Prenzlauerberg has many things to enjoy - wonderful cafes, astonishing architecture, beautiful squares but there’s something else that needs to be seen…something many are not even aware of. What is it? A a Jewish cemetery…no longer in use (or maintained) but, nevertheless, hauntingly beautiful for those who choose to pay it a visit. Here, as it has been remarked (quite aptly), is the peace of the dead - a reminder that for hundreds of years, before World War II, a Jewish community thrived in this city.
This particular Jewish cemetery is not the city’s largest but, for me, it is the most beautiful. Located in the ‘Prenzlauerberg Triangle’ between Schönhauser Allee, Knaackstrasse and Kollowitzstrasse, it was consecrated in 1827 and for over half a century was the only burial ground available for Berlin’s Jews. Today, it is nothing more than a haunting reminder of the horrors of the holocaust for, put simply, there are no relatives to tend the graves.
I arrive quite late on a winter’s afternoon and, as I wander through the grounds (the cemetery is utterly deserted and gives off a desolate air) I see huge chestnut and linden trees everywhere. Many tombstones are covered in moss; some have toppled over. A large number are elaborate - beautifully decorated with iron. There are also a number of mausoleums, showing off both classical and Gothic designs. All in all, I am told, there are around 25,000 graves here.
As the light filters through the branches, it gives the grounds a melancholy feel. Not surprising - few people visit here and the cemetery’s cisterns, in the last days of World War II, were used as a place for deserters to hide from the Nazis. After being captured, they were hanged by the Gestapo. How many tourists and locals visit here today? I imagine not many - after all, it is a reminder of a dark time in history.
The Schönhauser Allee cemetery is home to the great and the good of Berlin’s old Jewish community, including the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and the artist Max Liebermann. (His wife, who - rather than face deportation to one of the camps - killed herself in 1943, was laid to rest next to him as late as 1960). I wander from tombstone to tombstone, reading inscriptions and wondering how Berlin’s Jews felt about being both German and Jewish. No doubt, at the turn of the 20th century, few of them could have anticipated the horrors that awaited the community.
It is cold and grey and, as I said before, I am alone here. And yet the cemetery is hauntingly beautiful and it is hard to tear myself away from the place. It is the custom of us Jews to place a stone on a grave, after visiting, I pick up one from the path and place it on the tombstone of a woman buried here in 1898. I say a silent prayer, turn and walk towards the exit.