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In the heart of Berlin’s northern Weissensee district lies a silent, sprawling testament to the history and resilience of the city’s Jewish community.
The Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, a 42-acre expanse of graves and memorials, stands as a unique and poignant symbol of the rise, fall, and resurrection of Berlin’s Jewish population over three centuries. With over 100,000 souls laid here to rest, it remains the largest active Jewish cemetery in Europe, nearly 150 years after its founding.
Though there are other European burial grounds with larger numbers of Jewish graves—such as Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery in Budapest (approx 300,000) and Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (approx 250,000) —none can match the ongoing legacy and historical record of the Weissensee Cemetery. The meticulously preserved death registry of which offers an unparalleled glimpse into the lives of those who rest here and the triumphant and troubled lineage of Berlin’s Jewish Community.
Unveiled in 1880 and designed by architect Hugo Licht, the cemetery complex was established to accommodate the city’s growing and increasingly affluent Jewish minority, which included around 65,000 members at the time. The previous Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee had reached capacity, necessitating the creation of this vast new resting place.
But the significance of Weissensee Cemetery goes beyond its grand scale. It captures the spirit and aspirations of a minority community at the height of its ascendancy, with the graves, crypts, and mausoleums here marking the path from emancipation and integration to mass persecution, expulsion, extermination – and back. Bilingual inscriptions in German and Hebrew adorn the predominantly shiny black granite gravestones, echoing the voices of a vibrant and storied past.
Among the notable figures buried here are politicians, spiritual leaders, inventors, economists, and entrepreneurs. Names such as Berthold Kempinski, founder of Kempinski Hotels, Hermann Tietz and Adolf Jandorf of the famed department stores, and prominent publishers Samuel von Fischer and Rudolf Mosse are etched in stone.
These individuals have come to represent a generation that straddled the cusp of general emancipation, striving for recognition, respect, and the greater possibility of prosperity and social acceptability. They would embody a new class of Jewish elite at the turn of the 19th century, characterised by diligence, industriousness, self-discipline, and ambition.
Part of a community that sought to shake off the shackles of intolerance and forge a new path of German identity – while still remaining Jewish.
The cemetery also houses the grave of Herbert Baum, a symbol of Jewish resistance against Nazi tyranny who was executed in 1942 following his participation in the firebombing of the ‘Soviet Paradise’ propaganda exhibit.
South of the main mourning hall is a field of honour established in 1927 by the National Association of Jewish Combat Soldiers (Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten) for 395 of the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their integration during the First World War.
At its centre stands a three-metre high monumental altar made of shell limestone, designed by architect, Alexander Beer, who would serve as Gemeindebaumeister (Community Architect in Chief) to the Jewish Community in Berlin until his eventual deportation and death in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944.
Like the broken trees that have toppled throughout the cemetery, the lineage of the Jewish community remains evidently divided: between those who were persecuted and perished, at the hands of National Socialist terror, and those that fled. Included
Essential to this darkest chapter in the cemetery’s history are also those who remained and hid amongst the tombs here.
During the height of the Holocaust, the Weissensee cemetery became a sanctuary for many, including Martin Riesenburger, who would later become the rabbi of East Berlin’s Jewish community. Along with his wife, Riesenburger sought refuge within the cemetery’s walls from 1943 to 1944. Amidst the horror of the Holocaust, he continued to bury the Jewish dead and courageously conducted religious services on the hallowed grounds.
Riesenburger’s resourcefulness extended to the safeguarding of numerous religious artifacts, including Torah scrolls and silver ornaments. By concealing these sacred items within the cemetery, he ensured their survival against all odds. As the war drew to a close, he held his first post-war prayer service on May 11, 1945, a poignant reminder of the resilience of the Jewish faith.
The burial vault of chamber music singer Schwarz offered refuge to those in hiding. But not all stories ended in salvation. The discovery of some hiding spots by the Gestapo led to unspeakable cruelty, as recounted by Christoph Hein in a harrowing report.
At the entrance of the cemetery, a memorial honours the countless Holocaust victims who perished in the camps and have no graves.
The first memorial plaque, installed in September 1945, commemorates those whose ashes were scattered.
In a solemn ceremony on January 27, 1992, marking the 47th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an urn containing the ashes of Auschwitz victims was placed in the cemetery.
While it is the Holocaust that remains the focal point on entering the cemetery, and a recurring theme throughout, the markers of ordinary life – and death – feature here dispersed like the plants and flowers that mark the natural passage of time.
Life goes on – and we must face up to its painful realities and liberating joys until its inevitable end.
Some useful links related to the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee:
The Weissensee Jewish Community WebsiteWeissensee Jewish Cemetery Website
Learn more about the history of Nazi Germany and life in Hitler’s Third Reich with our Capital Of Tyranny tours.
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin and explore this urban battlefield with our Battle of Berlin tours.
Learn more about the history of East German and life behind the Iron Curtain with our Republic Of Fear tours.
Learn more about the history of Prussia and the life of Frederick the Great with our Glory Of Prussia tours.
Learn more about the Nazi Concentration Camp industry and visit Sachsenhausen on our Invention of Hell tours.