cemetery, which was in use between 1672 and 1827. Besides members of Berlin’s Jewish community, Jews from  Spandau, Nauen, Kremmen, Zehdenick and Oranienburg were also buried here.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Gross Hamburger Str. before destruction. Photo: Centrum Judaicum.
Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str., present state. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str., present state. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

Unlike the the large Jewish cemeteries on the periphery of Berlin's urban core which for complex reasons survived the Nazi regime and Shoah substantially intact, the old cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str. was completely devastated by the Nazis when in 1943 the grounds  were used for air raid shelters and gravestones were used to reinforced the walls. Then in April 1945, the area was the site of mass graves for soldiers and civilians killed during Allied air raids. An undated stone plaque, perhaps from the 1960s, is attached to a far wall of the cemetery and commentaries these burials - though not the fate of the city's Jews.

The exact number of Jews buried in the cemetery from the 17th through the 19th century is unknown, with estimates as high as 12,000. An inventory at the times of the cemetery closing in 1827 identified 2,767 graves. Today, no gravestones remain in situ, and only 19 gravestones are preserved at all - set against the cemetery's interior southern wall. In addition to Jewish burials there are 16 mass graves on the site for the non-Jewish air-raid victims and soldiers.  These and earlier diggings on the site for shelters disturbed hundreds, if not thousands, or earlier Jewish burials.

In 1948, a plaque commemorating of the cemetery's history was erected by the Jewish community and during the GDR era, the cemetery was declared a park complex under monumental protection. In the 1970s, East Berlin’s Department of Parks and Gardens removed the remaining Jewish gravestones as well as the wooden crosses marking the graves of air raid victims. Then the cemetery was used as a park.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Preserved gravestones set against southern wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str. Symbolic gravestone of Moses Mendelssohn. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
In 1988 the few surviving gravestones which had been set into the wall of an adjacent house (in the pre-war period?) were transferred to the Weissensee cemetery, but these were returned in 2009. A symbolic grave for Moses Mendelssohn was left at the spot, and even this has new been replaced by a more recent version, similar to the original gravestone of  Mendelssohn. The remodeling of the cemetery premises in 2007 was financed by the Berlin Senate and the Jewish community. The area can again be recognized as a cemetery. A ritual washbasin and a prayer board are affixed at the entrance and new signage presents the Jewish history of the site.
 
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Plaque commemorating mass graves of German war victims. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Plaque commemorating mass graves of German war victims. The inscripton reads: "Auf diesem Alten Friedhof der judischen Gemeinde wurden im Jahre 1945 Zahllose opfer des Krieges Begraben /  "In this Old Cemetery of the Jewish Community, countless victims of the war were buried in 1945."  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

In the 19th century, after the cemetery was closed, the Jewish Old Age home was built adjacent to the cemetery. This building was destroyed by allied bombing in 1945. today, a memorial plaque on the exterior wall of the cemetery commemorates this institution.
 

Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Sculptural memorial by Will Lammert, installed 1985. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).

In 1985, a bronze sculptural group of figures by Will Lammert (1892-1957) was installed next to this memorial. This is a model for a sculptural group originally intended for installation as part of the Ravensbrück camp memorial, but Lammert died in 1957 before he was able to complete the final project. Lammert was a leading German sculptor who because his membership in the Communist party and his Jewish was was exiled from Nazi German, where he was charged with High Treason, and spent much of the 1930s on the run until surviving in Soviet Union. He returned to Communist East Germany in 1951. From 1954 on he dedicated himself to creating the the Ravensbrück camp memorial. The thirteen figures arranged on a base in front of the Berlin cemetery were meant to be part of this work. Instead, installed in Berlin in 1985 (in an arrangement by Lammert's son), this became the first monument to the Holocaust created in East Berlin.
 
Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Sculptural memorial by Will Lammert, installed 1985. Photo:
Jochen Teufel (Wikicommons)

While this might not be the most appropriate memorial for the history of this site, or to commemorate the tens of thousands of murdered Berlin Jews, it has became part of the accepted commemorative landscape.

Sources:

"Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery," website of Jewish Community of Berlin.

Andreas Nachama and Ulrich Eckhardt, Jüdische Orte in Berlin, (Berlin: Nicolai Verlag,

"Will Lammert," Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind
by Samuel D. Gruber

Berlin is a city of monuments and memorials, celebrating Prussian power and now, in recent decades, Nazi crimes. The list of Holocaust commemorative sites, plaques, statues, exhibitions in continually growing. This is to say nothing of the more than 5,000 stolpersteine that have now been installed on pavements throughout the city, with many in the Berlin-Mitte neighborhood.  Having so many commemorative sites allows for great variety. Some are explicit and narrative; some conceptual and abstract. Some are generic and some precise. Some are collective, while some remember specific individuals and families. But even when taken together all these monuments cannot convey the enormity of suffering and loss; of astonishment, fear, violence, pain, and death.

Berlin, Germany. Examples of Stolpersteine commemorating former Jewish residents of Grosse Hambrger Str. 30. Photo: Sameul Gruber 2016
I've been to Berlin several times over the past twenty-five years - as this commemorative landscape has expanded neighborhood by neighborhood. Each time different memorials strike a chord.  On this visit, I was especially moved on the short walk up Grosse Hamburger Str. in Mitte, from the Old Jewish cemetery to Koppenplatz, the site of the bronze sculpture Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room), by Karl Biedermann, installed in 1996.  The work is a near-perfect example of a genre of monuments I call "things left behind." These works began appearing in Europe in the 1990s and continue to be made today. They rely on contradictions to convey their powerful message of abandonment and loss.

Examples are in Sopron, Hungary, where a 2004 monument by László Kutasis cast from real clothes to suggest the garments left by victims in the "showers" of Auschwitz. In Budapest, the 2005 memorial on the banks of the Danube of cast shoes and boots - to signify the victims who were shot and  thrown into the icy river in 1944-45 by Arrow Cross militiamen  - is another powerful example These Hungarian examples are more spricifc in the references than The Deserted Room which could equally have been installed in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or any other occupied cavity from which Jews where Jews rounded up and deported. But it also speaks to any place today where refugees must run from their homes, never to return.

Sopron, Hungary. Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust from Sopron, László Kutas, sculptor, 2004. Photo: szoborlap.hu
Budapest, Hungary. Danube River Monument, 2005. Gyula Pauer, artist. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2009
While these works are conceptual at their core, they are also highly realistic - even hyper realist in their visible subject and form. They juxtapose the commonplace and every-day with the realization of the reality of unspeakable horror and inconsolable lose. Most powerful of all, these works encounter the view on high intellectual level but with personal immediacy.

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The bronze sculpture is so natural - one can mistake the table and two chairs as the real thing - though in fact they are slightly bigger than normal and cast in bronze. And yet these cannot be normal - they sit on a faux-parquet floor in a room with walls and ceiling within a small city park. This represent a room on ordinary apartment or houses, that has been left in a hurry. Were the residents who so recently sat at the simple table arrested and deported? Or did they leave suddenly, saving themselves as refugees on the run? Sadly, we must think the former. Around  the edge of the floor are lines from the famous poem O the Chimneys by Nobel Prize Laureate Nelly Sachs. The lines of the third stanza:


O die Wohnungen des Todes, Einladend hergerichtet Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war – O ihr Finger,

Die Eingangsschwelle legend Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod –

O ihr Schornsteine, O ihr Finger, Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!

[O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –
O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!]


Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The lines of the Nelly Sachs poem could have been used for the Sopron memorial, too.

I'll be adding more about the Berlin Commemorative landscape in coming weeks.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Germany: Berlin's Field of Honor for Jewish Soldiers Killed in World War I

Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor Monument, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Wreaths laid at Field of Honor Monument, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber November, 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Germany: Berlin's Field of Honor for Jewish Soldiers Killed in World War I
by Samuel D. Gruber

I've written a few times (2009, 2012) about war monuments for Jewish War dead, especially the many monuments and memorials erected across Europe after World War I, when Jewish soldiers fought in the armies of all the combatant nations. Germany had the most soldiers - approximately 100,000 - and probably did the most the memorialize the fallen in the decade after the war. For more on memory and denial of German-Jewish war service see Tim Grady's recent book The German-Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).   

I'm not aware of any compendium of images and information on all the monuments erected in cemeteries and synagogues across Germany, but Jews in the 1930s used these (unsuccessfully) to make the case of their German patriotism in the face of growing Nazi oppression. At the time, perhaps the best known and probably the largest of these was the Field of Honor created for the war dead at Berlin's Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee, the large burial ground opened in 1880 in the northeastern part of the city. Designed by Community architect Alexander Beer (who would later die in the Terezin Concentration Camp), the Field and its 394 graves are very well maintained, even though much of the adjacent cemetery area is still being tamed after decades of neglect. The war cemetery was situated right behind the new Hall of Mourning. This structure was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War. Its ruins now a grassy mound.

Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor Wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor Wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The entire 49 x 90 meter memorial ground is encircled by a wall of Rudersdorf limestone, with the main approach from the north and the direction of the cemetery entrance. At its center is a large 3-meter high monument shaped like an altar; installed in 1926. The inscription on the front indicated that it was presented by the Reich Confederation of Jewish Frontline Soldiers (RjF). The field includes graves of soldiers who died in the war and those who later died of their injuries. The first dead soldier buried here was Rifleman Sally Perlmann (30 May 1884 - 12 October 1914). The last grave was added in 1941, during the period when many Jewish veterans had already fled the country, been imprisoned, or deported to their deaths.  In all about 12,000 Jews died fighting for Germany in war; 30,000 Jews were decorated. There were 2,000 Jewish officers. An article from published in May 21, 1933 by Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Berlin Jewish cemeteries was already prescient:
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.
I visited Weissensee earlier this month, just a few days after Armistice Day (November 11th), when all the country's war dead are remembered in public ceremonies and wreath laying. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Weissensee memorial, and so it had special significance and poignancy.  Especially moving is the large form of a resting lion on the front of the monument. I see this in contrast of the long history of representation of the Jewish people lions; descendants of Judah and defenders of Torah. The lion's watchful repose is also in contrast to the violent image of a wounded lion on the soldiers' monument in the Jewish cemetery of Gyongyos, Hungary.

Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Wreaths laid at Field of Honor Monument. Wreaths form the German military and the Israeli Defense Forces lie side by side. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber November, 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor Monument, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor Monument, 1926. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2016
After 1945 the Field of Honor, like the entire cemetery, was increasingly neglected. It was restored between 1995 and 1998 at the initiative of the Bundeswehr with the financial support of the German War Graves Commission, the Berlin Senate's Department of Urban Development, the Berlin Jewish Community, and the Axel-Springer Foundation. At the time of my visit - so close to the memorial day - the site was immaculate; a field of somber autumn hues enlivened by the splash of color on the memorial wreaths laid at the monument by many Jewish and German organizations.

Sources: 

Ofer Adaret, "When Hitler Honored Jewish Soldiers," Haaretz (July 5, 2014)

Regina Borgmann and Fiona Laudamus, The Jewish Cemetery, Weissensee, Berlin (Berlin: Jewish Community of Berlin, 2011).

Tim Grady, The German-Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press,

Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Field of Honor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. Main entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
 


Monday, November 14, 2016

Lithuania: Gathering of Stones from Vilnius's Uzupis Cemetery Moves Forward

Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Temporary sign explaining gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016
Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016
Lithuania: Gathering of Stones from Vilnius's Uzupis Cemetery Moves Forward
by Samuel D. Gruber

A year ago I wrote about at length about the great Uzupis Cemetery in Vilnius, founded in the 19th century and bulldozed from 1965-1968 during the Soviet occupation of Vilnius. Tens of thousands of matzevot were uprooted from the graves they marked. Many were smashed into rubble. Others were transported nearly-whole to build stairs and walls throughout the city.

Very slowly, some hundreds of these stones are being retrieved and removed to the cemetery. This process began more than a decade ago when many  stones used to construct a huge staircase  to the Trade Union headquarters were recovered and some were  used to create the monument now at the cemetery (you can see that the stones were cut for stairs). Many more remain embedded in buildings of the Soviet era. They are still there. Some have been firmly identified as matzevot. The identity of other stones, such as those used for the steps of the Reformed Evangelical Church in Pylimo Street is sometimes contested, though to my eyes at least one stone of church steps is clearly a Jewish matzevah (see photo).  The church was used as a cinema during the Soviet era, when the stairs were apparently rebuilt.  I also reported in 2011 about gravestones in a wall of a Middle School.
 

Vilnius, lithuania. Jewish gravestone used in the stairs of the Reformed Evangelical Church on Pylimo Street. Photo: Samuel D. Grbuer Oct. 2016.
Last year the mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius announced that he would address this issue. First, some signs were posted where the stones have been identified alerting the public to their history and misuse.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Sign posted by City of Vilnius in 2015 at former power substation prior to removal of gravestone fragments from outer wall. The sign - in Lithuanian and English - cites this as an example of "Soviet barbarism ... using ravaged Jewish gravestones."  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
A few weeks ago (October) I saw some first progress in the retrieval of some fragments. The former electrical substation across the road from the cemetery has been stripped of the gravestone fragments that were used for exterior walls. In large part it was the international attention in the Daily Mail and other media given to the discovery of these stones that brought the the local government to quickly act. Now these fragments, and some others from around the city, have been transported to the cemetery where they are now being sorted, catalogued and where there are legible inscriptions, transcribed. A team from the University of Vilnius, including former project coordinator of MAZEVA, Ruta Anulyte, who is now a Ph.D, student in cultural heritage studies, is doing the work for the city.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Former power substation after removal of gravestone fragments from out wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
Vilnius, Lithuania. Former power substation after removal of gravestone fragments from out wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
So far, there are hundreds of fragments that have been gathered. Many of these have traces of inscriptions in several languages - but all clearly commemorate the city's Jewish dead. Hundreds more fragments have no inscriptions - but are surely gravestone fragments. No decisions have been made about how to protect and present these pieces and the thousands of similar ones still embedded in the walls and pavements of Vilnius and surrounding areas. I'll address some possible solutions in the an upcoming blogpost.

I am hopeful that Mayor Šimašius will continue the process, even though he will face some resistance from property owners. I suggest that all these gravestones be declared objects of cultural heritage and that their removal by the Soviets be recognized as both part of a process of ethnic cleansing and property theft. All identified stones should be legally recognized as stolen property and as with any other stolen property, every effort should be made to return them to their place and owner of origin. If this principle is fully recognized then financial arrangements can be more effectively discussed and arranged to assist present-day owners - who most often have nothing to do with the original theft and reuse.

Compared to the more contentious issue of the re-developed of the 1970s sports center located on the site of the even older Piramónt (Snipiskis) cemetery, this problem of gathering stones back to Uzupis should be mostly logistical - not political, economic or urbanistic. This is not about guilt - those who removed these stones in the 1960s have long been out of power, and the destruction in the cemetery was part of a wide-ranging policy of confiscation of religious and private properties.

After the electrical substation removal - which we can judge as a pilot project - the next big challenge will be the removal of an unknown number - but hundreds - of larger stones presently stored and neglected at the “Vilniaus žaluma” nursery in northeastern Vilnius. It seems likely that these stones are the bulk of the matzevot removed from the steps to the Soviet Labor Palace in 1992. Apparently only a smaller portion of the stones were incorporated into the monument built at the cemetery ten years later.

In 2015, Julius Norwilla, who has written extensively about the "lost" matzevot, suggested that instead of returning the stones to Uzupis, they should be taken to the Piramónt (Snipiskis) cemetery, and used to create a monument - that would be either an alternative to the planned convention center or at least stand in defiant opposition; a rebuke from the dead of past generations. My own thinking is that the stones should be reunited as much as possible with the bodies they were erected to remember - and thus taken to Uzupis. But this is all part of what should be an ongoing public and creative discussion. The problem is not one that stops in Vilnius. The gathering of stones continues across many borders - with few rules or even guidelines about how proceed, and with little discussion about the purposes and the effects of the action, and who should be responsible for the work and the interpretation. Really, who owns these stones? Who owns this history?

Here are images of just a few of the inscribed gathered stones. Click the picture for a bigger image.  The working team will appreciate volunteers willing to help translate and annotate longer inscriptions.


Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016
Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016
Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016

Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stone. Though the inscription is in Cyrillic letters, the deceased name - Chaim Brody - is clearly that of Jew. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016
Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016

Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. This is one of the larger and more intact gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016

Vilnius, Lithuania. Uzupis cemetery. Gathered stones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct. 2016