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:
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. We 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?
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.The 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.
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 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. The 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.