Spate of cemetery attacks sparks anger in Germany

BERLIN — A spate of recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries in Germany has authorities confounded — and Jewish leaders mad.

Most startling was a dynamite explosion at a cemetery here on March 16. Police in Berlin said they had few clues in the latest act of vandalism, which involved the detonation of a bomb inside the entrance of the Jewish cemetery in the western part of the city.

They said they were seeking information about the driver of a car seen heading the wrong way on a one-way road near the cemetery around the time of the explosion.

The attack took place shortly after another incident, in which a Soviet-era memorial in eastern Berlin was defaced with Nazi graffiti, including swastikas.

Police said there was no indication that the two incidents were connected.

Other recent incidents included the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in the eastern German city of Rostock on March 8 and severe damage to a memorial at the former concentration camp of Woebbelin, to a Jewish cemetery in Boizenberg and to a memorial to the death march in Raben Steinfeld.

For the residents of Rostock, the vandalism brought home an important message: Some elements in the society care just as little for the peace of the dead as for the peace of mind of the living.

"What can we do in order to effectively protect our Jewish citizens, both the living and dead?" asked Fred Mahlburg, president of the Rostock Foundation for Jewish History and Culture, during a communal meeting that was reported in a local newspaper. "This is now about the quality of our democratic society."

The community is not discussing specific security measures, but synagogues and Jewish cultural centers here have police guards, as they do in many European cities.

Security has been stepped up lately, largely in connection with Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Still, Germany has not seen the level of anti-Semitic rage that has plagued the French Jewish community since the Palestinian intifada began 18 months ago.

In the Berlin cemetery explosion, the perpetrators apparently filled a metal container with 100 grams of dynamite and threw it over the wall into the courtyard leading to the cemetery. The explosion, which a neighbor said sounded like an airplane crash, shattered windows in the small chapel and office facing the courtyard. There has been no estimate of the cost of repairs.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit told reporters that he was "dismayed" by the "shameful attack."

Michel Friedmann, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the vandalism a "barbaric act."

The president of Berlin's Jewish community, Alexander Brenner, blamed unfair media reports on the Mideast for creating a "superheated atmosphere" that led to anti-Semitic attacks.

The Berlin cemetery, called Heerstrasse, dedicated in 1953 after the Cold War division of Berlin split the Jewish community, also was the site of an attack that drew media attention in 1998. At that time, the gravestone of Heinz Galinski, former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was destroyed by a bomb.

That unsolved crime led Galinski's successor, Ignatz Bubis, to comment shortly before his death in 1999 that he would rather be buried in Israel than in Germany.

According to a study published in September 2000, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries is on the rise in Germany. Prepared by the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam, the study showed twice as many cases of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries in the 1990s than in either the 1970s or 1980s.

Altogether, there have been more than 1,000 desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in Germany since the end of World War II.

Cemetery desecration also was a problem before the Nazi rise to power. A current museum exhibit in Berlin on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust shows a 1932 brochure from the Jewish community that reports cemetery vandalism over a nine-year period. Then as now, perpetrators seldom were caught.

Ironically, the Nazis protected the huge Wiessensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin from destruction, as a cover for their attitudes toward the Jewish population.

In October 1999, that same site — Europe's largest Jewish cemetery, with more than 100,000 stones — was vandalized. In all, 103 stones were overturned and nearly a quarter of them irreparably damaged.

Andreas Nachama, then head of the Berlin Jewish community, said the incident should "lead to a new discussion" about security for Jewish venues.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.