Berlin Jewish cemetery needing help

BERLIN — Snow and ice crunching under his feet, Michael Mamlock makes his way down a long path between rows of tombstones.

The most recent visitors here have been rabbits and foxes, whose tracks crisscross the path.

Reaching a far corner of the Weissensee Cemetery in the former East Berlin, Mamlock places a stone on the grave of his great-aunt and uncle, Johanna and Jacob Mamlock.

For Mamlock, 51, more is needed for those buried in the cemetery. With 115,000 graves spread across 103 acres, it is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.

As chairman of a new foundation, Friends of the Jewish Cemetery Berlin-Weissensee, Mamlock has been charged with helping secure the cemetery's future.

The cemetery opened in 1880, but has been largely abandoned since the Nazis shut it down.

About two-thirds of Berlin's 175,000 Jews fled Nazi Germany. Of the rest, who were deported to Nazi death camps, few survived.

Though most of the grounds are in a dilapidated state after decades of neglect during the Communist era, the cemetery is a reminder of the richness and variety that once defined Berlin's Jewish community,

With other sources of funding unlikely — the German government and the German Jewish community are strapped for cash — the foundation is seeking donations to help restore the cemetery, stone by stone, field by field.

The foundation needs nearly $4 million "just to fix the stones that are falling down," said Mamlock, a Berlin real-estate businessman whose late parents survived the Holocaust in hiding.

Since the association has no overhead, donations will go directly to material and labor, he said, adding that all donors will receive an account of how their money was used.

For those interested in learning more, a Web site will soon be available at

Already, one major donor — the Museum for German Speaking Jewry in Tefen, Israel — is sponsoring the restoration of some 650 grave sites.

And Salomon Oppenheim, of the Cologne-based bank that bears his name, provided a seed grant of nearly $25,000, Mamlock said.

Ultimately, Mamlock hopes the cemetery will be included on UNESCO's list of Cultural Heritage Sites, which would bring annual financial support.

The Berlin State Historical Register has endorsed this effort.

All those buried here "were individuals with personal histories," said Mamlock, who added that the stones offer enough clues to keep genealogists and historians busy for years to come.

The cemetery reflects the polarities and facets of Jewish life in prewar Berlin.

The rich lie under marble mausoleums designed by famous architects like Martin Gropius; the passing of the poor is noted with humble markers.

Here are the assimilated Jews with no stars of David above their names, and there is a field for the Orthodox, including the revered Chassidic Rabbi Abram Mordko Grynberg (d. 1938), with not a word of German on his tombstone.

There is a section for the famous, and one for non-Jewish spouses. There are markers for those who died in the Shoah and whose true resting place is unknown.

There even is a grave for desecrated Torah scrolls.

A few graves became hiding places for Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.

Only 400 families still pay for the annual upkeep of their plots. Many of those buried here have no direct descendants.

There have been relatively few cases of vandalism of graves in Weissensee.

But in 1992, two years after German reunification, 55 graves were vandalized. In 1999, 103 graves were desecrated, some of them destroyed.

But most of the destruction is due to time and nature.

Some of the older, heavy marble monuments are propped up with wood to keep them from tumbling. Others already have succumbed; their classical columns lie cracked and fallen, the inscribed tombstones face down in the earth.

One field was restored with the help of former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, who sponsored two benefit concerts conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 1990.

A field for Jewish World War I veterans is well-kept by the German army.

And private individuals have restored family plots to a measure of their former glory.

But the vast majority of graves are neglected. Huge areas are overgrown with trees, and vines have wound themselves thick as shrouds over the stones. Though it might seem like a landscape of sadness, Mamlock feels uplifted. "I feel a certain mystical energy," he said. "It lives, somehow it lives.''

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.