Berlin, nature, and memory

16 Sep

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We flew into Berlin via Germanwings into the old city airport Tegel, and after a 30-minute drive with an extremely verbose Turkish taxi driver who hated the idea of going so far into East Berlin (he finds the East Berliners ungrateful and “filled with Neonazis”), we arrived at our AirBandB rental, a little garden house that sits directly in front of Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg. It’s wonderful, and as far as I’m concerned, beats the hell out of a hotel:

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A little history: these garden houses originated as what became known as Schrebergaerten, after a 19th-century champion of gardens for city people Moritz Schreber. After World War II, when Germany and Austria were in ruins, little bits of open land along the railways and elsewhere were broken up into allotments so that people would have places to plant vegetables and get a little fresh air. Originally, they had little sheds and garden structures, but eventually they became more elaborate, with little houses as summer getaways. This one, and this whole garden area, must have been quite sought-after properties in the days of the DDR. They are now completely renovated into these lovely kinds of cottages. This whole area is filled with these garden properties, complete with elaborate floral displays and fruit trees. IMG_20150916_110945We walked along the paths between these little houses on our way to the only real historic site in this part of the East, the Juedischer Friedhof Weissensee, which I’ll talk about more in a minute.

The Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, now such a beautiful forested area, with well laid-out pathways, and hiking trails where one can walk dogs and see red squirrels and listen to the birds chirping, was before World War II a flat open field. Its height, which is now the highest point in Berlin, is the result of its origins: it came about as one of the major places where the rubble of the city after the war was dumped–that’s how much debris there was! The Germans then laid out paths, planted trees, and let nature take over.  Germans find the need for fresh air and forests an essential part of life, so they turned the terrible destruction of their beautiful cities into a world of wildlife and frische Luft.

Walking through this park and along the Kleingartenanlage, we ran into something that delighted George: a communal apiary! The sign says “Honey from your own beekeeping” (I love the German word for beekeeping, Imkerei ). People have left bottles for the beekeeper, and notes about when the next honey extraction will happen. What a delightful idea, no?IMG_20150916_110428IMG_20150916_110315


Entrance to the Juedischer Friedhof Weisensee. The plaque reads: “Think eternally of what happened to us. Dedicated to the memory of our murdered brothers and sisters 1933-1945 and to the living who must fulfill the legacy of the dead.”

Our destination for the day was, as I said above, the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. Our landlord told us that this is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, in terms of geographical size, and having walked through it all, I can believe him. It was the third Jewish cemetery in Berlin, laid out in 1880. It is absolutely beautiful with its quiet and lushly forested walkways and open spaces, and it goes on forever.judfriedhof_weissensee_gb&tombs_berlinThe era that it encompasses is that in which Jewish families in Berlin became prosperous and made their most significant contributions to German culture, and so the gravestones and tombs are often quite elaborate, even ostentatious. This one, surrounded by painted ironwork, was the most grandiose of all.judfriedhof_weissensee_ornatetomb_netter_berlin

Several famous and illustrious figures are buried here, and I took the opportunity to place a stone at the grave of Samuel Fischer, the great founder of one of Germany’s most important publishing houses. The tombstone even had a small plaque showing the publishing house’s famous logo.


The tombstone records a father who died in the inauspicious year of 1942. The inscription below reads: “To my beloved Hugokurt with Lisa/Erich with Ilse and Ulrich/Killed in the KZ (concentration camp)

judfriedhof_weissensee_fischertomb_berlin The solemnity of the experience, of course, the utter incomprehensible poignancy, can be felt everywhere, from the special section for the Jewish Berliners who died fighting for their country in the First World War, to the heartbreaking reminders of the fate of nearly all of these families. P1000897The photo above is the entryway, which presents a memorial plaque to the victims of the Holocaust, surrounded by the names of all the concentration camps where they were murdered. And individual gravestones tell of suicides before the Nazis came, and ones honoring those family members who perished in places such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

But there was also the uplifting fact that new burials continue. Many of these tombstones were in Russian, but there were also signs that members of these old Berlin families were choosing to be buried back in Berlin.   It was a moving experience, and such a gorgeous place to walk and to consider this greatest of 20th-century tragedies.

5 Responses to “Berlin, nature, and memory”

  1. Peter Detwiler September 16, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

    Have you ever wondered who lived in “your” Schebergaertenhaus when this area was part of the DDR? And thanks for the poignant tour of the cemetery. I’m frankly surprised that these memorials survived.

    • esauboeck September 17, 2015 at 6:56 am #

      I have actually now been corrected: “our” Schrebergartenhaus was actually what the East Germans called a “Datcha”, as in the Russian summer villa, but the area all around us is filled with
      Schrebergartenhaeuser. We know that our landlady’s mother lived here for 40 years when it was the DDR! I can easily imagine what it looked like then, with a pathetic little WC, and bath with a tiny little water heater. It is now renovated completely.
      I, too, was surprised that the cemetery survived, and by the looks of it, wasn’t even bombed during the war. But it was very far outside of the city at that time, and the Nazis spent their energies destroying the first Jewish cemetery, which was in town.The East Germans, as a demonstration that THEY were not the heirs of Nazism, would have probably left it alone, and now it’s positively cared for and nurtured.

  2. Chiaki Ajioka September 17, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Love the communal beekeeping house! The Jewish cemetery looks like a very special place… so glad it’s survived – reminds me of passages in *The hare with amber eyes. *

  3. Leslie Holt September 17, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

    Some of my Jewish relatives on my dad side are buried in one of the cemetery’s that survived the war. Have photos somewhere and I don’t remember the location. Very interesting tour you took. Keep on a trucking.

  4. esauboeck September 18, 2015 at 7:06 am #

    Yesterday we went to the other Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Would the name be Gliessman?

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