Neue Synagoge in the former Jewish Quarter of Berlin

Explore The former Jewish Quarter of Berlin

Poverty-stricken suburb reborn as a vibrant bohemian barrio

Featured Experience No. 12

Back in the early 1700s, the land just north of the River Spree from near Friedrichstraße station to Alexanderplatz, sat outside the city of Berlin – and beyond the Spandauer Tor, a city gate that led to the settlement of Spandau nearby. Like with most of the areas surrounding Berlin’s old boundaries, agriculture would play a large role in the attempts of the people living here to remain self-sufficient – although the inhabitants of these hamlets outside the city walls would be noticeably poor.

When in 1750, King Frederick the Great ordered the expansion of Berlin’s central districts to the north to present-day Torstrasse – beyond the river Spree and Mon Bijou Palace – this area known as the Spandauer Vorstadt (the district facing Spandau) would be integrated into the city. With it the Jewish families that had moved to this area over the last century.

In 1671, a number of prominent Jewish families had arrived here from Vienna – after being expelled from the Austrian capital by Emperor Leopold I. They would form the core of the city’s Jewish community in this area for the next three centuries. When invited to Berlin, these Viennese Jews were exempt from tolls in traveling, but had to pay a yearly protection tax of eight thalers per family, and one gold florin for every marriage. They were not permitted to have a public synagogue but five years later would be awarded ‘protected Jewish status’ (Schutzjuden) by the ruling Great Elector, Frederick I.

Moses Mendelssohn's grave in the former Jewish Quarter of Berlin
The Abandoned Room

As Berlin had suffered greatly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Great Elector was eager to see the city’s population grow again and the commercial activity increase. The mercantile participation in the economic redevelopment of what would become the Prussian capital earned some of these Vienesse Jews, particularly the Veit and Riess families, prominent roles in the relationship between the state and the members of the city’s most controversial minority. 

Persecution, expulsion and execution, accusations of host desecration and ritual murder, are sadly common themes within the annals of Berlin’s Jewish history – with the first mention of the Jewish population in the city notably being a letter from the Berlin local council in 1295, forbidding wool merchants to supply Jews with yarn.

From the re-establishment of the Berlin Jewish community in 1671, some would thrive under these improved conditions as Schutzjuden, garnering wealth and social recognition, others would falter under the draconian restrictions and exclusions from certain trades, ending up either impoverished or destitute from the taxes, or forced to resettle elsewhere. 

Although Berlin has never had an official ghetto, the Jewish inhabitants of the city who did not already have a permanent residence would be ordered, in 1731, to settle in the district north-west of Alexanderplatz known as the Scheunenviertel (the Barn Quarter) by King Frederick William I. This area had been specifically established some sixty years earlier to store hay outside the city walls, as it was forbidden to keep flammable materials within the city limits.

Part of the Scheunenviertel to the east, and the Spandauer Vorstadt to the west, would come to be known as the Jewish quarter of Berlin from the mid-1700s.

The Auschwitz Trees

Did you know...

If you head into the courtyard of the KW Institute you will find a collection of birch trees, part of an art project introduced to the city in the early 2000s - these trees were nursed in the soil surrounding the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland and transplanted to grow in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin.

This area of the city is home to a large number of the bronze Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones), that were first introduced in 1992 (there are now more than 75,000 across Europe). These small plaques commemorate the people who once lived in this area and fell victim to Nazi genocidal plans or, in some instances, managed to escape. The prevalence of them is a clear indication of the number of Jewish Berliners who previously called this neighbourhood home. 

Following the division of Berlin in 1945, the Spandauer Vorstadt and the Scheunenviertel ended up in the East of the city – as part of the German Democractic Republic. Like many other areas of the country, this district fell into terrible shape, with crumbling buildings and bombed-out, bullet ridden facades, still visible into the early 1990s.

Some trace of this Cold War period is still visible, and the district has managed to retain some of its former derelict charm; although with rent prices and demand for housing rising in Berlin, this part of the central Mitte district has become one of the more desirable areas of the city. Full of art galleries, coffee shops, clothing stores, and restaurants. No longer the city’s Jewish quarter but home to many young creatives and entrepreneurs who are attempting to find their way both because of the city, and in-spite of it.

The Otto Weidt Museum in the former Jewish Quarter of Berlin
Memorial outside the Grosse Hamburger Strasse Jewish Cemetery

Covering around 9 hectares of land, previously occupied by a hippodrome shaped playground and sports field, the memorial is accessible through the arches of two entrances that lead to an open clearing and the first in a number of different parts to the memorial – a 3-metre high granite statue of “Mother Homeland”. Her head bowed and facing a wide avenue lined with weeping willows.

The steady incline of this boulevard leads to two huge stylized flags sculpted of red granite and the actual cemetery of five rectangular communal graves beyond in a massive open field – flanked with sixteen sarcophagi. 

From here the memorial opens up with a view of the Soviet soldier statue to the south east.

The limestone sarcophagi – one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics – chronicle the story of the Great Patriotic War of Liberation, in the words of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Accompanied by relief carvings corresponding to the different stages of the war, the text is displayed in both German and Russian.

Beyond the memorial’s historical significance and impressive design, it can also boast this one rather peculiar characteristic – as one of the last places in Europe where the words of Joseph Stalin remain on public display.

The former Jewish Quarter of Berlin

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